Jewish World Review Feb. 10, 2003 / 8 Adar I, 5763
On outing Kerry
I'm not a rabbi. I don't play one on TV. But you can take my word on this: John
Forbes Kerry isn't Jewish. He isn't half-Jewish. He isn't Jewish in the
halachic sense (in Jewish law, or halacha, a Jew is someone who was born to a
Jewish mother or converted to Judaism). He isn't even Jewish in the Lenny Bruce
sense ("Dig: I'm Jewish. Count Basie's Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie
Cantor's goyish. B'nai B'rith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish.")
The junior senator from Massachusetts is a lifelong Catholic whose paternal
grandparents appear to have converted from Judaism long before he was born.
Though he has known for 15 years that his grandmother was originally Jewish, he
rarely spoke about it in public. He didn't bring it up in his 1996 or 2002
But that changed after The Boston Globe reported on Page 1 that his
grandfather, too, had been born Jewish. Within hours, Kerry was in a Florida
synagogue, extolling his Jewish roots.
"I am so excited," he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee during
a dinner last week at Congregation B'nai Israel of Palm Beach. "I've embraced
what I have learned, and a light has literally turned on within me -- like an
epiphany -- and I am proud to share this special measure of connection with
At one level, I think, he was speaking sincerely; the revelation about his
grandfather, who ultimately committed suicide in a Boston hotel men's room,
seems genuinely to have moved him. But I also think he was speaking from a
political calculus that never found a Jewish grandparent something to be
"excited" about until now -- when for the first time in his career, he has to
campaign for Jewish votes outside his home state.
By the same token, it never did Kerry any harm to be universally mistaken for
Irish in Massachusetts, a state whose political culture is dominated by Irish
Catholics. Not that he overtly lied; if asked, he would say that his father's
family was from "Austria." (Actually, it was from a region of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now the Czech Republic.) But if others
incorrectly assumed he was Irish, did he trouble to set them straight?
Kerry tells the Globe that he has "always been absolutely straight up front
about it." His press aides insist he makes a point of speaking up when he sees
or hears himself described as Irish. "Kerry has never said he is Irish-American
and has always corrected it when people have assumed it because of his name,"
his spokesman David Wade told The New York Times.
Yet there is no sign that Kerry or his staff have ever alerted the Globe when
it mistakenly labeled him Irish, sometimes in front-page stories he couldn't
possibly have missed. A search of the Globe's archives turns up no letter to
the editor from Kerry making clear that he is not of Irish descent. Over the
years, the Globe has run 23 corrections mentioning Kerry; none was about his
Does any of this matter? Obviously the details of Kerry's family tree have no
bearing on his fitness for office. His reactions are relevant only because they
seem to fit his career-long pattern of equivocation and calculation -- trying
whenever possible to have it both ways, always maneuvering to leave himself an
It's an old story. When it served Kerry's purposes to be seen trashing his Navy
medals in an antiwar protest, he put on a show of doing so ("John Kerry of
Waltham . . . said before he threw his medals over the fence: 'I'm not doing
this for any violent reasons, but . . . to try to make this country wake up
once and for all' " -- Boston Globe, April 24, 1971). But when he ran for the
Senate and wanted to upgrade his old image, he put on a different show ("Kerry,
after showing a reporter his medals and ribbons on display in his Back Bay
apartment, said he had disagreed with other protest leaders on throwing away
medals" -- Boston Globe, Oct. 15, 1984).
All these years later, he is still bobbing and weaving. Consider his many
stands on Iraq.
He repeatedly hit the Bush Administration for being too ready to go to war
against Saddam Hussein. Then he voted for a measure empowering President Bush
to do just that. He then went back to insisting there must be no war without UN
approval, exactly the opposite of the position he had voted for.
In a major speech last month, he demanded that Bush "show the world some
appropriate patience in building a genuine coalition." But following Hans
Blix's report to the Security Council, Kerry agreed that Saddam was in
"material breach" of Resolution 1441 and should be given 30 days to disarm or
face attack. That wasn't too different from what Bush would say in his State of
the Union address a few days later, yet Kerry derided the speech for its
Only after hearing Secretary of State Colin Powell's UN presentation did Kerry
finally conclude that "there really is a kind of smoking gun." That, at any
rate, is what he said last week. If he zigzags again this week, will anyone be
Ambivalence on a thorny issue is no sin in a politician. An aversion to being
pinned down on any issue is. When Kerry's grandparents made a decision, they
stuck with it. That's clearly one gene he didn't inherit.
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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