What the Ocasio-Cortez ‘coming out’ can teach us

I am troubled by these views, many of which are obviously based on a lack of knowledge on a subject, something she openly admitted to not comprehending very well.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez marches during the Bronx's pride parade in the Bronx borough of New York City, New York, U.S., June 17, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez marches during the Bronx's pride parade in the Bronx borough of New York City, New York, U.S., June 17, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The recent “coming out” of freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been an eye-opening event. Ocasio-Cortez has courted much controversy by her understanding of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which has led to unconscionable statements and not a few gaffes.
As a passionate Zionist and strong believer in the rights of the Jewish people to self-determination in our indigenous and ancestral homeland, I am troubled by these views, many of which are obviously based on a lack of knowledge on a subject, something she openly admitted to not comprehending very well.
However, the attacks and vitriol aimed at Ocasio-Cortez since she stated at a Hanukka event in Queens that she has Sephardi ancestry, have suggested something far more about sections of our people than it does about her.
As someone who has been involved in reconnecting descendants of forcibly converted Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities for many years, Ocasio-Cortez’s story, as she described it in relative detail, rings true. Obviously, I cannot speak to its full veracity or why she decided to voice her family ancestry now. She claims that seeing her uncle in the audience spurred her to relate this history, and I have no reason to doubt her sincerity. She was in a roomful of genuine supporters and like-minded people who already welcomed her with open arms.
However, the responses that I have seen, ranging from “Demand she take a DNA test,” to “She’s obviously a liar,” to “She can’t be Jewish because she is a traitor,” smack of something far more sinister than anything Ocasio-Cortez has said or done.
In my work I have met people who one held far more problematic views about Israel and the Jewish people before discovering their Jewish ancestry. Through a journey of familial study and learning about the Jewish people and its history, many have done a complete about-turn and are now among the fiercest Zionists I know.
This shows that through dialogue and understanding we can use our shared ancestry, and frequently our traditions, as a basis to appreciate the role the State of Israel plays in our people’s long history.
Unfortunately, there is great ignorance among many Jews to the story of Ocasio-Cortez’s ancestors, and to the tens of millions like her who discover or “come out” about their Jewish history.
These people are the descendants of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were converted under duress or by physical force in Spain and Portugal beginning in the 14th century. Once forcibly converted, the anusim (the Hebrew word for “forced ones”) were not given a choice to leave Spain in 1492, or Portugal in 1497. They were put under the ever-watchful eye of a Gestapo-like regime for centuries.
MANY OF them desperately fled to the Americas to put distance between themselves and the Inquisition, which sadly but inevitably followed them, driving them underground for generations.
These people were thoroughly disconnected from main Jewish population centers, and had to develop their traditions and ideology separately from formative Judaism.
That they do not think, look or sound like us should be understandable. Nevertheless, they are part of us in ways that would shock many Jews.
Before we were given names like Goldstein and Klein, we had names like Perez (from the Biblical Peretz), Pereira, Rodrigues and Cortez. We spoke Spanish long before we spoke Yiddish. And regardless of how we self-identify today, our ancestors would have far more likely come from the Iberian Peninsula than from modern-day Russia or Poland.
At the beginning of the last millennium, over three-quarters of world Jewry lived in what is now Spain and Portugal. Most Jews have Hispanic ancestry, while many Hispanics have Jewish ancestry. The ancestries of the Hispanic and Jewish people are probably more intertwined than any other two seemingly unconnected minorities in the Americas.
So the difference between many of us and Ocasio-Cortez is luck and timing. If one of our ancestors would have made a different choice or been in the wrong place at the wrong time, we could be like her, and she like us.
In the great debates about what separates Israelis from Diaspora Jews, it is largely ignored that while the overwhelming majority of Jews in Israel are of Middle Eastern and North African descent, the overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jews are of Ashkenazi descent, despite their communities being largely created by anusim like Ocasio-Cortez’s ancestors who fled the Inquisition.
This means we don’t always look the same, and we certainly don’t think and act the same, thanks to our different experiences, culture and traditions during our long dispersion.
Until this is clearly understood and appreciated, more of this dialogue and these conferences will yield the same results.
Ocasio-Cortez is a result of her heritage and ancestry. And while I am sure she is a product of an interesting array of ancestries and cultures, her Jewish heritage was maintained in fear and secrecy. It is possible that her ancestors risked their lives just to keep this secret that was passed down to her.
Greater understanding of her family history – and by extension our own – would help not just Ocasio-Cortez, but millions of descendants who seek reconnection with the Jewish people, to feel a warmer embrace and an outstretched hand.
In turn, greater understanding by those like Ocasio-Cortez about our people’s history, as seen through the prism of her family’s struggles and oppression, would ensure a more receptive ear to the greatest and most ahistorical national liberation movement of modern times, our people’s return home to Zion.
The writer is a former senior Israeli government adviser and the president of Reconectar, which helps reconnect descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to the Jewish people and Israel.