It’s impossible to walk around New York state Sen. Martin Dilan’s north Brooklyn district without seeing his 27-year-old opponent peering out from the storefronts on Knickerbocker Avenue, or gazing confidently from the cover of the Indypendent newspaper, available from a box right next to the heavily trafficked Bogart Street exit of the Morgan stop on the L train. The candidate and her volunteers have been knocking on doors every single day since July, and her flyers are strewn across the entryways of condos, industrial lofts, and vinyl-sided row houses—she is aiming for not just the entire socio-economic spectrum of Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Bed-Stuy, but seemingly every last clutch of physical space along with it.
Julia Salazar has earned media attention that most state senate primary candidates could only dream of, including serious treatment in The New Yorker, and friendly profiles in New York magazine, The Forward, The Intercept, and Vice. Seemingly everyone in a half-mile radius of Maria Hernandez Park knows who Salazar is, while Dilan, who has served in the state Senate for the past 16 years, toils in obscurity. Of course, there’s a lot of the district, which includes significant Puerto Rican, Polish, Mexican, and Hasidic communities, that doesn’t fall within gentrifying central Bushwick. Although Dilan has a solidly liberal record and a durable base of support outside of Salazar country, he seems especially vulnerable if there really is an anti-incumbent wave building. In 2016, Dilan’s primary challenger was a local activist who admitted to abusing one of her own children in court testimony that became public two months before election day. She got 42 percent of the vote, along with 13 percent in the general.
The state Senate is one of the most reviled institutions in New York government—for years, a group of centrist Democrats has effectively caucused with upstate Republicans with the tacit support of Andrew Cuomo, New York’s polarizing Democratic governor and a master triangulator. Salazar is a leftist running on a pledge to end Albany’s rotten status quo. She’s scored endorsements from every major figure in New York’s post-Trump bumper crop of left-wing political voices, including Cynthia Nixon, Zephyr Teachout, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with the endorsement of more establishment figures, like 13-term north Brooklyn congresswoman and former Congressional Hispanic Caucus leader Nydia Velazquez.
Salazar’s campaign reflects the New York branch of the Democratic Socialists of America’s organizing strength. DSA activists served as Ocasio-Cortez’s ground force in her stunning primary upset over House Democratic Caucus chair Joe Crowley this past July. A win for Salazar, who has been active in the DSA since 2016, would prove that Ocasio-Cortez’s triumph wasn’t a one-off and establish the group as a very real threat to New York’s standing political elite. The citywide DSA has made Salazar’s election one of its top priorities: A July 23 open letter arguing against the New York City DSA’s prospective endorsement of Cynthia Nixon’s gubernatorial bid noted that the organization has “already endorsed three resource-intensive campaigns in New York City, including … our endorsement and field operation for DSA member Julia Salazar’s run for state Senate.” One of their own activists stands a better-than-decent chance of becoming one of 63 New York state senators, so it’s fair to say the NYC-DSA’s investment has paid off.
As with Ocasio-Cortez, who had worked as a bartender in Manhattan less than a year before her primary victory, the value proposition behind a state senator Julia Salazar is only tangentially related to her past accomplishments: Supporters hope she will be a radical departure from the existing political order and expand the public’s self-defeatingly narrow vision of who should represent them.
But Salazar differs from Ocasio-Cortez, Nixon, and the rest of her cohort in one interesting respect: the state Senate candidate is the only one to have emerged from a specifically Jewish corner of leftism. She “comes from a unique Jewish background,” as The Forward put it. “She was born in Colombia, and her father was Jewish, descended from the community expelled from medieval Spain. When her family immigrated to the United States, they had little contact with the American Jewish community, struggling to establish themselves financially.” From early 2016 through May of 2017 she was a Grace Paley Organizing Fellow with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). Her fellowship biography identified her as senior editor of Unruly, the “intersectional blog” of the anti-Zionist and pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace’s Jews of Color and Sephardic/Mizrahi Caucus. Her last publicly listed job before running for office was as a staff organizer for JFREJ, which is a New York-based left-wing social and activist organization—Salazar was working with the group when it decided to honor the controversial activist Linda Sarsour with one of their annual Risk-Taker Awards.
