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Everything you need to know about the Jewish woman leading Mexico’s presidential race

JTA — The way things stand now, Mexico is headed to elect its first woman president next year. The two leading candidates in the polls for the 2024 election are Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico City’s former mayor, and Xóchitl Gálvez, a senator representing the center-right opposition bloc.

The polls point to another first: Sheinbaum, currently the frontrunner, could become the country’s first Jewish president, too.

Earlier this month, Sheinbaum, 61, was announced as the candidate for the left-wing Morena party, which has been led by the country’s outgoing president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Since then, her momentum has only grown — a poll taken by the El Pais newspaper has 47% of voters supporting her, while Gálvez, her closest competitor, notched 30%.

If elected, Sheinbaum would join the ranks of the few Jews outside Israel who have been elected to their country’s highest office, including Janet Jagan of Guyana, Ricardo Maduro of Honduras, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski of Peru and Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Sheinbaum would also likely be the first Jewish person in history to lead a country of more than 50 million people.

Here is a primer on Sheinbaum and how her Jewishness has become part of the campaign.

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She is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and political liberal who has beaten back crime.

Born to two science professors in Mexico City, Sheinbaum herself studied physics and became an engineering professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Her research focused on, among other things, energy usage in Mexico’s buildings and transportation system. Along with a group of other experts, she contributed to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which would go on to win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

As Mexico City’s head of government, Obrador appointed Sheinbaum as his environmental secretary in 2000. She became a close ally and joined his new left-wing Morena party (named after the country’s Catholic patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe) in the early 2010s. In 2015, she was elected mayor of Tlalpan, Mexico City’s largest borough, before becoming mayor of the entire city in 2018. She stepped down as mayor this summer to enter the presidential race.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador hands a command staff to the ruling party official candidate for the upcoming presidential elections Claudia Sheinbaum, during a ceremony in downtown Mexico City, September 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Like the term-limited Obrador — whose — Sheinbaum’s platform includes fighting Mexico’s deeply rooted corruption, continuing cash transfers to Mexico’s most vulnerable populations and developing Mexico’s energy sovereignty. But Sheinbaum will likely be more pro-environment than Obrador — while the current president has bolstered Mexico’s oil industry, Sheinbaum has said most of the country’s future “has to be related to renewable energy.”

As mayor of Mexico City, Sheinbaum led the city through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Obrador appeared to minimize the threat of the virus, Sheinbaum advocated for masks and increased testing early on. And in a country plagued by violence, she has reduced her city’s murder rate by nearly half.

But some controversy also brewed during her time as mayor. Despite ​​expanding public transport, there were at least a dozen accidents, some deadly, in the city’s subway system. Critics say she hasn’t done enough to fix the city’s crumbling infrastructure.

Then-Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum gives a thumbs up as she boards a cable car to take a trial run between the Campos Revolucion and Tlalpexco stations, during the inauguration of a new aerial public transit system dubbed the Cablebus, in the Cuautepec neighborhood of northern Mexico City, March 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Sheinbaum also faced controversy involving infrastructure disaster as head of Tlalpan. In 2017, during an earthquake that killed more than 300 people in total, an elementary school collapsed in Sheinbaum’s district, killing 19 children and six adults. An apartment had been built on top of the school, destabilizing it, and some criticized her for allowing district officials to approve the construction permits. She apologized for what happened, but some parents of the deceased children still hold her accountable.

Her Jewish identity is more political than religious.

Sheinbaum had Ashkenazi grandparents who immigrated from Lithuania in the 1920s and Sephardic grandparents who left Sofia, Bulgaria, in the 1940s to escape the Holocaust. She has said that she celebrated holidays at her grandparents’ houses, but at home, her family life was secular.

Sources told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2018 that Sheinbaum feels connected to the history of Jews in political activism, but not as much so to the religion or its traditions. Like many secular, leftist Jews in Mexico, her parents moved to the south of the city to be closer to the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a hotbed of political activism. She told a group of Jewish women voters during her mayoral campaign in 2018 that she was a proud Jewish woman.

