Framing Julia Salazar

Julia Salazar

The insurgent New York State Senate campaign of Julia Salazar, a young democratic socialist looking to unseat an entrenched Democratic Party incumbent, is now the latest and most high-profile front in the American left’s electoral action. Like the successful campaigns of other socialists, her campaign has brought up questions who American cities and local governments serve: the rich or the 99 per cent?

But for the Jewish press, a controversy brews about whether she is, in fact, Jewish. The saga itself says all too much about the narrow lens her opposition uses to view Jewish identity.

While Salazar’s campaign focuses mostly on local and economic matters, a piece in the right-wing American publication Jewish Tablet puts into question whether her father’s side of the family are, in fact, Sephardic Jews from Colombia, citing social media posts and statements from her college classmates that she was not Jewish, at least at that time, and at least at certain times had identified as a conservative Christian. It also noted that she had been pro-Israel, before becoming vocally active in non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish social justice groups. The left-leaning Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz echoed a similar line, based mostly on anonymous sources. She received more balanced treatment in pieces by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the magazine Jewish Currents. New York’s Jewish Week also gave Salazar a chance to respond to the accusations.

Salazar responded in a lengthy statement. She said, “The truth here is simple: my father was of Sephardic Jewish heritage; my mother was nominally raised Catholic, but religion had little place in our household. It was in college, in the wake of my father’s death when I was 18, that I began to deeply explore my Jewish roots, participate in Jewish communal life, and commit myself to observing Judaism. That experience became an important part of who I am today — part of my social and spiritual life, but also part of my politics and moral compass.  Some have attempted to question whether I am Jewish. I have never demanded or expected that everyone recognize and accept my Jewish identity. My religious and spiritual life have never been a focus of my campaign for State Senate. “

The line of attack from Tablet has a sort of telling absurdity to it. The district Salazar is running in is mash-up of well-to-do hipsters, a shrinking bohemia and working-class Latinos. South Williamsburg is home to a large Satmar community, but anyone who follows New York City politics knows that this Hasidic community votes more on local material interests rather than their personal connections to non-Haredi Judaism. At the State Senate level, much of the campaign has revolved around local economic issues: access to housing, jobs and healthcare. Her detractors say she “faked” being Jewish to score cheap political points, but her Jewishness, while interesting to the Jewish press, wouldn’t have affected her one way or another in this race. “I am not running on my identity,” she said. “I’m running on my record, as a healthcare and housing activist, a criminal legal reform advocate, a dedicated union member and member of my Bushwick community.”

And Salazar’s account of her personal transformation is a common one for people who grew up with parents of multiple backgrounds and without a singular religious or national identity in their home. The idea of people who grew up in mixed families, only to seriously dig into one of those identities later on, or to become spiritual in adulthood after a secular childhood, is hardly novel.

What’s telling is there is a certain confusion about how Jewish conservatives – alarmed by the growth of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and a decline in fealty toward Israel by young American Jews – try and deal with someone like Salazar. When fellow democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran – ultimately successfully – to unseat a long-time establishment incumbent Congress member, the right predictably fretted about her statements about Palestinian rights. Given that much her success grew from the community’s frustration with an incumbent who seemed out of touch with his constituency’s needs, foreign policy had little influence on voting. But this hand-wringing about Israel appears to be the sole way Jewish conservatism can frame an issue. So, if they couldn’t come up with a particularly Jewish rationale against tenants’ rights and affordable healthcare, going after her identity seemed like an easier option and one that New York’s tabloids and her establishment opponents could pick up on.

But there’s something worse going on here. The attacks against then-presidential candidate Barack Obama – claims that he was a secret Muslim instead of the Christian he purported to be or that he was born in Kenya and thus ineligible to run for president – were as much an attack on blackness, Muslims and Americans with foreign-born parents as they were on his candidacy itself. These allegations reinforced the notions that these demographics were somehow less American, somehow more questionable. Likewise, the attacks against Salazar are an attack on Latino Jewry, that somehow, Latino Jewishness is a less pure form of Jewishness.

In much of the American consciousness, Jews look and talk a certain way. They are Ashkenazi and their families come from places like the former Russian empire. The cuisine is firmly Central and Eastern European. The Sephardic language, Ladino, has no place in the American lexicon, whereas Yiddish phrases are common among non-Jews.

And yet, Spanish and Portuguese Jews are a foundation of Jewish life in this hemisphere. The oldest synagogue in the United States is Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and was founded by mostly Iberian Jews. And the oldest synagogue in the Americas is in the Dutch protectorate of Curaçao, off the coast of Venezuela, also started by Spanish and Portuguese Jews. There are more Jews in Argentina than there are in Russia. There are more Jews in Brazil than there are in Ukraine.

Unable to make a conservative Jewish case against her democratic socialism, these outlets have formed a singular identity of what it means to be Jewish: that it means having exclusively European roots and that those who didn’t grow up with Judaism in their youth don’t get an opportunity to discover it later. Worse, it creates the false choice that one can be Latino or Jewish, but certainly not both, a kind of obsessiveness with ethnic categorization that feels more at home with Richard Spencer than the Jewish press.

In a sense, the attacks on Salazar’s personal narrative seem to show her opponent’s hand. They are unsure how to even answer the rising affinity for democratic socialist ideas or Jewish politics that exist outside of Zionism. And worse, they can only do it by attacking the candidate’s identity rather than her ideas. Even if she wins, that damage will linger even as she heads to Albany.

Screenshot courtesy of NYC-DSA. All rights reserved.