Keeping the faith — at arm’s length

Claudia Sheinbaum, who may become Mexico’s first Jewish president, plays down her Jewish roots amid a rise in antisemitism

Hours before the start of Rosh Hashanah last Friday, Xóchitl Gálvez, the leading opposition candidate in Mexico’s upcoming presidential election, shared a brief message wishing the Jewish community a happy new year and a “blessed” Yom Kippur. “May you have a 5,784 full of health, happiness, prosperity and may you be sealed in the Book of Life,” she said on X, formerly known as Twitter. 

By contrast, many followers couldn’t help but notice that Gálvez’s chief rival, Claudia Sheinbaum, who is Jewish, had herself made no public acknowledgment of the Jewish High Holy Days, which she grew up observing as a young girl in Mexico City.

Her silence was hardly unusual: Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City, barely ever alludes to her Jewish background and is not meaningfully connected to Mexico’s tight-knit organized Jewish community. Though she has privately expressed pride in her Jewish roots and has recalled celebrating “all the Jewish holidays” with her grandparents, who were immigrants from Bulgaria and Lithuania, the 61-year-old leftist has otherwise emphasized that she was raised in a secular home, which reportedly valued political activism over religious affiliation.

Even if her connection to Judaism is tenuous, however, Sheinbaum may also have strategic reasons for keeping her ethnic heritage at a relatively safe distance, rather than risk further awakening a recent uptick in antisemitic rhetoric that has entered Mexico’s public discourse as she campaigns for president, according to interviews with more than a dozen academics, political analysts and Jewish leaders in Mexico and the U.S. 

“She won’t deny it if she’s asked, but she’s definitely not mentioning it,” Pablo Majluf, an analyst in Mexico City, told Jewish Insider last week. “I think she would prefer it that way.”

Next June’s Mexican presidential election promises to be a historic contest no matter the outcome, with two women vying to become the country’s first female head of state in what political observers have called a watershed moment for Mexican politics. That Sheinbaum would also be Mexico’s first Jewish president, meanwhile, has been heralded with less fanfare in the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country — not least by the candidate herself, a member of Mexico’s governing party, Morena, and a protégé of the populist sitting president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is term-limited.

Unlike Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has embraced his position as the world’s most prominent Jewish leader since Russia’s invasion last year, Sheinbaum fits into a parallel category of secular politicians on the left and center-left who, amid a global rise in antisemitism, have more cautiously downplayed or elided their Jewish backgrounds in favor of universalist language or overtly nationalist rhetoric.

During her fledgling campaign for president, Sheinbaum, who was picked as Morena’s nominee two weeks ago, has eschewed specific references to her family biography, as an emerging strain of identity politics has fueled nativist rhetoric that has cast suspicion on her European Jewish roots and, consequently, her claims to Mexican heritage.

In recent months, Sheinbaum, the first Jewish and female mayor of Mexico City, has been forced to confront an online misinformation campaign falsely alleging that she was born in Bulgaria — where her Sephardic maternal grandparents fled the Holocaust in 1942 — and therefore ineligible to run for president. To fend off such insinuations, Sheinbaum has described herself as “100% Mexican” and “more Mexican than mole,” a traditional sauce viewed as Mexico’s national dish. “Enough with the speculation, already,” she wrote on X in June, posting a copy of her birth certificate showing she was born in Mexico City.

Still, Mexico’s right-wing former president, Vicente Fox, brought increased prominence to the birther conspiracy theory a few weeks later, when he shared a meme on social media calling Sheinbaum a “Bulgarian Jew” while promoting Gálvez, a senator with Indigenous roots who represents the conservative National Action Party, as “the only Mexican” in the race. He later apologized for his comments, which were widely criticized.

“The question being debated here, is who can be the true candidate ‘of the people,’ and speak on their behalf. So, Sheinbaum is accused of being ‘foreign’ or Jewish — of not being truly Mexican — while the left accuses Gálvez of not being truly Indigenous, and of being rather bourgeois,” said Daniela Gleizer, an associate researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Historical Research.

The effort to target Sheinbaum, who is currently favored to win the election, is part of an ongoing — and increasingly ugly — national conversation over Mexican authenticity, as both parties have sought “to discredit the candidate of the opposing group,” said Daniela Gleizer, an associate researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Historical Research who specializes in Jewish immigration to Mexico during the Nazi era.

