Mexico’s first female president is also its first Jewish president

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Mexico’s first female president is also its first Jewish president

Though Claudia Sheinbaum isn’t religious and describes her Jewish heritage in cultural terms, her election is a “benchmark” for Jews in Latin America, a scholar notes.

Claudia Sheinbaum didn’t just make history when she was elected Mexico’s first female president.

She will also be the first Jewish president in a country with one of the largest Catholic populations in the world. Though she’s not religiously observant, Sheinbaum identifies as culturally Jewish and has spoken about her heritage in the past.

“I grew up without religion. That’s how my parents raised me,” Sheinbaum, 61, said in 2018 at gathering hosted by a Jewish organization in Mexico City. “But obviously the culture, that’s in your blood.”

Her maternal grandparents were Jews who immigrated to Mexico from Bulgaria before the Holocaust, while her paternal grandparents had fled from Lithuania in the 1920s. Sheinbaum’s parents were born in Mexico.

While campaigning, Sheinbaum said she considers herself a woman of faith but is not religiously affiliated; perhaps that’s why there has been relatively little discussion about her becoming Mexico’s first Jewish president.

Tessy Schlosser, a historian and director of the Mexican Jewish Documentation and Research Center in Mexico City, said that for Mexicans of Jewish heritage, approval and expectations of Sheinbaum’s government seem to align more with “her personal political preferences than with her Jewish ancestry.”

Even Jewish newspapers in Mexico mostly focused on her historic win as the first woman to lead the country, barely mentioning her Jewish background.

“Sheinbaum, whose [ancestors] immigrated to Mexico escaping poverty and antisemitism, including the Holocaust, grew up in a secular, science-driven household. She doesn’t perform her Jewish identity in public,” said author and Amherst University humanities professor Ilan Stavans, who is also Mexican and Jewish and has written extensively about the Jewish diaspora in Latin America.

Sheinbaum was a physicist and climate scientist before she went into politics; her father was a chemical engineer, and her mother was a cell biologist.

‘Part of Mexican Jewish tradition’

Still, Sheinbaum’s ascent to the presidency is significant, Stavans said.

“The election of Claudia Sheinbaum as Mexico’s first female Jewish president is a benchmark for the Jews of Latin America, whose presence in the region goes back to the arrival of Columbus and his crew at the end of the 15th century,” Stavans said.

Her election has opened a door toward a greater understanding of the history of Jews in Mexico, especially after local political figures used her heritage to launch attacks against Sheinbaum, questioning whether she was born in Mexico or was even Mexican.

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An estimated 50,000 Jewish people live in Mexico. The majority are settled in Mexico City and its surroundings, with small communities in the cities of Monterrey, Guadalajara, Tijuana, Cancún, San Miguel de Allende and Los Cabos.

The first Jews arrived in Mexico in 1519, along with the Spanish colonization. The community began to grow substantially by the early 20th century, as thousands of Jews fled from the Ottoman Empire to escape instability and antisemitism.

The Mexican Jewish community is formed by Ashkenazi Jews, from Central and Eastern Europe, and Sephardic Jews, mainly from Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain and Syria.

“Jewish identity encompasses many areas, including cultural, not just religious. Under these parameters, although Sheinbaum is not part of the organized Jewish community, her family’s history is part of Mexican Jewish tradition and history, as she herself assumes,” Schlosser said in Spanish.

Mexico remains overwhelmingly Christian, with nearly 100 million Catholics and 14 million Protestants, according to a 2020 census.

Sheinbaum’s win also comes at a critical time as the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has displaced more than 1 million Palestinians and left more than 35,000 people dead, according to officials in Gaza.

Since the beginning of the war last year, Sheinbaum has condemned attacks on civilians. She even called for a cease-fire and said she supports a two-state solution.

Her stance echoed views she wrote in a 2009 letter to the editor of La Jornada, a Mexican newspaper, condemning what Sheinbaum described as “the murder of Palestinian civilians” during an Israeli bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip.

“Her loyalties are with the oppressed and downtrodden. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, she sides with the former without rejecting the latter, favoring a two-state solution, which these days appears more untenable that in recent memory,” Stavans said.

Sheinbaum begins her six-year presidential term on Oct. 1.

“Her sheer arrival” to the presidency, Stavans said, will generate interest in Jewish Latin Americans’ rich history and culture.

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