Depending on whom you believe, the young, socialist candidate trying to unseat State Sen. Martin Malave Dilan in a Democratic primary Sept. 13 is either misrepresenting large chunks of her political and religious identity, including her identification as a Latina Jew, or is a political neophyte who means well, has made some honest mistakes during her campaign and is now the target of dirty politics.
It’s a discussion that Julia Salazar, 27 and a newcomer to electoral politics, wasn’t bargaining for when she entered the primary last spring in Brooklyn’s 18th Senate District, an area that includes Bushwick, Cypress Hills and parts of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville and East New York.
The conversation Salazar expected to have at this point would have involved issues affecting the district, including housing, tenant protections, criminal justice reform and campaign finance reform, she said. She has also tried to focus attention on Dilan’s eight-term record in Albany and what she regards as his failure to represent North Brooklyn properly — a claim naturally disputed by the Dilan campaign.
And that’s precisely the conversation that was taking place for the past several months, especially after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another Democratic insurgent, won a stunning upset victory in New York’s June 26 primary against U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, a 10-term incumbent and a leader of House Democrats. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Salazar is a member of Democratic Socialists of America, a rich source of volunteers and support for her campaign, and is a Latina woman in her late 20s.
Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory and the similarities between the two women drew Salazar increased attention during the following two months, with New York magazine and a slew of other publications running profiles of her. Both women are part of a new vanguard of socialist millennials vying for political office around the country, suggesting what could be a leftward drift for the Democratic Party. In the Jewish community, one aspect of that leftward drift involves how a candidate feels about Israel, the two-state solution and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which targets the Jewish state — issues that Salazar, for one, hasn’t been shy about addressing.
Salazar has also drawn attention for another reason — one having nothing to do with politics. She has spoken often about her family’s Jewish roots, her own identification with Judaism, and how being Jewish is an important source of her left-wing ideals and views. Also important to Salazar is her background as the daughter of immigrants.
But all that came into doubt last week — and, with it, Salazar’s own commitment to the truth — with an article published in Tablet under the headline “Who is Julia Salazar?” Written by Armin Rosen, a New York-based freelance writer, the piece noted that in her early 20s, while attending Columbia University, she served as president of Columbia Right to Life, the campus’ leading anti-abortion group; became heavily involved in the right-leaning Christians United for Israel; and appeared on the online show of Glenn Beck, the conservative firebrand, as a participant in a student training program sponsored by CUFI. Within the space of only two years, the article said, Salazar had moved politically to co-founding J Street U, the campus “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group, to presenting herself as a left-wing Jew and writing for Mondoweiss, an anti-Zionist website. But more personally for the candidate — and perhaps even more damning in terms of her credibility — the Tablet piece questioned Salazar’s identification with Judaism, how she has portrayed her father’s roots, and her honesty in discussing her family’s immigrant background.
“In a series of tweets preserved by pro-Israel activist Hen Mazzig, Salazar quotes a pastor at Apostles Church in New York in a tweet that includes the hashtag #John13, referring to a chapter in the New Testament,” Rosen reported. “One acquaintance who knew Salazar during her time as a CUFI activist said that she wasn’t shy about her religious faith, dropping the occasional ‘praise Jesus’ into casual conversation.”
Rosen contacted Salazar’s brother, Alex, a resident of Florida, who told Tablet that “nobody in our immediate family,” including their father, was Jewish. As for the immigration issue, some publications have reported that Salazar was born in Colombia and arrived in Miami as a baby, while other publications have reported that Salazar was born in Miami, as was her brother.
Interviewed on the outdoor patio of her Bushwick headquarters last Friday, Salazar sounds wounded by the idea that anyone would think she deliberately misled the public.
“I’m fine with talking about it [her political and religious identity],” she told The Jewish Week, adding that she has spent a good deal of time on social media refuting Tablet’s article. “I just wish it wasn’t in the framework of defending it, because that demands that I take the time to give a full, measured account of my entire political and spiritual development of the last 10 years of my life, which is an arduous task and emotionally taxing.”
Regarding her Jewishness, Salazar said she underwent a formal conversion in 2012 with a Reform rabbi at Columbia/Barnard Hillel after a two-month conversion course. Pressed for details, she said the course was taught by someone she believes was a rabbinic intern who left before the end of it for paternity leave. She also said she chose not to have any formal ceremony marking her conversion.
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“I also felt a little bit conflicted throughout about the idea of making my faith public,” Salazar said, adding that she’s rarely spoken about the conversion.
Salazar said she has never portrayed her father as Jewish, practicing or otherwise, but that she “grew up knowing my father had Sephardi family and a Sephardi name, both dating back to medieval Spain before the Inquisition. She and her father discussed some of that history while she was growing up, she said, leaving her with the impression that her father attached some measure of importance to the family’s Jewish roots.
It was her father’s death as Salazar turned 18 that compelled her to explore Judaism and think of converting, Salazar told The Jewish Week.
“It left a lot of unanswered questions for me regarding our history,” she said. “It was sort of a combination of the lost hopes that one experiences with the loss of a parent or anyone you’re close to, but also the feeling that I risked never understanding our Jewish roots. I felt a responsibility to understand it,” which later morphed into a responsibility to “maintain” the history.
Salazar also refuted the suggestion that she ever sprinkled her conversations with the term “praise Jesus,” as Tablet reported.
“I won’t deny that I read [Christian] scriptures in the course of choosing to commit to Judaism,” the candidate said. “I read Christian apologetics, C.S. Lewis, the Bible, and I’m not ashamed of that” — but that was all before her decision to commit fully to Judaism, she said. “To say that I was emoting about Jesus is blatantly false. It’s not even in my personality to emote that way about God.”
As for her family’s immigrant background, Salazar said she speaks about it often, but that she’s never told any reporter she was born anyplace other than Miami. Her father, a cargo pilot from Colombia, and her mother, an airline stewardess, met in the United States and then moved to her father’s native country, she said. They were in Miami when she was born, she continued, but they moved between both countries, and she spent much of her childhood in Colombia. Some of the confusion stemmed from her failure to communicate those details with her staff, she said.
One article, though, raises doubt about Salazar’s explanation. In what was clearly labeled an interview with Jacobin, a socialist magazine, she told the writer, Meagan Day, “My family immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia when I was a baby.” Asked about that comment, one of her strongest supporters, Nick Rizzo, a Democratic leader in Brooklyn’s 50th Assembly District, suggested that Salazar may have been flummoxed because of how many times she moved around as a child.
Although Salazar prefers to focus on local issues, she’s frankly discussed her views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Zionism — an issue for her and other candidates affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America because of that organization’s endorsement of BDS. She told The Jewish Week that she opposes any academic or cultural boycotts, believing that people-to-people contact is important, but supports divestment from any companies that support Israel, especially its military. She would support a two-state solution, but only if both sides in the conflict arrived at that decision themselves, and she doesn’t believe any state has an automatic “right to exist.”