Santos' stories

George Santos claimed to be ‘halachically Jewish’ during election campaign

Santos made the claim while courting donations from pro-Israel activists at a fundraising event in South Florida, according to two attendees who were present for the discussion.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Rep. George Santos (R-NY) walks to a closed-door GOP caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol January 10, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

A month before his election to Congress last November, Rep. George Santos (R-NY), the scandal-plagued New York Republican, falsely referred to himself as “halachically Jewish” while courting donations from pro-Israel activists at a fundraising event in South Florida, according to two attendees who were present for the discussion.

It was hardly the first time that Santos had made dubious claims to Jewish ancestry. The 34-year-old congressman, who was raised Catholic, has alternately said he is “Jewish,” “Jew-ish,” “half Jewish” “a proud American Jew” a “Latino Jew” and a non-observant Jew, among other descriptors, even as genealogical records have shown he holds no familial connection to Judaism.

But his invocation of Jewish law, or halacha, to establish a misleading connection to Jewish heritage through his Brazilian-born mother, whose ancestors were Catholic, adds yet another layer to the convoluted and often contradictory web of deceptions surrounding his purported Jewish roots.

The embattled representative, who fabricated most of his personal and professional background, delivered the remark during an early October event at Mo’s Bagels & Deli in the heavily Jewish Miami suburb of Aventura, according to Andy Fiske, a co-chair of U.S.-Israel PAC, which hosted the meeting.

“He said, ‘I’m halachically Jewish,’” Fiske, who lives in South Florida, told Jewish Insider on Monday, recalling that Santos had “made it seem like” his mother was Jewish. “He just made a big deal out of that.”

A second person who attended the event confirmed that Santos had used that phrase to describe himself, but asked to remain anonymous.

The comment, which has not previously been reported, was positively received as a clever nod to Jewish heritage, Fiske said. That was most likely because, at the time, participants had little reason to doubt Santos’ claim, which remained unchallenged until weeks after the midterm election, when several of his lies were first uncovered.

“He got a chuckle out of the crowd,” Fiske, who is Jewish himself, told JI. “It’s sort of funny. It’s sort of like when somebody who’s not Jewish makes a Yiddish comment and you get a little chuckle. It was like that type of thing. It was like, ‘Hey, and by the way, I’m halachically Jewish.’ He was charismatic. He was bantering with the crowd.”

Santos arrived at the event an hour and a half late but quickly charmed the room as he discussed his campaign and took questions from participants, Fiske said. “I found him to be very warm and friendly,” he told JI, adding: “He knows how to work a crowd.”

Members of the pro-Israel PAC, which mostly backs Republican candidates, were particularly eager to hear from a rare Jewish Republican running for Congress, according to Fiske, as Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) was then poised to vacate his seat. “It’s nice to have a Jewish Republican member, because I like to see diversity,” Fiske said. “It was nice to have a guy that doesn’t fit the Republican model.”

Now, however, Fiske holds a different perspective. “He said all the right things, where everyone was like, ‘Yeah, this guy’s good,’” he said of Santos, who has cast himself as a stalwart supporter of Israel. “But it was disappointing later to find out that a lot of this stuff is not true.”

While Fiske emphasized that “being Jewish isn’t a prerequisite” for candidates seeking support from U.S.-Israel PAC, he acknowledged that “it helps sometimes,” if only because a shared Jewish identity can engender a unique sense of common understanding.

Santos, he suggested, had exploited that bond while soliciting contributions from the PAC, which donated $5,000 to his campaign on Oct. 7, the same day as the event in Aventura.

“By him saying that he’s Jewish, he sort of understands ‘I’m part of the mishpacha’ or ‘part of the family,’” Fiske explained. “It’s kind of disingenuous.”

More broadly, Fiske expressed confusion over Santos’ decision to misrepresent himself. “Why say something that’s not true?” he asked. “We’re going to like you anyway because you seem like a good guy and you’re good on our issues. Like, don’t make up stuff that’s not true because you want us to like you more. That’s a character flaw. I guess it’s disappointing that he feels he has to say things that aren’t true. It’s a real insecurity.”

