I have gotten used to having people ask me where I am from. It’s a natural if micro-aggressive reaction to my accent, my olive-brown skin, and the surprising spelling of my first name.
If moved to respond, I explain that I am a Latina immigrant (I was born in Latin America) and Sephardi (confirmed by 23andMe) and that I sometimes identify as a Jew of Color, even though I’m still working out where I fit vis-a-vis an American discourse based on racialized identities that do not account for Middle Eastern Sephardi Jews.
Salazar is the 28-year-old democratic socialist candidate running for State Senate in New York’s 18th District. She has been the subject of recent news articles focused on her rapid transformation from a Christian-identifying, pro-Israel, and pro-life activist to a Jewish-identifying, BDS-supporting, far-left political candidate. Others found evidence disputing her claims to being an immigrant, and her claim that she comes from humble roots.
Most controversial were the reports that questioned Salazar’s most recent identification as a Sephardi/immigrant Jew, with investigative reporting (in Tablet and Haaretz) suggesting that Salazar has fabricated these affiliations for political expediency. Her father was not Jewish, as she previously claimed, and her identification as Jewish seems to be based on a combination of “family lore” and a two month conversion.
I am not actually interested in gatekeeping who is a Jew and who is not, as many have in the wake of these revelations. But I am interested in the competing notions of identity that lie at the heart of this saga. For the Salazar dustup revealed a fundamental and seldom explored paradox in the liberal discourse on identity: the tension between essential and exclusive identity politics predicated on group experiences on the one hand, and notions of identity that validate choice and malleability in how individuals self-identify on the other.
Salazar and her supporters’ response to her critics reveal the crux — and the dangers — of this paradox.
Besides the trite argument that “She’s being targeted because she’s anti-Israel,” there have been two primary arguments defending Salazar’s unconventional identification as a Jew. The first defends her on the grounds that she represents a hybrid identity distinctly Latin/Sephardi/non-white, and as such inaccessible and misunderstood by her white, Ashkenazi, American critics.
The second defends her on the grounds that Jewish identity like Salazar’s is malleable and does not fit into one mold.
Examples of these arguments take center stage in Ilan Stavans’ article in these pages, in which he engages in his own reifying of a monolithic Latin Jewish experience. In that context, he decries the “inquisition” against Salazar.
Those who defend Salazar based on her expressed identity as a Latina Jew of Color are engaging in a form of group identity politics in which certain experiences are only accessible to those born to those identities. This means that individuals should not express knowledge of an identity which is not theirs, especially if said identity is seen as having less power or privilege.
The intellectual assumption that gives birth to these conceptions of identity politics is simple: Being born into a certain gender/ethnic/national/racial group identity matters, and because these identities often bring them disempowerment, others should shy away from attempting to represent or investigate them.
The very real structural inequities that minority groups often face has translated in liberal discourse into a kind of discursive privilege of representation. This representational privilege in no way competes with the structural inequality they face. But it does mean that minority identity becomes something of a rarified property.
It is in this mode of thinking that Salazar’s identity as Latina, Sephardi, or as a Jew of Color, becomes protected property; it can only be understood, and interrogated, by the small number of those born into similar identities. And everyone else must protect this representational privilege.
There are several problems with the specific manifestation of this position in this case. Most significantly, it challenges another form of identity to which Salazar and her defenders have laid claim when describing her Jewish journey — that of identity-by-individual-choice.
In her response to critiques of her expressed Jewish identity, Salazar argues she has some Jewish lineage and that she chose to embrace it after the death of her father. This assumes that individuals are complex agents who can choose to adopt or privilege an identity when they want to.
This is why I am so troubled by Salazar and her defenders. They want to — selectively — have it both ways. According to them, Salazar’s minority group identity confers upon her certain inalienable rights of representation inaccessible to others, but she can also legitimately choose to be Jewish in her own individual way.
The implication underlying this contradiction disturbs me, particularly because it approaches Jewish identity differently than other minority ethnic and racial identities: One can choose to become Jewish and speak as a Jew, but one must not pretend to understand the experiences of someone born to Colombian parents. Judaism should be available to all for individual appropriation, while other minority ethnic/racial group identities should remain closed off, protected from outsiders.
The hierarchy underlying this distinction seems clear: Jewish identity has less value than other minority identities and Jews as a collective do not have the right as a group to own their own self-representation.
This contradiction does not just feel wrong. It smacks of dangerous political maneuvering that cheapens the ability of specifically Jewish collectives and communities to self-identify. It is a cultural appropriation of Jews cloaked in paradoxical discourses of identity-by-individual-choice and group identity politics.
Let me be clear: my critique of Salazar is not related to whether or not she is Jewish or why she wants to identify as a Jew. Salazar’s problem also does not lie with her political views, which are held by many Jews whose Judaism remains un-impugned.
Salazar’s wrongdoing lies in the contradiction of her approach to self-identification, which signals an attempt to capitalize on identity as cultural cachet, her disregard for the way most American Jews understand what it means to be Jewish, and her indignation in light of her Jewish critics, while insisting that they cannot understand her particular Jewish identity.
Salazar’s story demands that we explore the way in which we approach identity. Is it malleable, individual and pro-choice, or it is essential, exclusive and inherited?
And if it can be both, then those who choose a selective approach to identity must demonstrate moral consistency in their rhetoric.
Mijal Bitton is a Fellow in Residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and a Social Scientist of American Jews.