Going in reverse chronological order, Salazar has also been a contributor to Mondoweiss, an IfNotNow demonstrator, a Bridging the Gap fellow through Brooklyn College Hillel, a World Zionist Organization campus fellow, a co-founder of the Columbia University chapter of J Street, an AIPAC Policy Conference student attendee, and founder of the university’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI) chapter. For much of the five years leading up to her campaign, Salazar dedicated herself to explicitly Jewish causes, often in a professional capacity. If she wins, her identity as a politically radical working-class Jewish immigrant will have helped take her to a position of formal power and authority. Based on interviews with former acquaintances and an examination of her writings, social media postings, and publicly available documents, it is an identity that is no less convincing for having been largely self-created.
Social media postings, various articles, and the recollections of people who knew her at Columbia University show that in her early 20s Salazar was a right-wing pro-Israel Christian. In 2012 and into 2013, she was the president of Columbia Right to Life, the campus’s leading anti-abortion group. It was a position she took seriously. In October of 2012, Salazar hailed the university’s decision to end a supplemental program funded through student fees that paid for abortions, while also decrying that students were never informed that they were underwriting abortions through these fees. When a version of the fund was re-introduced, Salazar wrote an April 2013 op-ed in the Columbia Spectator wondering why there wasn’t similar help for students who decided not to terminate their pregnancies: “It is unacceptable for the University to provide support for students who have abortions while simultaneously failing to provide resources to accommodate those who keep their baby … we appear to imply that a ‘pro-life’ pregnant woman does not deserve the same rights as the woman who chooses to abort.”
In January of 2012, Salazar appeared on conservative firebrand Glenn Beck’s online show, where she was interviewed from Christians United for Israel’s annual Student Advocacy Leadership Training in San Antonio, Texas. “The anti-Israeli professors at Columbia—how many are there do you think?” asked Beck, who had proclaimed that some of the university’s faculty were “Muslim Brotherhood and communist” just moments earlier. “I think there are probably several,” Salazar replied. “They are using the classroom as their podium to spread lies about the State of Israel, to delegitimize the State of Israel, and to spread propaganda to Columbia students.” (On her campaign website, Salazar touts her “decade of experience as a local community organizer,” a period that includes her time as an activist with Columbia Right to Life and CUFI.)
By all appearances, the 21-year-old Salazar had both the politics and religious beliefs of a conservative Christian. In a series of tweets preserved by pro-Israel activist Hen Mazzig, Salazar quotes a pastor at Apostles Church in New York in a tweet that includes the hashtag #John13, referring to a chapter in the New Testament. “A thought I plan to ruminate on this week:” she tweeted in September of 2012, “Follow #Christ for his own sake, if you plan to follow Him at all,” quoting the 19th-century Anglican Bishop J.C. Ryle. One acquaintance who knew Salazar during her time as a CUFI activist said that she wasn’t shy about her religious faith, dropping the occasional “praise Jesus” into casual conversation.
In March of 2012, Salazar was one of over a dozen Columbia students to receive a stipend that allowed them to attend AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference in Washington. That August, she traveled to Israel for the first time, on a trip with CUFI—Facebook photos show Salazar and the other trip participants posing with IDF soldiers near Israel’s border with Lebanon. Just a few months later, Salazar’s view of the region, and of her own identity, had taken a dramatic turn. In February of 2013, she was one of the students who helped charter Columbia’s J Street U chapter. By September of 2013 she said she kept kosher at her apartment at 122nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, two blocks north of Columbia’s main campus.
The message board, which has remained public, shows that by this point Salazar was an energetic campus organizer and far from a hardcore anti-Zionist—“Is anyone else a little disturbed by the similarity between Palestinians referring to this as ‘Nakba’ and it’s mockery (intentional or not) of the Jewish use of the word ‘Shoah’ (both literally meaning ‘catastrophe’). I find it to be a little too close for comfort,” she wrote in April of 2013. In September of that year, she helped strategize a response to the anti-Zionist Students for Justice in Palestine national Right to Education Week event, and wrote a piece in the Columbia Spectator in February of 2014 arguing for more organized community support for the then-ongoing U.S.-mediated peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
According to people who knew Salazar at Columbia, and to messages and social media postings, a distinct shift occurred after the CUFI trip. After the official part of the mission ended in August of 2012, Salazar stayed in the region and visited the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Hebron—where, according to messages from Salazar seen by Tablet, she empathized with the plight of the territory’s Palestinian population and questioned the pro-Israel narrative in which she had once wholeheartedly believed. She appears to have broken off her affiliation with CUFI as soon as she returned to the United States, just before the 2012 fall semester began.
