On Thursday afternoon, an explosive piece was published in Tablet Magazine arguing that Julia Salazar, the 27-year old democratic socialist candidate for State Senate in north Brooklyn’s 18th district, is not who she says she is.
In interviews and profiles, including in The Intercept, Jacobin and The Forward, Salazar identified herself as an immigrant from Colombia. She also identified as Jewish, and told The Forward’s Ben Fractenberg that her father is Jewish.
Her identity as a Jew of Color, a socialist, and a proud critic of Israel made her the perfect avatar of a new, young, highly politicized Jewish Left engaged in the fight for social, economic, and racial justice.
Tablet (where, full disclosure, I worked in 2013-2014) begged to differ. Reporters tracked down Salazar’s brother, who said that not only was Salazar’s father not Jewish, but Salazar was born in Florida.
The outcry on Twitter was swift. But many have defended Salazar since the story broke, including many Jews on the left, who called the attempt to invalidate Salazar’s Jewishness racist.
That community is standing by her. “In no way is any of this a betrayal of Jews or the Jewish Vote,” Sophie Ellman-Golan, an activist who handles communications for the Women’s March and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, told me on behalf of the Jewish Vote, their political sister organization which endorsed Salazar.
Salazar’s Jewish identity is complex, says Ellman-Golan, and shows “all the ways we are and can be Jewish because we don’t fit into this neat little box as a complicated, diasporic people.”
Elsewhere, Salazar has identified herself as coming from a “secular and mixed family, Catholic and Jewish.” And in the Tablet piece, acquaintances referenced a Conservative movement conversion completed in two months. Whereas Tablet’s Armin Rosen saw in these two examples reason to question Salazar’s Jewishness, her supporters see them as non-traditional ways to be Jewish.
Rather than proof of Salazar being dishonest, Ellman-Golan sees in the article the kinds of exclusion that Jews of Color are frequently subjected to.
Indeed, just yesterday, The Forward ran a gut-wrenching piece by Nylah Burton which outlined the ways in which Jews of Color and converts are routinely subjected to humiliating and racist questioning, as well as constant attempts to clarify, elucidate, and downright delegitimize their Jewishness.
It’s appalling. A person’s identity — including their Jewish identity — is their own damn business.
The problem with what Salazar did is not that she claimed to be Jewish and an immigrant. It’s that she may have misled voters while seeking public office.
The problem is not whether or not Salazar is Jewish but whether or not she can be trusted. In other words, it’s not a question of ethnicity but one of character.
The power of the Tablet piece lies not in the fact that it exposed Salazar as a non-immigrant and possible non-Jew; it’s that it exposed her as untruthful, which is a big problem for someone asking the public to trust them to have state power at their disposal.
If Salazar had come out of the gate saying,“I consider myself Jewish, though my parents are not” or “I am a Jew by Choice” or “I traveled back and forth to Colombia as a very young child so I consider myself an immigrant” — a sentiment she tweeted in her defense — there would be no exposé here.
My family went back & forth to/from US & Colombia when I was a baby. Father was a cargo pilot and a Colombian immigrant. Mother was born here (I have stated this *repeatedly* to reporters). My parents met in NY, but I spent first years of my life back & forth between 🇨🇴 & US.— Julia Salazar for State Senate (@SalazarSenate18) August 24, 2018
Had she said any of those things, a JTA story, also published yesterday, in which Salazar came out as a supporter of the movement to boycott, sanction and divest from Israel would probably be making much more news.
Instead, she made statements that weren’t factually accurate, or at least, that appear to be disprovable, while seeking the public’s trust. And it’s on these grounds that it’s fair to criticize her and to ask for clarification.
Delegitimizing a person’s Jewish identity is extremely problematic. But pointing out that a candidate for public office has failed to speak truthfully is extremely important.
In the case of Julia Salazar, these two imperatives appear to be in tension with each other.
Ellman-Golan doesn’t see it that way. “It is important that we have accurate stories of who people are but I don’t think getting those accurate stories should be framed as, ‘This person is a fake Jew’,” she said. “It should be, ‘This a great example of all the ways people are Jewish.’”
That Salazar’s Jewish identity is complicated is what makes her so compelling, says Ellman-Golan. “Julia represents a new generation of Jews whose backgrounds and stories and politics don’t match those of the establishment. I think that’s really scary to the Jewish establishment,” she said. “There is a long history of gatekeeping, and in particular, something we see a lot of on the left is a desire to invalidate the Jewishness of Jews who hold dissenting political opinions.”
Indeed, the Tablet piece was also heavy on Salazar’s history of criticizing Israel, which was presented as a topic Salazar had changed her mind quite radically about while in college.
It’s certainly fair to have a change of heart while in college about major topics, and the piece was a bit heavy handed in its implication that this signals dishonesty on Salazar’s part. Moreover, the focus on Salazar’s views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an article that questions whether or not she lied about being Jewish certainly lends credence to the article’s critics.
Still, this hardly justifies telling reporters that you’re an immigrant when you were born in Florida, or that your father was Jewish when he wasn’t.
Salazar’s campaign maintains that she hasn’t been untruthful. As a spokesperson wrote in an email, “as for Julia’s roots, the Fractenberg piece in the Forward from a month ago is accurate: her father’s family were Colombian Jews, her family wasn’t observant at all when she was growing up in the US, she reconnected with her Jewish roots in college.”
In a similar vein, Salazar herself tweeted, “To every reporter who’s ever asked, to every person, I have always said that I was not raised religious, that I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, that I am Jewish, but never would claim that my big brother is,” she tweeted.
More troubling, she then accused Tablet of practicing “race science.”
yeah I virtually never speak publicly about my religion unless media explicitly ask me about it. And that’s largely because I don’t enjoy subjecting myself to Tablet-esque race science, as a person from a mixed background— Julia Salazar (@JuliaCarmel__) August 24, 2018
At a time when attacks against the press from the president of the United States are delegitimizing the work of the fourth estate, calling a reporter racist for catching you out in an untruth is unbecoming of an elected official or someone seeking that position.
Salazar should strive to clear up the ambiguity around her identity and give voters a reason to trust her again.
But the Jewish community should strive to be less racist to Jews of Choice and Jews of Color, making the price of saying “I’m not a traditional Jew but I identify as one just the same” less steep.
Both of these things can be true at the same time.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.