NEW YORK – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old incoming Democratic congresswoman from New York, told the crowd at a Hanukkah candle-lighting event on Sunday that she has Jewish heritage.
After lighting Hanukkah candles in an event hosted by a left-wing Jewish group in her home borough of Queens, Ocasio-Cortez surprised the crowd by saying members of her family were descendants of Jews who were forced to convert and flee Spain during the Inquisition in the 15th century.
"[My family has] been doing a lot of family trees in the last couple of years. And one of the things a lot of people don’t know about Puerto Rico, and something we discovered ourselves, is that a long time ago, many generations ago, my family consisted of Sephardic Jews," Ocasio-Cortez said.
She later told Haaretz this was the first time she has spoken publicly about her family's Jewish history.
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Around 300,000 Jews lived in Spain before Catholic monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand ordered Jews and Muslims to convert to the Catholic faith or leave the country. There are roughly 3.5 million direct descendants of those expelled from Spain in 1492, living in countries like Israel, France, the United States, Turkey, Mexico, Argentina and Chile.
At the event, which was organized by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and held at the Jackson Heights Jewish Center, the young congresswoman-elect reflected on this history: "The story goes that during the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forced, on the exterior, to convert to Catholicism, but on the interior they continued to be who they were, continued to practice their faith."
She continued: "A strong group of people, who wanted to continue living life the way they wanted to live it, decided to get on a boat and leave Spain. Some of these people ended up in Puerto Rico."
Puerto Rico currently has a small Jewish community of some 1,500 members.
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At Sunday's event, Ocasio-Cortez even joined the crowd in singing a song in Ladino – a variant of Spanish that is still close to the modern language and was spoken by Sephardi Jews living in the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa, Greece and Turkey.
"As the story of Puerto Rico is, we are an amalgamation. We are not one thing – we are black, indigenous, Spanish, European; we are all these things," Ocasio-Cortez said, going on to explain how over the generations, Judaism mixed in with "African animism, indigenous spirituality and Catholicism" in Puerto Rico.
"I think it all goes to show that our destinies are tied beyond our understanding, beyond even what we know," she said. "And as we learn more and more about the histories of others, our friends and neighbors, we start to uncover what we already know to be true: Your destiny is mine, and my destiny is yours."
The Democratic socialist from New York has made headlines several times over the past year with remarks on Jews and Israel. Last month, she drew criticism for comparing the Central American migrant caravans at the U.S.-Mexico border to Jews fleeing Nazi Europe.
In May, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that clashes on the Gaza border, in which Israeli soldiers killed 60 Palestinians, were a “massacre.” In a July interview on PBS, she said: “I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist,” and was “a proponent of a two-state solution.” She also criticized Israel’s conduct in the West Bank.
Organizers of Sunday's event seemed pleased with her speech. "I thought that it was beautiful, the reflection on her personal history and how we all collectively can work together to bring our hopes to the light," said Rebecca Seidel, a member of the organization behind the event. "It was empowering to see her come to a small space that is built in the community and speak to us like her own people," she added.
After suprisingly defeating a longtime incumbent in a Democratic primary, Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman elected to Congress. She is among a number of young progressive women recently elected to the U.S Congress and considered part of a new generation in the Democratic Party. She will represent New York's 14th Congressional District, which covers Queens and parts of the Bronx.
After the event, Ocazio-Cortez said she hadn't planned to talk about her personal history tonight. "I don’t always plan these things," she told Haaretz. "But sometimes I feel the space, I feel the moment."
Reuters and JTA contributed to this story.