A Jewish Chanukah crowd Sunday night got a small dose of surprise when Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democratic socialist with a knack for dramatic flourish, told those gathered that her ancestors were Jews who left Spain after the expulsion in 1492.
“One of the things that we discovered about ourselves is that a very, very long time ago, generations and generations ago, my family consisted of Sephardic Jews,” Ocasio-Cortez said. These are Jews who settled in the Middle East, North Africa and southern Europe after 1492.
The announcement drew murmurs at the Jackson Heights Jewish Center. Someone in the audience made a remark to which she replied, “He’s like, ‘I told you! I knew it! I sensed it!’”
Ocasio-Cortez, who has identified as Catholic, did not claim to be a practicing Jew. Her understanding of her ancestry came from “doing a lot of family trees in the last couple of years,” she said.
Ocasio-Cortez explained that she was descended from Jews who fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, when “many people were forced to convert on the exterior to Catholicism but on the interior continued to practice their faith.”
“And a strong group of people, strong-willed, that were determined to continue living life as they wanted to live it decided to get on a boat and leave Spain,” she continued. “Some of those people landed in Puerto Rico,” where her mother was born. The 29-year-old’s father is also of Puerto Rican descent, though he was born in the Bronx.
Ocasio-Cortez’s announcement raises questions about her position on Israel and other topics dear to some American Jews, including those in her district, which includes sections of the Bronx and Queens.
The liberal firebrand is part of an incoming class of Democratic lawmakers who appear willing to split with the party’s top brass in criticizing Israel. In May, before she bested long-serving incumbent Rep. Joseph Crowley, Ocasio-Cortez condemned the killing of Palestinians on the Gaza border as a “massacre.” In July, she drew scorn when she criticized the “occupation of Palestine” before demurring that she was “not the expert” on the issue.