Claudia Sheinbaum, a former Mexico City mayor and the governing leftist Morena party’s presidential nominee in Mexico’s upcoming June election, is Jewish. She is a proud, secular Mexican Jew who identifies more with the history of Jewish political activism than Jewish religious practice and tradition. Nonetheless, by some measures, she is the most prominent Jew in Latin America.
So what was Sheinbaum doing wearing a beaded rosary necklace anchored by a cross – a Catholic religious item often used as part of the prayer process – at a campaign event last month? According to Sheinbaum, wearing the rosary was no big deal. She says it was given to her while she was attending the event, and she put it on and wore it through
According to her critics – the most vocal of whom include former Mexican President Vicente Fox – Sheinbaum’s wearing of a rosary and cross shows her to be a “fake,” with Fox warning that “If she’s insincere in her religion and her principles, she’ll be insincere in everything else.”
As with most things political, the background of the Sheinbaum “crucifix controversy” is both complex and nuanced. Sheinbaum was born in Mexico City. And yet, her opponents have sought to portray her as a “foreigner” and an “outsider” who is seeking to grab power from an unsuspecting Mexican electorate.
The derisive campaign – which is driven by the same populist fervor sweeping across the world – is similar in tone and intent to the racist “birther” attacks on former President Barack Obama. It also has antisemitic overtones. Thus, in July, Fox referred to Sheinbaum as a “Bulgarian Jew,” claiming that “the only Mexican [in the presidential race] is Xochitl [Xochitl Galvez, his party’s nominee].” In response, Sheinbaum recently tweeted images of her Mexican birth certificate, released a campaign song called “Claudia the Mexican” and forcefully asserted her Mexican authenticity.
Fox and Sheinbaum’s other rivals are playing the race card and pandering to Mexico’s historic bias against Jews, Asians, Africans and others, separating them from the country’s historic Catholic, European and Indigenous ancestries. They fear the accuracy of polls showing Sheinbaum leading in the presidential race and hurl the “mestizo” or mixed-race accusation against her to weaken her standing. Others see the uproar over the rosary as simple antisemitism – seeking to victimize a Jewish politician for her effort to show unity with the 77% Catholic majority in the country, in which only 0.1% identify as Jewish.
While the image of Sheinbaum’s rosary and cross was striking, it is not much different from what we regularly see when non-Jewish politicians and others throughout the world wear a kippah as a sign of respect and brotherhood at Jewish communal events and ceremonies. The respectful wearing of a religious symbol does not convert the wearer or diminish that person’s own beliefs. And it certainly doesn’t make them dishonest or disingenuous.
We urge Fox and friends to focus on the substantive issues that differentiate Sheinbaum from Galvez rather than engaging in a dirty smear campaign that smacks of desperation and antisemitism.