While Fox’s tweet was a “sign of the great xenophobia that exists” in Mexico, Gleizer explained that López Obrador — an avowed nationalist who has frequently used inflammatory, race-based language to belittle his adversaries as enemies of the working class — bore responsibility for establishing “the parameters of the discussion” along such lines. 

“The question being debated here,” Gleizer said in an email, “is who can be the true candidate ‘of the people,’ and speak on their behalf. So, Sheinbaum is accused of being ‘foreign’ or Jewish — of not being truly Mexican — while the left accuses Gálvez of not being truly Indigenous, and of being rather bourgeois.”

At the same time that Sheinbaum’s Jewish background has drawn scrutiny from the opposition, antisemitic prejudice has also risen from the fringes of Morena itself. Perhaps most prominently, Alfredo Jalife-Rahme, a conspiracy theorist who says he helped found the party, recently claimed that he will not vote for Sheinbaum because she is a “Zionista.” He has previously accused the former mayor of being too cozy with Jewish developers in Mexico City.

Majluf, the political analyst in Mexico City, said Sheinbaum is no doubt “aware of tensions in her own party and her movement over antisemitism,” stressing that “she is a contradiction to the ethno-nationalist rhetoric” and Christian symbology seen as trademarks of López Obrador’s so-called “fourth transformation” of Mexican politics. But he echoed other experts who spoke with JI in speculating that Sheinbaum’s close relationship with the president, to whom she is fiercely loyal, would almost certainly insulate her candidacy from broader internal skepticism. 

“What they’re trying to sell is that Sheinbaum is a traditional leftist, a social actor, a student protester,” Majluf observed. “They’re not playing her identity card, for obvious reasons.”

Moreover, multiple analysts suggested that Sheinbaum herself has attempted to obscure her Jewish roots in public appearances where she is pictured wearing skirts emblazoned with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a national symbol appropriated by Morena. Luis Rubio, a political analyst and think tank leader in Mexico City, said he had “no doubt whatsoever” that Sheinbaum’s dress was an effort to mask her Judaism. “The message is impossible not to catch.”

The choice of Catholic imagery indicates that Sheinbaum views at least one particular kind of “religious identity as instrumental to her political goals,” Tony Payan, the director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Texas, said in an email to JI. “She does not openly talk about that.”

Still, he argued that “most Mexicans are more focused on the political polarization that is going on in the country, rather than” Sheinbaum’s Jewish identity. “There will always be some groups that may show antisemitic inclinations, but as of right now, that is not what has dominated the public discourse,” Payan said, adding that “her political stance, personality and her relationship with López Obrador are likely to be much more salient.”

“People have questioned her origins and in some cases make antisemitic remarks, but we think eventually they will judge her for her actions and not her religious origins,” said Renee Dayan-Shabot, the executive director of Tribuna Israelita.

According to Renee Dayan-Shabot, the executive director of Tribuna Israelita, a leading Jewish community organization in Mexico, antisemitic incidents remain relatively low across the country, despite the recent misinformation campaign against Sheinbaum. The group, which tracks antisemitism domestically, registered just 22 incidents last year, including graffiti, “verbal aggression” and remarks on radio and television. 

In an email to JI, Dayan-Shabot said that Tribuna Israelita had maintained a “close collaboration” with Sheinbaum during her time leading Mexico City, which is home to the majority of Mexico’s estimated 40,000 Jews. 

“Regarding her Jewish origin, when it comes to politicians and public servants, religion or its origins are irrelevant, the important thing is the efficiency they have to carry out their office,” Dayan-Shabot said. “We didn’t see any important rise in antisemitism during her campaign to Mexico City’s government or her administration. People have questioned her origins and in some cases make antisemitic remarks, but we think eventually they will judge her for her actions and not her religious origins.”

Dina Siegel Vann, a native of Mexico City who directs the American Jewish Committee’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs and previously led political affairs at Tribuna Israelita, said in a recent interview that Sheinbaum has demonstrated a sensitivity to Jewish communal issues, citing her efforts to counter far-right extremism after a secret concert last year in Mexico’s capital that was attended by hundreds of neo-Nazis.

Now that she is running for president, the former mayor, who resigned in June to mount her campaign, has indicated that she is interested in continuing such advocacy. For instance, Siegel Vann said she had met with Sheinbaum’s chief advisor, Diana Alarcón González, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.

Their conversation, which González requested in advance, covered such topics as security, “combating hate” and economic development, Siegel Vann said in an email on Wednesday. Moreover, González “mentioned Israel as a value-added in cybersecurity” and “water management,” according to Siegel Vann, who clarified that the meeting was not an endorsement of Sheinbaum’s campaign because the AJC is nonpartisan. González did not respond to a request for comment.