A spokesperson for Santos’ office did not respond to a request for comment from JI on Monday.

While in office, Santos has continued to claim “Jewish ancestry” on his mother’s side, though he has yet to produce any evidence to corroborate his assertions.

Until recently, the congressman had said his grandparents escaped Jewish persecution in Europe during World War II. But genealogists have since refuted that story, showing instead that his maternal ancestors were born in Brazil before the war — and were all baptized, married and buried according to Catholic rites and traditions.

Santos’ definition of Judaism, meanwhile, has shifted dramatically over the past few years. Though he recently described himself as “halachically Jewish,” he once promoted a completely different interpretation of Jewish identity.

“I believe we are all Jewish, at the end, because Jesus Christ is Jewish,” Santos argued in January 2020, during a short stint co-hosting a conservative talk show on Queens Public Television. “And if you believe in Jesus, and we’re all brothers in Christ, I mean.”

In the same exchange, uncovered last month, Santos also identified as Catholic and said he was “not trying to claim Jewish heritage,” while stating that his maternal grandfather, Paulo Horta Devolder, who was Brazilian, “grew up Jewish” in Soviet Ukraine but later converted to Catholicism as the Nazis rose to power.

In addition to misrepresenting his Jewish background, Santos has made unverifiable claims about visiting Israel. In a brief interview shortly after the election, he told JI that he had been to Israel four times, vaguely describing the trips as “probably the most exciting experiences” of his life.

As a House candidate, Santos distributed a Middle East position paper, shared with U.S.-Israel PAC and other pro-Israel groups, in which he claimed to “have been to Israel numerous times from educational, business and leisurely trips.”

During the event at Mo’s Bagels & Deli last fall, Santos also told the audience that he had visited Israel “but wasn’t specific about it,” Fiske said. “He mentioned that he was there in Israel and that he’s going to go again as a freshman.”

His spokesperson did not respond to a request for corroboration from JI.

A spokesperson for Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority declined to confirm whether Santos had been to Israel, citing “privacy matters.”

Fiske said it is highly unlikely that U.S.-Israel PAC will continue to back Santos in future races, even as he expressed approval of the congressman’s approach to Middle East policy. “We probably wouldn’t be jumping to support him,” Fiske said, calling Santos, who is now facing multiple investigations related to his deceptions, “an embarrassment to the party” and “an embarrassment to himself.”

Despite the harsh appraisal, Fiske, who was initially reluctant to speak on the record with JI, said he had been “apprehensive” about publicly criticizing a Republican member of Congress whose views on Israel largely align with his own. “I didn’t want to portray like we’re not appreciative of his support,” he explained.

Stephen Fiske, Andy’s twin brother, who co-chairs U.S.-Israel PAC but was not present for the October event, said in a recent text exchange with JI that Santos had “certainly met” the group’s “guidelines and probably still does.”

Still, he maintained that Santos “should leave Congress” amid mounting scrutiny over “his fabrication of facts and general prevarications,” adding: “Suffice it to say, our membership is disappointed by these revelations.”

The Republican Jewish Coalition, which also supported Santos, has likewise said that the newly elected congressman “will not be welcome at any future” events because he “misrepresented his heritage.”

Established in 1980, U.S.-Israel PAC, previously known as the Florida Congressional Committee PAC, met with several House and Senate candidates from both parties last cycle, according to its website, which still mistakenly lists Santos as a Jewish Republican nominee for New York’s 3rd Congressional District.

The single-issue group, which will hold an event with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), the No. 3 House Republican, on Friday, is dedicated to “providing financial support for” federal candidates “based solely on their continuing support for” the U.S.-Israel relationship, its website says.

But Fiske, reflecting on his experience meeting with Santos, suggested that the congressman’s case might necessitate another basic set of conditions. “We like to support people who have integrity and are honest about their past,” he said.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.