Inside storyThere is at least one previous Mexican Jewish president

Quietly Jewish scientist poised to win Sunday’s Mexican presidential election

Claudia Sheinbaum, would-be successor of a left-wing populist incumbent, has focused on energy and crime despite detractors’ repeated efforts to discuss her faith – or lack of it

Canaan Lidor

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Former Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum speaks after being named presidential candidate of the ruling Morena party for next year's presidential election in Mexico City on September 6, 2023. (Photo by CLAUDIO CRUZ / AFP)
Former Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum speaks after being named presidential candidate of the ruling Morena party for next year's presidential election in Mexico City on September 6, 2023. (Photo by CLAUDIO CRUZ / AFP)

The Jewish ancestry of Claudia Sheinbaum, who’s leading the polls ahead of Sunday’s presidential election in Mexico, has remained a marginal aspect of a race dominated by the country’s crime problem, environmental and immigration policies, as well as the economy.

Still, the Jewishness of Sheinbaum — who rarely speaks about it but said in 2018 that she was “proud” of her Jewish origins — is attracting some attention from Jews and non-Jews alike in a country with populist politics, strong Catholic traditions and a high prevalence of antisemitic views.

The 61-year-old former mayor of Mexico City has pursued a strategy that keeps her religious background “hidden” without denying it, journalist Pablo Majluf, who is Jewish, wrote in a recent op-ed on the subject for the Etcetera newspaper.

The use of antisemitic rhetoric by Sheinbaum’s detractors may at least partly explain any desire on her part to downplay her Judaism.

Vicente Fox, a former president and Mexican right-wing stalwart, has apologized for posting on X last year that between Sheinbaum and Xóchitl, “the only Mexican is Xóchitl,” referencing Xóchitl Gálvez, Sheinbaum’s main rival in the elections.

Fox did this in a repost of a text characterizing Sheinbaum as a “Bulgarian Jew.” Later that same year, he posted “Jewish and also a foreigner” about a picture of Sheinbaum wearing a crucifix pendant.

A supporter holds a banner with the image of Mexico’s presidential candidate for the ruling Morena party, Claudia Sheinbaum, at her campaign closing rally at the Zocalo Square in Mexico City on May 29, 2024. (Pedro Pardo/AFP)

In an op-ed from December by Francisco Ruiz Quirrín, a columnist for the ultra-conservative weekly Primera Plana, he warned, in connection with a Sheinbaum victory, that “The Jewish community is willing to exert whatever pressure is necessary to influence one of its own over any political commitment.”

Quirrín noted — accurately — that if elected, Sheinbaum would not be Mexico’s first president with such origins. Former Mexican presidents with Jewish roots include Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who recently obtained Spanish citizenship based on his Jewish origins, and likely also Plutarco Elías Calle, who died in 1945.

Attempts to harness antisemitism to hurt Sheinbaum’s candidacy appear to have had a limited effect. Sheinbaum, a scientist, enjoys a whopping lead, varying from 11 to 22 points, over Gálvez, a businesswoman and senator heading a left-right coalition.

Former Mexican president Vincente Fox speaks to the press before giving his address to the World Affairs Council at the Intercontinental Hotel in Los Angeles, California on September 27, 2017. (Mark Ralston/AFP)

Sheinbaum’s most famous reference to her Judaism was during a speech she made at a Jewish community event as mayor of Mexico City in 2018. She did not describe herself as Jewish but did say that both her parents were “of Jewish origin.” Like many Mexican Jews, she takes a secular approach to her faith.

“I grew up without religion, like my parents, but clearly in the culture,” which she said “encircled her.” Her family “celebrated all the Jewish holidays. And I feel Mexican. I am Mexican […] but I’m very proud of my origins” and grandparents, Sheinbaum said.

Moisés Romano Jafif, the president of the CCCJM umbrella of Mexican Jewish communities, has endorsed none of the candidates in keeping with the group’s nonpartisanship. Isaac Ajzen, the director of the Diario Judio Jews news site, said recently that the election will likely appeal to women voters — as both leading candidates are women — and that many Jews will vote “according to policies,” not genetics.

Relations with the US

Sheinbaum, the leader of the Morena left-wing party and the endorsed would-be successor of the term-limited incumbent left-wing populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is under pressure to end the lawlessness of horrifically violent cartels in vast parts of the country, which is facilitated party by corruption. This has implications for Mexico’s relationship with the United States, where the cartels’ involvement in illegal immigration is a hot issue in the American elections.

