NEW YORK – After Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she had Jewish ancestry, many U.S. Jews took to social media Monday to welcome her "to the tribe."
Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old incoming Democratic representative from New York, told the crowd at a Hanukkah candle-lighting event on Sunday that she has Jewish heritage.
The news of Ocasio-Cortez' speech, first revealed by Haaretz, went viral.
“Well, welcome to the tribe (I guess) @Ocasio2018!!!” Jewish-American activist Abby Stein wrote. “We have a long history of #resistance, fighting #oppression – from the start we were immigrants, and instructed to embrace [those] in need – the amazing work you have been doing fits perfectly in our long line of resilience!"
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Preempting potential criticism, Ocasio-Cortez, who has Puerto Rican ancestry, wrote on Twitter: “Before everyone jumps one me – yes, culture isn’t DNA." She added: “Just because one concrete identity may not be how we think of ourselves today, nor how we were raised, it doesn’t mean we cannot or should not honor the ancestors + stories that got us here. I was raised Catholic, & that identity is an amalgam too – especially in Latin America.”
She added: “If anything, the stories of our ancestry give us windows of opportunity to lean into others, to seek them out, and see ourselves, our histories, and our futures, tightly knit with other communities in a way we perhaps never before thought possible.”
After lighting Hanukkah candles Sunday 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 late 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.
An author of book about the Spanish Inquisition, Adam Gidwitz, tweeted: “So glad to have Ocasio as a member of the Tribe! There are many ways to be Jewish, including being a Puerto Rican Catholic whose Jewish family fled the Spanish Inquisition. While our families' paths seemed to have diverged, in fact we've been walking side by side all along”.
Ocasio-Cortez drew criticism from conservatives, with some demanding to see her DNA tests, and comparing her claims to those of Elizabeth Warren, who claimed Native American heritage. Her speech also generated some anti-Semitic responses, one of them from white nationalist leader Richard Spencer.
Others saw the speech as an opportunity to start a conversation about the history of Sephardic Jews in Latin America, and the experiences of Jews of color, who sometimes face challenges when claiming their Jewish identity.
Marlabetz Figueroa, a member of The Puerto Rican Center of Arizona, wrote to those criticizing her: “You need a Puerto Rican history lesson. Just because her last name is not Gold, Neubergh, etc. that doesn’t mean she is not Sephardic.. If you are of Spanish decent there is a likely hood that you will have Sephardic heritage. If you don’t know about the people who immigrated to PR, now is the time to get your history books."
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.
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.
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.