It’s not your average state senate politician running in a local primary who can spark an impassioned national conversation around race, religion and identity, setting Jewish Twitter on fire.
But Julia Salazar, by any measure, isn’t your typical local politician.
The candidate vaulted into the spotlight on the coattails of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Democratic socialist who toppled party heavyweight Rep. Joe Crowley in June’s primary for the 14th Congressional District. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory inspired journalists to seek out other young female powerhouses of the progressive left affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America. And Salazar, running in the party primary for New York’s 18th State Senate District, was at the front of the line.
Throughout the summer, articles like “How Julia Salazar Is Trying to Become the Next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” and “Meet Julia Salazar, the Next Democratic Socialist Poised For a Long-Shot Win” made the rounds, noting the two young political newcomers’ similarities as “working-class women in working-class districts” challenging “machine” Democratic politicians.
The New York-based Jewish media took special notice of Salazar: On July 6, a week after the Ocasio-Cortez upset, The Forward profiled her, asking, “Is This Latina Jew the Next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?”
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The reasons she intrigued the larger Jewish world were multifaceted: her unusual Sephardic “Latina Jew” identity; the affinity of Jews, both traditional and hipster, to Brooklyn (her district includes rapidly gentrifying parts of Bushwick, Williamsburg, East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville); and the fact that not only was she Jewish but had been a Jewish professional – her last job being as staff organizer for the progressive group Jews for Racial & Economic Justice.
But more importantly, Salazar is one of the first politicians to embody the new breed of far-left Jewish activist engaged in “Jewish resistance” politics. Uncomfortably for the Jewish establishment on the right, center and even the liberal-Zionist left, that includes embracing the DSA’s endorsement of the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement against Israel.
So when Tablet Magazine published an article last Thursday documenting what it described as misrepresentations of Salazar’s political journey as well as her identity, the Jewish Twitterverse exploded with right-left sniping. While Salazar’s opponents called her a liar, her allies charged that the article author was engaged in a racist smear campaign that exposed the worst in exclusionary Jewish tribalism.
The piece, written by freelancer Armin Rosen, concluded that the election of Salazar, should it happen, “would be a breakthrough for the city’s Jewish left: Proof that their institutions can become a pathway to formal political power, that anti-Zionist Jews can win high-profile elections.” It adds that in a world where “identity is both obsessed over and self-fashioned,” that “maybe anyone can get elected as anything they decide themselves to be.”
In documenting that assertion, his lengthy article first focused on Salazar’s rapid and dramatic political journey – from registered Republican, anti-abortionist and what appears to be Christian, into far-left, progressive Jewish organizer and activist within the space of a few years.
Even in the context of what has become a now-familiar narrative of young American Jews from mainstream backgrounds moving across the spectrum on Israel-Palestinian issues – from AIPAC to J Street to IfNotNow and JVP – the video of a now pro-BDS Salazar appearing on television back in 2012, the young chapter president of Christians United For Israel, pointing fingers at professors who “are using the classroom as their podium to spread lies about the State of Israel and delegitimize the State of Israel,” is jarring.
But the real controversy centers not on Salazar’s politics but the article’s revelations about her representation of personal identity – both her immigrant status and her identification as a Jew.
Rosen cites occasions on which Salazar has described herself as being a Colombian-American immigrant, with a strong implication that she was born in Colombia. Although evidence has since come to light that at times she told reporters when asked directly that she was born in Miami, that fact has been fudged in her biography – including her self-description in a much-circulated video of a campaign appearance where she refers to herself “immigrating with my family when I was very little.”
As recently as late July, the New York Daily News described her as a “naturalized U.S. citizen.” Following the Tablet story, it was pointed out that her website represented her as an immigrant, and it was quickly and quietly edited to correct the misrepresentation, as spotted by Fox News commentator Stephen Miller.
In a statement by her campaign, and in a Twitter exchange with Miller, Salazar issued a statement Friday blaming the website “error” on a staffer, and that “anyone who has ever staffed a busy electoral campaign knows that candidates don’t typically write all of the copy and have limited time to approve it.”
Salazar’s critics say her biography was fashioned in order to burnish her ethnic and working-class credentials as a socialist candidate among the Brooklyn voter base in her race against incumbent Martin Dilan. He has portrayed her as a gentrifying newcomer hailing from Florida by way of Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus.
A much more emotional dialogue is centering around Rosen’s questioning of Salazar’s Jewish identity – into which the Tablet article dove deeply and, some argue, too invasively. Previously and on her campaign, Salazar has referred to her father’s Sephardic heritage and mentioned relatives on her father’s side as being Jewish. Before that, in a September 2014 comment on a Mondoweiss post she wrote under the name “Julia Carmel,” she implied a Jewish background, asserting: “Like most American Jews, I was raised with the delusion that Israel was a safe haven for me, perhaps even the only safe place for Jews.”
But, Rosen points out in Tablet, her brother Alex Salazar – in addition to confirming that both siblings were born in Miami and their family never lived in Colombia – said: “There was nobody in our immediate family who was Jewish … my father was not Jewish, we were not raised Jewish.”
The day after the Tablet article was published, Salazar told JTA she had attended a two-month conversion course while in college, but that “I didn’t want to make a big deal about it. It also didn’t feel earnest to consider it a conversion because there was no religion for me to convert from.”
Salazar and her friends and allies have cried foul, saying the portrayal of her as a culture-appropriating Rachel Dolezal represents a tribal and racist view of “who is a Jew” from those who reject Jews of color, and those who claim Jewishness through patrilineal descent.
Salazar’s most vociferous online defenders include Sophie Ellman-Golan, who handles communications for Salazar’s former employer, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, as well as the Women’s March; and Berkeley law professor David Schraub.
Much of the online fury has been directed at both the Tablet, for publishing the piece, and the article’s author, Rosen. Salazar herself charged that the publication was engaging in “race science,” calling Rosen a “right-wing writer” who “made it clear that he was dedicated to distorting the truth, printing anything that would fit his fabricated narrative.” She also alleged that he had “threatened to publish her mother’s personal information if she didn’t cooperate.”
Walking a tightrope in the narrow space between politically fueled attacks from the right and knee-jerk defense on the left lies a middle ground of those who may sympathize with Salazar politically, but note that there were legitimate journalistic grounds on which to highlight Salazar’s inconsistencies.
The Forward’s Batya Ungar-Sargon wrote “It’s Not About Whether Julia Salazar Is Jewish. It’s About Telling The Truth,” after calling the candidate out on Twitter.
Ungar-Sargon and others in Salazar’s own political camp make a strong and convincing case regarding the need for transparency and authenticity on the part of any public figure – male, female, of any ethnicity or religion. Honesty is vital at a time when the media is calling out President Donald Trump on his lies and the president responds with a daily Twitter barrage accusing the press and Democrats of promoting “fake news.”
More than ever, those like Salazar who want to be the voices and faces of the left’s resistance must be leaders who can withstand even the most uncomfortable and invasive scrutiny – and wield the all-important weapon of truth.