Even as Sheinbaum has maintained a cordial if somewhat distant rapport with Jewish leaders, a Jewish activist in Mexico City, granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, emphasized that there is “no love lost” between Sheinbaum and the Mexican Jewish community. “I have heard from many people who actually know her that she is quite reluctant to be perceived as a member of the community,” the activist explained in a recent email to JI. “She almost never acknowledges her Jewish identity or heritage, and she is not close to, or affiliated with, or maybe even especially sympathetic to, the community.”

“I think she could be a president of Jewish origins, but she’s not a Jewish leader,” said Daniel Fainstein, the dean and professor of Jewish studies at the Universidad Hebraica in Mexico.

In March 2020, Sheinbaum met with top Jewish community leaders in Mexico for a closed-door discussion at the Centro Deportivo Israelita, a major Jewish sports and cultural center outside Mexico City, which she recalled visiting as a child. “With love, memories and projects for our great Mexico City, I was very happy to share with the Jewish Community of Mexico,” she wrote in a visitor’s log during the visit. “Our memory and history make us share the history of humanity and of our country.”

But despite a shared history, Sheinbaum is unlikely to gain signficant support from Mexico’s traditionally conservative Jewish voters, who are largely resistant to her party’s populist agenda, even as they remain hesitant about openly expressing their views because of López Obrador’s frequent and forceful efforts to vilify Morena’s critics.

Meanwhile, even impartial Jewish observers of Mexican politics seem reluctant to claim Sheinbaum as one of their own. “I think she could be a president of Jewish origins, but she’s not a Jewish leader,” said Daniel Fainstein, the dean and professor of Jewish studies at the Universidad Hebraica in Mexico, in a recent interview.

“Nobody in Mexico sees Claudia Sheinbaum as a ‘Jewish president,’ nor does she identify herself as such,” Gleizer, the researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, argued to JI. “She identifies as Mexican ‘with Jewish origins,’ or with Jewish grandparents. She never alludes to the fact that both of her parents are Jewish, and always refers to her grandparents. In my opinion, this may be to place her Jewish origins in a more remote time, and to distance herself from them, or because her parents perhaps did not identify as Jewish either. Or both.”

Whatever the reason, Sheinbaum, a renowned physicist who completed her doctoral studies in environmental engineering at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, has long been more viscerally connected to a tradition of left-wing political activism that extends to her Ashkenazi paternal grandfather, Juan Sheinbaum, who emigrated from Lithuania to Mexico in the 1920s. He was the only Jew accepted into Mexico’s Communist Party, where he served as the general secretary for 10 years, according to Gleizer.

In 2000, Sheinbaum, who could not be reached for comment, was appointed as López Obrador’s environmental secretary after he was elected mayor of Mexico City. She later served as a mayor of the city’s Tlalpan district before rising to head of government in the Mexican capital in 2018.

While Sheinbaum is the first Jewish candidate to run for president in Mexico, she would not be the first Jewish president of a Latin American nation, said Raanan Rein, a professor of Latin American and Spanish history at Tel Aviv University, noting that former Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski Godard was the son of Jewish parents who fled Nazi Germany. He added that Javier Milei, a far-right libertarian campaigning for president in Argentina, has expressed interest in converting to Judaism and claims to regularly study Jewish topics with a Buenos Aires rabbi. 

“Jews, people of Jewish descent, as well as Judaism and concepts related to this religion and civilization are therefore very much present in Latin American politics,” Rein told JI. “Reading much of the literature on Jewish experiences in Latin America, one might get the feeling that Jews had been removed from national politics and were either mostly victims of it, or have focused on internal community life or on diasporic ties with the real or imagined homeland Israel. This is, of course, far removed from the truth.”

If there is excitement among Mexican-born Jews that the country is poised to elect its first Jewish and female president, however, it seems to extend more from a shared belief in Mexico’s social improvement rather than a feeling of personal identification with Sheinbaum’s heritage, which she continues to keep at arm’s length.

“I have a sense of pride more in Mexico as a national project,” Siegel Vann, the AJC leader who met with Sheinbaum’s chief advisor this week, told JI, even as she expressed concern over recent instances of antisemitic rhetoric. “But you have to give Mexican society some credit. This provides a very good opportunity for Mexico to come to terms with what it means to be a Mexican.”

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