The Curious Case Of State Senate Candidate Julia Salazar’s Heritage
For one State Senate race in Brooklyn, the place of identity politics on the campaign trail brought the Jewish angle to the forefront with 27-year-old candidate Julia Salazar claiming Jewish ancestry and affinity, while an article in the online Tablet Magazine disputes her Jewish claims. The Judaism of Salazar isn’t tied to Torah and mitzvos as it is with progressive politics and leftist Jewish groups that use Jewish symbols in their protests and literature. She also identifies as a Democratic Socialist, the label made nationally famous by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“Her identity as a Jew of Color, a socialist, and a proud critic of Israel made her the perfect avatar of a new, young, highly politicized Jewish Left engaged in the fight for social, economic, and racial justice,” wrote Forward opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sagron in a piece on Salazar last week. “Delegitimizing a person’s Jewish identity is extremely problematic. But pointing out that a candidate for public office has failed to speak truthfully is extremely important.”
Unlike the Old World, where Jewish identity was determined by governments and officially recognized Jewish authorities, in the United States anyone can claim to be Jewish and, in the mainstream press, one’s self-identification, whether it is a name, nationality, or gender, is beyond question. Of course there are limits to this exercise in speech, as when a white woman in the state of Washington claimed to be black on account of her feelings for people of African descent.
What makes Salazar’s Jewish identity compelling is that she uses it as a tool in delegitimizing Israel. Although she stood out as a conservative and pro-Israel Christian as a student at Columbia University, before her graduation she had taken a 180-degree turn in the opposite direction. In the years since her “turn,” she took on leadership roles at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, IfNotNow, and J Street. She attended protests alongside anti-Israel firebrand Linda Sarsour and backs the BDS movement. Delving into Salazar’s Jewish identity, Tablet reporter Armin Rosen researched her late father Luis Hernan Zalazar, who was a devoted churchgoer, as is her mother Christine. “There was nobody in our immediate family who was Jewish,” her older brother Alex told Rosen. “My father was not Jewish, we were not raised Jewish.”
Instead of disavowing Salazar’s made-up Jewish identity, her supporters doubled down and argued that many Jews of color are questioned about their Jewish identity and that her personal faith is nobody’s business. This defense is an insult to bona fide converts to Judaism who spent years contemplating, learning, and living as Jews before undergoing giyur before a legitimate beis din. They come from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. It is also an insult to Russian Jews, who are also asked to provide proof of Jewish ancestry by Israeli rabbinical authorities.
What makes Salazar’s Jewish identity compelling is that she uses it as a tool in delegitimizing Israel
Salazar’s claim of Jewish ancestry was initially accepted at face value because, in the aftermath of the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions, many Jews went into hiding and, over the centuries, their descendants intermarried while retaining some elements of Jewish practices. As a student at City College, I had many Dominican and Puerto Rican classmates.
On my Birthright Israel, one of my classmates spoke of how her grandmother lit candles on Friday evenings, avoided pork, and, in her Spanish, used the word Dio for G-d instead of Dios, so that it would not sound plural, chas v’shalom. My classmate had a serious interest in Judaism, not as much about social justice and abstract concepts of tikun olam, but in matters of observance, culture, and history.
One of my art teachers at the time spoke of his Jewish ancestry. “I am Puerto Rican, but the last name is really Cordovero as in the city of Cordoba, where Maimonides lived.” Jorge Luis Cordero knew his ancestry, and spoke in detail about family traditions, child kidnapping, show trials, torture, and the hardships experienced by his ancestors.
Salazar has no such stories, and by her logic any random Lopez or Rodriguez could claim Jewish identity because there are Sephardic Jews who also have these common Hispanic last names.
In the past century, the definition of who is a Jew had been expanded for sinister as well as well-meaning reasons. The Nazis defined Jews as anyone with a single Jewish grandparent. Reformists allowed for children of intermarriage to claim Jewish identity from the father’s side. Outside of Israel, Orthodox Jewish leaders generally avoided making a scene when an individual self-identified as Jewish.
We know the truth according to halachah, whether or not others recognize it. But on the matter of Salazar, when Jewish identity is used as a tool for delegitimizing Israel, when sifrei Torah, “talleisim,” shofars, challah, and Havdalah candles are used in political protests rather than religious services, we should speak out. The political left knows all too well about cultural appropriation, howling with outrage when white musicians play black music or when white models dress in African-inspired designs. When gentiles apply Jewish-inspired designs or speak Yiddish slang in popular culture, we usually kvell with joy; but when these things are used in acts of desecration and anti-Israel displays, we should speak up as any other religious group would when put in the same situation.
State Senate District 18 does not have a large Jewish population. It covers the north Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bushwick, Greenpoint, Cypress Hills, and Williamsburg (the gentrified north side, not the Satmar south side). On Thursday, September 13, Salazar will face off in the Democratic Primary against incumbent Martin Malave Dilan, who has been in office since 2002. Whatever flaws that he has, they do not involve lying about heritage and using it as a political tool.
By Sergey Kadinsky