New York State Senate hopeful Julia Salazar admitted Monday that her identification as a Jew is based largely on family lore.
In an in-depth interview with Jewish Currents, Salazar, 27, responded at length to the controversy surrounding her representation as both an immigrant and a Jew, but said the source of her Jewish identity “has nothing to do with me or my race or with my campaign or with whether I’m qualified to run.”
A former fellow student at Columbia University, meanwhile, told Haaretz that the Democratic socialist had “lied about her immigrant identity and she’s lying about being Jewish.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the former student said Salazar first spoke with him in 2010, expressing a desire to be involved in pro-Israel activism, and “stated unequivocally that she wasn’t Jewish.”
The former student said Salazar became active in the Christians United For Israel organization around this time. “In July 2011, she attended the CUFI summit and in the fall semester she nominally founded CUFI at Columbia University.”
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Later, he said, they discussed her decision to join a CUFI trip to Israel, “after she expressed interest in going and we clearly discussed the fact that Birthright wasn’t an option since she wasn’t Jewish,” he said, referring to the free roots trip for Diaspora Jews.
He said he believed Salazar “has taken on this identity of a left-wing social democratic Jew in order to score political points.” Her account of her personal history, he added, revealed “a pattern of inconsistencies and lies.
“As someone who values and cherished my Jewish identity, I’m incensed at the idea of another person fabricating a similar identity for political gain, for the purposes of recognition and to get ahead in life,” he said.
The former student said he never heard Salazar claim a Jewish identity during their time on campus, and said she always described herself as a Christian, right-wing Zionist. She even used to joke about working for a Jewish family and being their “Shabbas goy,” he recalled.
Another fellow student who worked with Salazar in pro-Israel activism during her first years at Columbia also said the future state senate candidate was “openly Christian” and “all about Jesus” at the time, when she was president of a pro-life organization. She said that Salazar’s account of turning to Judaism at age 18 was “absolutely not true.”
“As late as 2012, neither I, nor any of her friends heard her express any identification with Judaism.”
She never discussed her Sephardi roots or her father’s Jewish heritage, the male former friend said, adding, “Never in the years I knew her did she ever identify as a Jew to me – and we had a lot of discussions about Judaism. In those discussions, she said her views were those of a Christian Zionist, and she would go into detail as to how her Christian values informed her perspective.”
Salazar, he said, has “built herself a house of cards and it’s now tumbling under even minor scrutiny.”
Salazar’s female former fellow student said that she contacted the leader of Colombia’s Jewish community by email to inquire if there was any evidence that the New York candidate’s family was known to have had Jewish ties. Prof. Marcos Peckel, executive director of the Confederated Jewish Communities of Colombia responded that there was no record of her family members specifically and that at present, there were no Colombian community members with the name Salazar.
As her political star has risen in recent months – especially after the surprise success of fellow Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a New York primary race in June, questions about inconsistencies in Salazar’s account of her background surfaced, most prominently in a Tablet Magazine article last week. That said her parents were both Christian and that Salazar herself did not identify as Jewish when she arrived in New York to study at Columbia University.
On Sunday, the conservative New York Post ran an editorial headlined “Julia Salazar Seems to Keep Making Up Her Past,” writing: “Lots of people turn left in college; many embrace a neglected heritage. But even in politics, it’s rare for someone to manufacture imaginary ancestry.”
In the Jewish Currents article, Salazar described her political and religious transformation in detail. Her Judaism, she said, began with “curiosity” about her “Sephardic last name.
“My dad would talk about his dad being Sephardi, and then he would talk about it as a spiritual and geographical connection,” she recounted.
In interviews earlier this summer, she commonly described her father as a “Sephardic Jew.” In a more recent interview, she said, “Some of my extended family are Jewish” – implying that she had or has actual Jewish relatives.
Salazar explained to Jewish Currents that after her father’s death when she was 18 and at university, she became “motivated” to understand her lineage.
Grappling with his death, she said, “I didn’t find comfort in Christianity. I was cynical about that. So upon becoming independent and immersed in an eclectic and diverse community in New York, I finally had the opportunity to learn and study Judaism and learn it in a personal way.”
At Columbia, she said, “I was undergoing something like a Jewish conversion. I was being immersed.”
In a previous interview, she said she “went through a conversion process with a Reform rabbi at [Columbia-Barnard] Hillel in 2012,” and that she didn’t “really bother to consider it a conversion because many people don’t respect Reform conversion.”
There is an emerging community in the South American country of Colombia who are descendants of the Spanish Marranos, also known as Anusim, who concealed their Jewish identity when they emigrated from Spain centuries ago.
While they assimilated into the overwhelmingly Catholic country, some family rituals remained with traces of Jewish practices. Salazar is among the names in Colombia associated with Sephardi-Jewish heritage. That name, however, originates from a town in the Basque region of Spain and also belongs to many non-Jews.
Quizzed about accusations that she had also been misrepresenting herself as an immigrant when she was in fact born in Miami, Salazar said the problem stemmed from a lack of coordination among her small campaign staff.
Being scrutinized by the media, she said, was “not what I signed up for and we weren’t prepared for it. ... My mistake was that I didn’t sit down and make sure everyone knew where I was born. So many times reporters contacted this staffer to confirm details of my life. And that included, ‘Was she born in Colombia?’ And they thought I was. And I wasn’t included in those background conversations, and that was normal. But we weren’t on the same page.”
As she previously stated, Salazar described her childhood as one in which the family traveled between the United States and Colombia.
Until she became a political candidate, she said, “when people asked about my childhood, they haven’t been interested in literally where was I born. They wanted to know how the first years of my life were spent, and where my family came from. And I was shaped by my family’s immigration to the United States from Colombia.”