Sheinbaum has 'never represented Mexico's Jewish community'

Why Mexico’s center-right Jewish community didn’t vote for its first Jewish president

Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, who won the election this week, inherits a country split by her predecessor’s regime – with Jews sitting on the other side of the political divide

Newly elected Mexican President Claudia Sheinbaum greets supporters after the National Electoral Institute announced she held an irreversible lead in the election, in Mexico City,  June 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Newly elected Mexican President Claudia Sheinbaum greets supporters after the National Electoral Institute announced she held an irreversible lead in the election, in Mexico City, June 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

After Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo emerged victorious in Sunday’s election to become Mexico’s first female president-elect, many focused on a second milestone – the scientist-turned-politician will be Mexico’s first Jewish president.

But, according to members of Mexico City’s Jewish community who spoke to The Times of Israel after her win, the president-elect has distanced herself from them, and her triumph does not engender much excitement among her fellow Jews.

“I think that the main issue in the election, even for the Jewish community, was not her Jewishness, but her political views,” Daniel Fainstein, the dean of Jewish Studies at the Hebraica University in Mexico City, told The Times of Israel.

Sheinbaum, who served as head of government of Mexico City from 2018 through 2023, is a member of outgoing president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s Morena party.

She is perceived as largely politically aligned with her predecessor, causing concern among critics of Morena who fear she will pursue Lopez Obrador’s attempted constitutional changes, which could politicize Mexico’s Supreme Court and INE — the agency that organizes federal elections — by making them elected bodies by popular vote. Morena is just a few senate seats short of governing with a supermajority — the margin needed to pass such reforms, if Sheinbaum chooses to do so.

Hebraica University’s Fainstein believes many in the Jewish community view Sheinbaum in a slightly more positive light than the outgoing president, as she is perceived as being more educated than Lopez Obrador and “knows the world better.”

Daniel Fainstein, dean of Jewish Studies at the Hebraica University in Mexico City (courtesy)

“Within the community, there is a lot of anguish because the last administration was not good for Mexico,” Raquel Sacal, another member of Mexico City’s Jewish community, told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

“There is a lot of uncertainty, but at the same time there is a little hope that this era in Mexico will not be a real failure,” said Sacal.

Election win a vote for more of the same

With the election – a referendum on Lopez Obrador’s tenure – focusing on policy, Mexico’s Jewish community voted according to their political beliefs.

Sacal told The Times of Israel that the Jewish community was “not at all” a base of support for Sheinbaum.

“She has never publicly presented herself as Jewish, much less represented the Jewish community of Mexico,” Sacal said.

Ilan Arditti, another Mexico City resident, explained that many Mexican Jewish voters were concerned by Lopez Obrador’s policies, and worried that Sheinbaum’s tenure would mean their continuation.

“They do not agree with this type of regime,” Arditti said.

File: Circles on a lawn at the Centro Deportivo Israelita, Mexico City’s Jewish community center, drawn to guide social distancing. (Alan Grabinsky/ JTA)

Fainstein said that Mexico City’s Jewish community usually aligns itself with the center-right, rather than the left, which he attributes to socioeconomic circumstances and cultural values.

In polls conducted before the election, Sheinbaum did especially well among voters from the working class, voters with lower education levels and voters who receive social benefits.

Mexico boasts around 50,000 Jews, most of whom live in Mexico City, the nation’s capital district. The community is tight-knit, with around 95 percent of children attending Jewish parochial schools, which range from right-wing Orthodox to secular Zionist.

Illustrative: Mexican Jewish children at the Monte Sinai school, established in 1943 on Zacatecas Street in Mexico City by Jews from Damascus, Syria. (Zihronot Archive/Monte Sinai Community/via JTA)

Both of Sheinbaum’s parents were Jewish — her father’s Ashkenazi family migrated to Mexico from Lithuania in the 1920s, her mother’s Sephardic family fled from the Holocaust in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the 1940s — and Sheinbaum celebrated Jewish holidays with her grandparents. Although Sheinbaum has said she is “proud” of her origins, she characterizes her faith as secular and is not involved in Mexico City’s Jewish community.

“Claudia has actively tried to say ‘This is not me,’” Tessy Schlosser, director of the Jewish Documentation and Research Center of Mexico, told the Associated Press.

Rioters clash with police during a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel rally called ‘Urgent action for Rafah,’ held in front of the Israeli embassy in Mexico City on May 28, 2024. (Pedro Pardo / AFP)

Antisemitic pushback

Despite pushing her Jewish identity to the margins, Sheinbaum faced antisemitic comments from political detractors during her bid to lead the nearly 80% Catholic nation. In July 2023, former president Vicente Fox referred to her as a “Bulgarian Jew” and labeled Sheinbaum’s opponent, right-wing populist Xochitl Gálvez, as the race’s “only Mexican.” Fox later apologized for his comment.

Sheinbaum has previously tweeted photos of her birth certificate to dispel rumors that she is foreign-born. “I am 100% Mexican, proudly the daughter of Mexican parents,” she wrote in a post from June 2023.

During the final debate of the presidential campaign on May 19, Gálvez pulled out a printed photograph of Sheinbaum wearing a skirt decorated with a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a local Catholic icon, and accused Sheinbaum of using “Mexicans’ faith for political opportunism.”

Supporters of Mexico’s presidential candidate for the Morena party, Claudia Sheinbaum wait for her at Zocalo Square on election day in Mexico City on June 2, 2024. (YURI CORTEZ / AFP)

“This is a total provocation and I will not engage in it,” Sheinbaum responded.

Gálvez’s challenge echoed a previous slight against Sheinbaum from Fox. After Sheinbaum briefly put on a rosary with a crucifix after being handed one during a campaign stop last fall, Fox tweeted, “JEWISH AND FOREIGN AT THE SAME TIME.”

Fainstein noted that instances of antisemitism toward Sheinbaum, while concerning, were not a factor in the election. He explained that mainstream Mexican media paid them little attention.

“The Jewish community is always worried when there are antisemitic expressions, but they were not so prominent,” Fainstein said.

He pointed out that Sheinbaum likewise was not on the receiving end of significant attacks regarding her gender, despite Mexico having a “traditionally machoistic” political culture.

Jewish community stands with Israel

According to Fainstein, Mexico’s Jewish community cares deeply about Israel, especially following the October 7 attacks, and has “always tried to help make the key political [players] understand the Israeli point of view.”

Arditti said that Mexican Jews think of Israel “all the time,” as many in the community have friends and family who have been affected by the war.

Lopez Obrador remained largely neutral toward Israel, even as some Latin American countries have severed ties during the war, especially during the early stages of the conflict. But last week, Mexico declared its intent to join South Africa’s genocide case against Israel in the International Court of Justice.

Supporters of ruling party presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum embrace after the polls closed during general elections at the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square, Sunday, June 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Ginnette Riquelme)

Sheinbaum hasn’t made any public comments on the ICJ case. She has rarely spoken about Israel policy in general, Arditti noted.

In a 2009 letter published in the left-wing magazine La Jornada, Sheinbaum criticized Israel’s then-ongoing war in Gaza.

“Because of my Jewish origin, because of my love for Mexico and because I feel like a citizen of the world, I share with millions the desire for justice, equality, fraternity and peace, and therefore, I can only see with horror the images of the Israeli bombings in Gaza,” wrote Sheinbaum in 2009. “For this reason, I join the cry of millions around the world who are calling for a ceasefire and the immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian territory.”

Since the onset of the present Israel-Hamas war last year, Sheinbaum has condemned attacks on civilians, called for a ceasefire and stated her support for a two-state solution.

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