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Mexico, mostly Catholic, could have its first president of Jewish origin

Mexico, mostly Catholic, could have its first president of Jewish origin

If the electoral wind continues to blow in your favor, Claudia Sheinbaum could become the first president of Jewish descent in the history of Mexico What does that mean in a predominantly Catholic country? Here is a look at the Mexican religious context in the midst of an electoral process that will produce the president’s successor. Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the elections on June 2.

Does Sheinbaum identify as Jewish?

When asked, Sheinbaum is careful with his answer: his origin is Jewish, but not his religion.

Her four grandparents were Jews who immigrated from Lithuania and Bulgaria, but she was born in Mexico City and was not raised under any religion. Her campaign team says she considers herself a woman of faith, but she is not religious.

Sheinbaum’s precision regarding his identity is not unusual. The question of what a Jew is is periodically discussed among Jews themselves and the answer varies, explains Tessy Schlosser, director of the Jewish Documentation and Research Center of Mexico.

Judaism can exist as an identity, yes, but not necessarily a religious one. People, territory, language and religion were aligned at some point in history, but after the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC there was a break, so reducing Judaism to a religion would be inaccurate, says Schlosser.

He “to be Jewish”, then, it is porous. Jewish identity can be aligned—simultaneously or fragmentarily—with the historical, the social, the spiritual, the territorial, or the ideological.

Just as the physical features and languages ​​of Jews change with geography, within a community there may be antagonistic positions on, for example, Zionism, as the movement that defends the establishment of a Jewish State is known, or genealogy.

“For some, if you are born of a Jewish mother, you are Jewish,” says Schlosser. “For others, if you are born to a father. For others, if you have a grandfather. So, even in terms of lineage or racialization there are many debates.”

How is the Jewish community of Mexico formed and what is its relationship with Sheinbaum?

The first Jews arrived in 1519 with Spanish colonization, but the current community began to grow in the early 20th century when thousands of Jews fled instability and anti-Semitism in the Ottoman Empire area.

To date there are Ashkenazi Jews, from Central and Eastern Europe, and Sephardic Jews, mainly from Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain and Syria.

According to Renee Dayan—director of Tribuna Israelita, which serves as a link to the Central Committee of the Jewish community of Mexico—the current population is about 50,000 Jews. The majority settle in the capital and the metropolitan area, with small communities in Monterrey, Guadalajara, Tijuana, Cancún, San Miguel de Allende and Los Cabos.

Dayan explains that the community maintains a relationship with any Mexican authority and does not support or endorse a particular candidate or party. However, he does open spaces for rapprochement and within the framework of these elections he has spoken with Sheinbaum and the other candidates, Xóchitl Gálvez and Jorge Álvarez Máynez.

Outside of this connection, the community does not perceive Sheinbaum as part of itself because it itself has rejected any connection.

“I think Claudia has actively tried to say ‘this is not me’”says Schlosser. “It must be respected when a person does not want to be identified in this or that way and I also believe that the political scenario of Mexico does not allow identity diversity in such representative political positions.”

Has Sheinbaum’s Jewish identity had an impact on the race?

In mid-2023, former president Vicente Fox wrote on his X account that Sheinbaum was “Jewish and foreign at the same time”.

The disqualification earned him criticism from “anti-Semitic”, “racist” and “ xenophobic “, and it was not isolated. She was responding to a reproach that another user made because Sheinbaum used a rosary in public and, according to her, that made her “fake.” In parallel, Jewish publicist Carlos Alazraki said that Sheinbaum was a “phony” for wearing a skirt with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe with the sole purpose of pleasing a Catholic electorate.

The recriminations add to other questions that have been raised against Sheinbaum and Gálvez in a country where, due to sexist prejudices, there is still controversy over whether a woman is prepared to govern the second largest economy in Latin America.

So what role does religion play in the electoral landscape?

Although Sheinbaum has repeated that he does not practice any religion, he proudly publicized a meeting he had in February with Pope Francis and has indeed carried Catholic symbols such as the rosary and the image of the Virgin at his rallies.

Secularism in Mexico began to be built in the mid-19th century and now the country has a robust legal framework that establishes the separation of the State from the church, but the Catholic presence overflows from masses and temples.

According to the latest official figures (2020), of the more than 126 million Mexicans, almost 98 million are Catholics. They are followed by 14 million Protestants or evangelical Christians and in third place are the Jews. More than 10 million say they have no religion and another three million identify as believers without religious affiliation.

“We are in a moment where politicians are seeking some validation from religious authorities,” says Pauline Capdevielle, academic at the Legal Research Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). “We saw this before the formal start of the campaigns, when the two candidates went to present themselves before the Pope.”

The relationship between the Catholic Church and López Obrador cooled since 2022, when some bishops began to reproach the alarming levels of violence. It is unclear whether the gap would close with Sheinbaum as president, but as a candidate she has agreed to meet with Catholic leaders and, although reluctant, she signed a national commitment to peace.

In Mexico, organized crime has been controlling different areas of the country for years through violent acts and corruption. He has diversified beyond drug trafficking, extorting companies for protection payments. Under the policy of “hugs, not bullets” of López Obrador, the government has avoided confrontation with the cartels, essentially allowing them to take control of at least a dozen cities.

No one could doubt that the cessation of violence is urgent and necessary, says Capdevielle. But even if the Church has had a historical tradition of acting as an interlocutor for the construction of peace in Latin America, its position in electoral times could also be taken as a sign that it is trying to recover some of the ground it lost during López Obrador’s six-year term.

Whether or not the candidates seek to capitalize on religion to seek votes is debatable, but the three are careful not to lose votes by upsetting Mexico’s conservative sector. None, for example, have shared specific proposals on abortion or rights of the LGBTI community.

“They are playing on these ambiguities”says Capdevielle. “They leave aside the most ideological part and are very careful with these issues because we have seen that in Mexico it can have a certain electoral cost.”

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Source: Gestion

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