An Open Letter to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The convenient dropping of your heritage makes you appear as a Trojan horse.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez waits for a House of Representatives member-elect welcome briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 15, 2018 (photo credit: YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez waits for a House of Representatives member-elect welcome briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 15, 2018
(photo credit: YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)
I want to start off with first and foremost that as a woman, I support you and I’m proud of your success and find your story inspiring. Your steps in exposing the classism and misogyny on Capitol Hill are vital to changing the status quo for the better. I think you are unfairly scrutinized far more than most of your colleagues who wouldn’t react nearly as calmly or wittily as you have on numerous occasions.
I like a lot of the ideas you stand for although I haven’t yet heard a plan that makes them very feasible but I believe the more people like you, who talk about universal healthcare and free college education, the more brains will come together to find a way to make it happen.
But that’s not what this letter is about. I am one of the many who read that you’ve suddenly decided you want to claim your Sephardi heritage and I just have to ask, why now? I believe your account and that it lines up that your family were very likely conversos, which is a sad thing. People being forced from their heritage is nothing but horrible. But unlike Julia “I’m suddenly Jewish after going MIA for a summer and deciding I hate Israel” Salazar, I actually believe your claims of your heritage.
But I return to the question of why now? Why at a Hanukkah Party just now did you decide to bring this up? If it’s an identity and a family history that you’re proud of, why did you not bring it up before? Was it because you didn’t think your congregants would vote for a Jewess? If so, that’s probably an issue you should focus on.
When asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you’ve parroted propaganda and claimed that your Puerto Rican heritage has made you sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. But what of your Sephardi heritage? Does that lineage not make you want to learn more about what your ancestors were like? What they dealt with? What about the way they longed for their homeland to the point that when Spain expelled us, many chose to be second-class citizens under the Ottoman Empire simply so they could be home? Have you paused for one second to consider that history, those ties, that love for their homeland? Your responses make it seem fairly obvious that you haven’t.
I myself am Sephardi. I’m sorry you were denied the stories of our heritage, the languages we grew up hearing and the delicious foods we were all raised on. Truly, I’m sad this is something that antisemitism caused you to miss out on because it’s both a tragic and a beautiful story of resilience (and our food really is delicious.) But you only seem interested in this ancestry when it grants you an “in” with us. As if we’re an outfit that you can just throw on when you feel like it. Something you can put on and take off or change with your moods like you do with your makeup.
I understand code switching, I do it often given the fact that half my family is Jewish and the other half is white southerners. Add in the fact the Russian part of my Jewish side was so fearful of Russian persecution, they moved all the way to Hawaii and did their best to assimilate there. But you are not code switching, you are using us when it suits you. I don’t think you’re doing it maliciously, although it does seem a bit calculated. If not calculated, you are simply being obtuse, insensitive, and offensive.
I’m not going to tell you who you are or how to identify. But if you’re going to use your Sephardi ancestry as an in with the Jews or to act as if that automatically makes you understand our culture and our concerns then you’re acting dishonestly. Watching you suddenly whip out your Sephardi ancestry reminds me of every white person in America claiming that they’re 1/16th Cherokee and suddenly attending powwows full of white people. If you don’t understand why, you’re only proving my point.
You’re a very smart woman and maybe this admission was another one of your overall issues with not being great at sound bites. You’re so overly criticized for every word that comes out of your mouth, I can physically see the wheels turning in your brain to formulate an answer, tip-toeing around trying to make sure you say exactly what you mean. While I appreciate you not just shooting from the hip, it makes you appear slow and like you don’t know the answers. You (and I believe your constituents) would benefit greatly from a PR coach to help you deliver your points more clearly. This would also help you understand that springing a new ancestry on a people who are already increasingly concerned could have some blowback.
You were sworn in alongside some well known Israel haters, who will likely try to push their BDS agenda sooner rather than later. The convenient dropping of your heritage makes you appear as a Trojan horse. “It’s fine guys, I’m actually one of you. Just ignore my friends here who I’m not condemning, who are spewing vitriol against you.” This is why I ask you, why now? I don’t care how you dress for work or how expensive your clothes are but I do care when you’re dressing up as one of us when some of your closest colleagues make us feel threatened.
If you are indeed truly proud of your Sephardi ancestry, dig into it. Learn about it, work to understand it more. Hear the stories of what we’ve faced and overcome; how it’s affected each of us in a variety of ways. Please be more aware that we’re not just some show pony for you to trot out when it works in your favor. If you’re truly proud of that ancestry, learn from it. Grow from it. Use it to help you better understand the conflict since people seem obsessed with asking you about it. But please don’t just throw it out there when you’re in a room full of people whose acceptance you want.
Arielle Calvo is a Sephardic Jew from Seattle who holds an MA in Middle Eastern Studies and resides in Tel Aviv.