She also hasn’t made any public pronouncement about Israel or spoken as a member of a minority, even though Jews make up less than 1% of the capital city’s population. It is not known if she belongs to any synagogue or other Jewish institution.

Former Head of Government of Mexico City and presidential candidate for the Morena party, Claudia Sheinbaum, takes a selfie with a supporter during a rally in Guadalajara, Jalisco state, Mexico on July 9, 2023. (ULISES RUIZ / AFP)

“In Mexico, most of the [Jewish community] is affiliated to one of the five or six major communities,” said Daniel Fainstein, the dean of Jewish Studies at the Hebraica University in Mexico City. The country is known for being home to multiple tight-knit Orthodox communities, many of whom don’t mingle much. “I don’t think she’s affiliated to any of those communities. … She’s not seen as, let’s say, one of us. … I think that she’s seen as someone from Jewish origins that is developing her work as an academician and then as a politician.”

Sheinbaum’s Jewishness is shaping up as a simmering issue in the race.

Even though Mexicans are generally devout Catholics, according to Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra, a Mexican sociologist at the University of California San Diego, the country has a strong history of separating religion from politics.

“Mexican politics has actually been quite secular,” he told JTA. “So the religion of the president and the religious practices of the president are never discussed.”

In a break from that unspoken tradition, former President Vicente Fox called Sheinbaum a “Bulgarian Jew” in an apparent attempt to minimize her candidacy. “The only Mexican is Xóchitl,” Fox added, referring to Sheinbaum’s opponent.

A person wearing a papier-mâché-like giant mask depicting former Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, waves at a closing campaign rally for her presidential candidate bid to represent the ruling MORENA party, in Mexico City, August 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Ginnette Riquelme)

Fox later apologized, and Gálvez condemned Fox’s comments. But since announcing her candidacy, in only a few months of official campaigning, Sheinbaum has already released her birth certificate on Twitter — twice — and published campaign ads emphasizing her Mexican identity in the face of attacks about her origins.

Pardo-Guerra said he didn’t think Sheinbaum’s Jewish identity would play a major role when the votes are counted next year. But he said it can be difficult to distinguish “stupidity from antisemitism” in Mexican political discourse.

“What has been said about Claudia Sheinbaum on some occasions is very close to antisemitism,” he said. “Most of it is ignorance, but I wouldn’t say there isn’t some other position out there.”

Tabea Alexa Linhard, a comparative literature professor at Washington University in St. Louis who teaches courses on Mexican and Jewish Diaspora cultures, also said Fox’s tweet had “a little bit of both” antisemitism and ignorance.

“Different forms of antisemitism endure in Mexico, as they do elsewhere,” she wrote in an email. “It is hard not to see echoes of the conspiracy theories involving Barack Obama’s place of birth. It is a political ruse, but in the U.S., this certainly had important consequences, and this kind of dog whistle may also be consequential in Mexico.”

Most Mexican Jews probably won’t vote for her.

The average Mexican may not care about Sheinbaum’s religion, but the average Mexican Jew is probably not voting for her. Like most other Latin American Jewish communities, the majority of Mexico’s Jews lean conservative politically. Sheinbaum’s platform is not radically left-wing when compared to other leftist leaders in Latin America, but Gálvez, who founded two tech firms, may be more appealing to conservative-leaning Jews, many of whom are business owners.

“I think that most [Mexican Jews] will vote for Xochitl Galvez,” said Fainstein. “[Their decision] is not related to the Jewish or non-Jewish origins of the candidates.”

Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum rides on the back of a motorcycle during a national earthquake drill, in Mexico City, Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

He added that most “upper middle class” people vote against Morena, not just Jews. However, he did mention that “there are other groups of Jews who are active in Morena and support Morena also.”

Linhard also said the Jewish vote will not be dependent on the ethnic background of the candidate.

“Mexico’s Jewish community is very diverse,” he said. “Some will identify with Sheinbaum, others will not. But the vote of Jewish Mexicans will likely depend … on her and her opponent’s platform.”