New York congressman-elect campaigned as a Jewish Republican. Was he lying?

NYT exposé alleges much of what George Santos has said about his past is false or questionable, doesn’t address his self-identification as an ethnic Jew who practices Catholicism

US Representative-elect George Santos, a New York Republican, speaks at an annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, November 19, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
US Representative-elect George Santos, a New York Republican, speaks at an annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, November 19, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

JTA — On Sunday night, George Santos joined the Republican Jewish Coalition on Long Island, where he was just elected to US Congress, for a menorah-lighting to mark the first night of Hanukkah. He’d been invited as one of just two freshmen Republican Jews elected to Congress in November.

On Monday morning, The New York Times published a blockbuster exposé alleging that much of what Santos, 34, had said about his education, his wealth, his business experience, and even where he lives is false or at least questionable.

Not addressed in the article: Was he lying about his Jewish background? As with so much else in his personal narrative, there’s little to suggest truth beyond his own past comments.

The Times noted that Santos, 34, has identified to Jewish Insider as Jewish through his mother and Catholic through his father. Both parents were born in Brazil. Santos has said on Twitter that he is a practicing Catholic — and it is not unusual for some Americans to identify as ethnically Jewish and religiously Christian.

“Whether my mother’s Jewish background beliefs, which are mine or my father’s Roman Catholic beliefs, which are also mine, are represented or not,” he told Jewish Insider after his election, “I want to represent everyone else that practices every other religion to make sure everybody feels like they have a partner in me.”

His campaign biography begins, “George’s grandparents fled Jewish persecution in Ukraine, settled in Belgium, and again fled persecution during WWII. They were able to settle in Brazil, where his mother was born.”

George Santos campaigns outside a Stop and Shop store, November 5, 2022, in Glen Cove, New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

That story could well be true. Many European Jews fled to South America during the leadup to the Holocaust. But Santos’ mother, Fatima Devolder (Santos sometimes goes by the name George Devolder), died in 2016 in New York. Nothing in her online obituary, which often is posted by family, indicates any Jewish background. Fatima is one of a number of Roman Catholic appellations for the Virgin Mary, derived from what the church claims are apparitions of Jesus’s mother in 1917 in the Portuguese city of the same name. Devolder is a Flemish/Dutch name, which at least validates Santos’s claim that his mother has Belgian ancestry, but the Flemish people are overwhelmingly Catholic.

Matt Brooks, the RJC CEO, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a text, “I asked him about this. He identifies as Jewish.”

Santos was a featured speaker last month at the RJC’s annual Las Vegas event, billed as one of two freshmen Jewish Republicans in Congress. (The other is Ohio’s Max Miller.) He campaigned heavily among Orthodox Jews living in New York’s 3rd District, encompassing parts of northern Long Island and a part of Queens. “It was an honor to address fellow members of the Jewish community in #NY03,” he tweeted November 3 after attending a Chabad event also attended by Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau.

At Sunday’s Hanukkah event, Santos joined Lee Zeldin, the outgoing New York Jewish congressman who gained traction among New York’s politically conservative Orthodox Jewish voters.

Santos did not return emails sent by JTA to multiple addresses or messages sent through a number of social media platforms. His sister, Tiffany, also did not reply to an email, nor did his lawyer, Joe Murray.

Santos’ claims about his religious and ethnic origins are minor compared to the revelations in the Times expose, which offered new details as well as ones published previously elsewhere and uncovered by Democratic Party opposition research. There are no records of Santos attending the institutes of higher learning he claims to have attended, or of working at some of the financial brokerages he claims have employed him. A charitable institution he started has no evidence of being charitable. He has repeatedly identified with the far right, and then attempted to scrub such expressions from his social media.

Santos faces outstanding charges in Brazil for allegedly stealing a checkbook from a man in the care of his mother, a nurse, and then cashing checks, according to the New York Times’ report. He has twice been evicted. His financial reporting as a candidate is missing required information, omissions that could bring legal jeopardy. The Times sought Santos out at the address where he is registered to vote; the person there said she did not know him.

It’s not the first time a politician has campaigned as identifying as having a Jewish background that evaporates under scrutiny. In 2018, Julia Salazar, a progressive Democrat who won a seat in the New York state legislature, said she identified as Jewish in part because of her father’s Jewish roots; her brother said their father was not Jewish.

Salazar and her defenders said that she identified as Jewish and it was untoward to demand proof. The RJC’s Brooks sounded a similar note regarding Santos. “He considers himself a Jew. That’s good enough for me,” he texted.

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