This handout picture released by the Mexican Presidency shows Mexico’s President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, speaking during a press conference at the National Palace in Mexico City on September 6, 2023. (Handout/Mexican Presidency/AFP)

During the third and final presidential debate on May 19, Sheinbaum said that declaring a “war on drugs” was “one of the most terrible decisions” in recent Mexican history, triggering the ongoing violence. She has defended Obrador’s decision to dial back Mexico’s cooperation with the United States on drugs. She said she would broaden his administration’s strategy of offering social programs to young people as an alternative to working for cartels.

She also signaled her desire to move away from Obrador’s fossil fuel-dependent energy policy toward more renewables.

During the debate, she was challenged to address her religion.

Xóchitl Gálvez, a right-wing populist who is trailing Sheinbaum by double digits in the polls, showed a picture of Sheinbaum wearing a skirt decorated with a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a local Catholic icon.

Mexico’s presidential candidate for the Fuerza y Corazon por Mexico coalition party, Xochitl Galvez, gestures to supporters during her campaign closing rally, in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, Mexico on May 29, 2024. (Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP)

“You have the right not to believe in God, it is a personal issue, but you don’t have the right to use Mexicans’ faith for political opportunism. That’s hypocrisy,” said Gálvez, who has highlighted her own Catholic credentials in her campaign. Gálvez has attacked Sheinbaum over this several times in the past.

Sheinbaum reacted in a typical fashion during the May 19 debate: She avoided the subject of religion.

“This is a total provocation and I will not engage in it, I’ll let my team handle this tomorrow morning,” said Sheinbaum, who used the remaining time allotted to her to discuss immigration, promising to “always defend Mexicans abroad,” a vow that many view as an assurance that Mexico’s policies under Sheinbaum would not be an extension of US immigration objectives.

Majluf, the Jewish Etcetera journalist, commented on this line of attack by Gálvez. He opined that Sheinbaum is downplaying her Jewishness not to avoid angering the right-wing, but the far-left of her own party.

“The Jewish identity card comes into direct conflict with some postulates of the regime, composed of an ethno-nationalist movement… It’s quite ironic that the ruling party’s candidate has to ignore her origin to stick to a story,” Majluf wrote, noting that Gálvez identifies this as a weakness, and therefore “tries to show this.”

‘I am a woman of faith and of science’

Sheinbaum, a physicist turned politician born to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Bulgaria, has made contradictory statements about the role of religion in her life.

Asked this month whether it was true that she does not believe in God, as Gálvez had asserted, Sheinbaum told the Imagen Noticias television channel: “I am a woman of faith and of science,” before accusing Gálvez of “forgetting the separation of church and state.”

But during the campaign, a video from several years ago surfaced of her being asked during an interview whether she was Catholic. “I’m not Catholic, I’m not religious,” she answered. This statement made many wonder why she wore Christian and Catholic signs on occasion.

Claudia Sheinbaum rides on the back of a motorcycle during a national earthquake drill when she was mayor of Mexico City on April 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Sheinbaum’s critics have cited this as evidence of her “behaving like chameleon also on religion, adapting to what she thinks any public wants to see at the price of losing her own identity,” as Marco Levario Turcott, a political pundit with 162,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, said on his podcast, Revista Etcétera, in February.

In 2009, when she was still a scientist, Sheinbaum condemned Israel’s bombing in Gaza that year: “Nothing justifies the murder of Palestinian civilians… Nothing can justify the murder of a child,” she wrote in a letter to a local newspaper.

But she appears to have remained largely silent on Israel following Hamas’s October 7 slaughter in southern Israel, even as her predecessor publicly accused Israel of committing a “genocide” in the ongoing Gaza war and as Mexico sought to beef up the lawsuit that South Africa filed against Israel, accusing it of genocide, at the International Court of Justice.

This has not prevented allegations online that she is a “Zionist,” but it may have not hurt her appeal to voters critical of the Jewish state.

One of those critics, writer Zyanya Mariana, who is left-wing and not Jewish, endorsed Sheibaum on Twitter Thursday.

“Claudia Sheinbaum is a woman, super hardworking and Jewish. Three attributes that can only be beneficial for this country,” Mariana wrote.

Most Popular
read more: