One rule of identity politics is that you get to choose your identity: ‘I identify as trans Latinx’. Another rule is that your identity is fated: ‘I was born trans Latinx’. The assumption of choice applies the logic of the market in a society of cheap credit and easy bankruptcy. The invoking of biological destiny is the crude mechanics of Victorian race theory.
This is a pastiche of the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate. The purpose, though, isn’t the ‘identity’ part, solving the mystery of how we are made and become ourselves, but the ‘politics’ part. As in evolution, choice and heredity are complementary strategies, deployed for competitive advantage.
There aren’t many districts where identifying as a Jewish Latina immigrant member of the Democratic Socialists of America would give you a competitive advantage in a Senate primary. But there are niches of the political ecology where this might work. North Brooklyn, for instance. The Democratic incumbent, Martin Dilan, has represented New York’s 18th District for 16 years without exactly covering himself in glory, and gentrification is growing the hipster vote. In a microcosm of the Democratic Party’s identity crisis, Dilan is being challenged by 27-year-old Julia Salazar, who is ‘actively working to dismantle capitalism’.
After Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in the 14th District’s congressional primary over Joe Crowley, Salazar has a following wind. She is young, female, articulate and photogenic in a party whose leadership seem to think Joe Biden is a viable presidential candidate. She is, as Biden said of Obama, a ‘clean’ candidate: She is a community organiser with no political experience, which is always an asset these days for candidates of either party. She is running against Dilan, much of whose political experience has involved making deals with the corrupt Republicans in Albany.
So Salazar has received enthusiastic coverage from New York magazine, more than polite interest from the New Yorker, barefaced flattery from sub-intelligent outlets like VICE, and a mutual endorsement from Cynthia Nixon. Unfortunately, she has also had her back story examined by Armin Rosen, the skilled investigative journalist who published his findings at the Jewish site Tablet.
Salazar’s identity was crucial to her pitch. ‘She was born in Colombia,’ the Forward regurgitated her story, ‘and her father was Jewish, descended from the community expelled from medieval Spain. After immigrating to the United States, they had little contact with the American Jewish community, struggling to establish themselves financially.’
The implication being that Salazar’s support for the economic underdog is both experiential and hereditary. Her immigrant family were ‘struggling’ because they hadn’t collected the sack of gold that all Jewish immigrants to the United States receive upon landing from community representatives, and that experience chimed with her genetic memory of her ancestors’ expulsion from Spain in 1492.
The problem being that Salazar was born in Florida. Her mother, whose Facebook page identifies her as ‘Italian-American’, was born in New Jersey. Her Colombian father Luis was a cargo pilot. His work, Vox reports, included ‘sometimes flying planes full of flowers between Medellin and Bogota’ — you know, those two cities famous as transit points for the importation of flowers to the United States. Salazar’s parents broke up when she was young. Her father returned to Colombia. The family, she said, lived in Colombia for extended periods and visited him regularly. She still thinks of Colombia as home.
After Tablet published Rosen’s investigation, Salazar admitted to Jewish Currents that she was born in Miami, then added that ‘we didn’t all have Permanent Residence in the US’. But her father Luis, Rosen had already shown, became a naturalised US citizen in 1982, eight years before her birth in 1990. Salazar’s mother Christine denies ever having lived in Colombia, and does not endorse her daughter’s memory of regular visits to Colombia. Salazar’s Jewish backstory turned out to be more complicated too.
‘There was nobody in our immediate family who was Jewish,’ said Salazar’s older brother Alex when Rosen tracked him down to his mango farm in Florida, ‘my father was not Jewish, we were not raised Jewish’. That’s not to say that Salazar has no Jewish background. Luis Salazar’s family may well have descended from conversos, Sephardic Jews who retained some connection or awareness of their origins after forced conversion. There are thousands of such families in the Americas, and recent years have seen a wave of ‘returns’ to formal Judaism. The Israeli government, more concerned with demography than lost souls, supports outreach work. All this might even explain Salazar’s self-identification as a Christian Zionist while she was a student at Columbia University.
In 2012 and 2013, Salazar was president of the campus anti-abortion group Columbia Right To Life. In 2012, she appeared on Glenn Beck’s online show while attending Christians United For Israel’s training camp for ‘Advocacy Leadership’ in San Antonio, Texas. In 2012, she received a CUFI stipend to attend the AIPAC conference, and then visited Israel with a CUFI group. After the official tour, she stayed on and visited Bethlehem and Hebron. Her sympathies and identity shifted sharply after that.
Back at Columbia, Salazar helped found a J Street U chapter, and began presenting herself as a left-wing anti-Zionist Jew. As Rosen’s excellent investigative work shows, she also propagandised online as ‘Julia Carmel’, writing in favor of BDS and the Assad regime in Syria. In 2014, a year in which she was denied entry to the Jewish state for denying its right to exist, Salazar was both a campus fellow of the World Zionist Organization’s Office of Diaspora Affairs.
Perhaps it was inevitable that while Salazar was impersonating herself, she was impersonating someone else. It isn’t illegal to misrepresent your religious status, and as many as one in ten Americans, even ones born in Miami, have elected to change that status. But it is illegal to impersonate someone else in order to fraudulently gain access to their bank account. In 2011, just before her conversions from Christianity to Judaism and Zionism to anti-Zionism, Salazar was arrested after voice recordings caught her impersonating Kai Hernandez, a family friend and the wife of baseball player Keith Hernandez. The police in Tequesta, Florida found ‘probable cause’ for charging Salazar with Criminal Use of Personal Information, but the state DA’s office decided that voice recordings alone were likely to be insufficient to obtain a conviction.
Salazar’s religious affiliation is her own business, except when she is trading on it to establish political authenticity. This is what she did as an anti-Zionist ‘Jewish’ activist, and it’s what she did in North Brooklyn until Rosen investigated her Senate campaign. Her supporters, however, should be more concerned about her political affiliations. Rosen reports that, as late as May 2017, a ‘Julia Christine Salazar’ who shared Julia Salazar’s birthday and mailing address at Columbia University’s Lerner Hall was registered in Florida as a Republican.
Salazar claims that she is the victim of ‘demonstrably fraudulent accusations’ by the shadowy ‘special interests’ who support Martin Dilan. The rules of identity politics allow her to say that, because she is a Jewish immigrant socialist woman of colour. Isn’t she?
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.