Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez defends Jewish heritage claim: 'Culture isn’t DNA'

"Just because one concrete identity may not be how we think of ourselves today, nor how we were raised, it doesn’t mean we cannot or should not honor the ancestors + stories that got us here."

December 10, 2018 16:32
3 minute read.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez embraces New York gubenatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon

Progressive challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez embraces New York gubenatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon at her victory party in the Bronx after upsetting incumbent Democratic Representative Joseph Crowly on June 26, 2018. (photo credit: SCOTT HEINS/GETTY IMAGES/AFP)


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US congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defended her claim she descends from Sephardic Jews who fled from the Spanish Inquisition to Puerto Rico, claiming her “culture isn’t DNA.”

In a series of Twitter posts on Monday, the far-left Democrat, who was elected last month to represent a district in New York that includes parts of the Bronx and Queens, shed light on her comments made at a Sunday party, where she mentioned that some of her family members were Sephardi Jews “a very long time ago, generations and generations ago.”

“Before everyone jumps on me – yes, culture isn’t DNA,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. “But to be Puerto Rican is to be the descendant of: African Moors & slaves, Taino Indians, Spanish colonizers, Jewish refugees, and likely others. We are all of these things and something else all at once – we are Boricua."

“Just because one concrete identity may not be how we think of ourselves today, nor how we were raised, it doesn’t mean we cannot or should not honor the ancestors & stories that got us here. I was raised Catholic, & that identity is an amalgam too – especially in Latin America.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrating Hanukkah, December 10, 2018 (Courtesy)

“If anything, the stories of our ancestry give us windows of opportunity to lean into others, to seek them out, and see ourselves, our histories, and our futures, tightly knit with other communities in a way we perhaps never before thought possible.”

Ocasio-Cortez made the comments at a party that took place on Sunday, the final night of Hanukkah, and was held with the group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

“So many of our destinies are tied beyond our understanding,” Ocasio-Cortez said to the audience. “A very long time ago, generations and generations ago, my family consisted of Sephardi... Jews.

“During the Spanish Inquisition... so many people were forced to convert on the exterior to Catholicism, but on the interior continued to practice their faith,” she told the crowd.

“The culture in Puerto Rico [was] that people [would] open their closets, there would be this small menorah inside. And as they had children, and their children had children, these cultures started to kind of mix in a way that many people in those subsequent generations didn’t understand: to practice Catholicism on the exterior, but when you’re at home, to practice Judaism.”

The story is familiar to some, including the head of an organization that is centered on Spanish and Portuguese Jews and their descendants, many of whom are scattered around the world.

“Ocasio-Cortez’s story is in line with what I hear from many Hispanics and Latinos and is representative of the tens of millions who have Sephardi ancestry who are seeking to reconnect with their ancestry, traditions and the Jewish people,” Ashley Perry (Perez) told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.

Perry is the president of Reconectar, an organization that assists in reconnecting over 100 million descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities with the Jewish world and Israel.

“There are many ways that people are discovering that their strange familial traditions are of Jewish origins,” he said. “Thanks to advances in genealogy and DNA tests, more and more people are discovering their Sephardi roots.”

He explained that, like Ocasio-Cortez, some have been told that they have Jewish ancestry and others find out by accident – or on rare occasions, from death-bed confessions by relatives.

“As one Jewish leader once said to me, this is a game-changing moment for the Jewish people,” Perry said.

“I have heard of many cases like hers,” he recounted. “The numbers of those who self-identify as Jewish in some way are equal if not greater than the formal Jewish world.”

Ocasio-Cortez is from the Bronx, New York. At age 29, she will become the youngest member to serve in the US Congress when she takes office in January 2019. In July,  she accused Israel of a “massacre” of Palestinians, but then backtracked, saying she was not an expert on foreign policy. She also expressed support for a two-state solution, but later recanted after criticism from far-left circles.

Zachary Keyser contributed to this report.

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