A friend of hers, who knew her through the J Street U chapter that Salazar helped co-found at Columbia in early 2013, says that her colleagues with the campus “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group were aware that she had inhabited a much different religious and political identity just a short time earlier. Not that this was anything unusual: “Overall the story just seems to be jumping from one extreme to the other,” a former acquaintance of Salazar’s said. “I feel like I knew a lot of people like that at Columbia.” However Salazar identified politically, what is clear is that she brought the same passion and energy to whatever cause moved her. By early 2014, Salazar appeared to be presenting herself as a left-wing anti-Israel Jew, according to former acquaintances and social media postings.
On Sept. 11, 2014, the anti-Zionist website Mondoweiss published a writer named Julia Carmel’s account of being denied entry in Israel at the Allenby Bridge in July of 2014. The border crossing links Jordan to the Israeli-controlled West Bank (her page on Mondoweiss links to the Twitter account @JuliaCarmel___, which in turn encourages people to follow @SalazarSenate18). “I stammered, frozen in shock,” she writes of the moment of being sent back to Jordan. “I stood helplessly, searching the officers’ faces as tears welled in my eyes, but they diverted theirs.”
Salazar’s anti-Zionist turn happened within the space of just a few months (She had been president of Columbia’s CUFI chapter less than two years before the Allenby Bridge incident.) In September of 2013, Salazar’s email signature indicated she was a campus fellow of the World Zionist Organization Office of Diaspora Affairs, and she was in the 2013-2014 fellowship class with Bridging the Gap. Opposition to Israel’s existence is one perfectly rational response to being denied entry to the county, but her July 2014 rejection at the border came during a time of increasing pro-Palestinian activism on her part: She notes in the Mondoweiss article that she hoped to learn Arabic in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour and work with the Alternative Information Center in Bethlehem. Replies to deleted tweets from the first half of 2014 suggest that Israel was irredeemable in Salazar’s eyes months before the country barred her from entering.
Her work around the issue continued after her ban: In September of 2015, Salazar, writing as Carmel, co-wrote an article about right-wing targeting of Israel’s critics with Max Blumenthal, an anti-Zionist writer who has become controversial in leftist circles for spreading conspiracy theories about Syria’s White Helmets medical relief organization and generally parroting Assadist talking points in his writings on the country’s civil war. Unruly, the Jewish Voice for Peace-affiliated blog she co-edited as late as May of 2017, frequently published articles arguing against Zionism, and the site had a Palestine editor but no Israel editor. In an August 2016 article for Mondoweiss, she argued in favor of Black Lives Matter activists accusing Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians.
If Salazar experienced a political change of heart these past few years, she is hardly the only one. However quickly she changed her mind about Israel, the trajectory of her views is a coherent one, and it runs in only one direction. But there are details in her biography that are harder to reconcile—including, though not limited to, her religious shift.
According to messages from Salazar obtained by Tablet, during her period of pro-Israel activism she told students at Columbia that her mother’s family was from Israel. At one point in the fall of 2012, just a year before keeping a kosher apartment, she described herself as a fervently Christian descendant of Israelis. Multiple acquaintances have told Tablet that in the fall of 2012, Salazar had also informed friends she had undergone a Conservative movement conversion in the space of just two months. In the spring of 2013, Salazar told a co-participant in one of her Jewish fellowship programs (in a preserved online message that Tablet has also obtained) that her grandfather moved from Mandatory Palestine to Colombia 10 years before Israel’s founding and that her father was the only one of his children to move to the United States.
Lilith reports that Salazar’s father was “a Sephardic Jew from Colombia;” The Forward states that Salazar’s “father was Jewish, descended from the community expelled from medieval Spain.” Salazar alluded to a Jewish upbringing in a September 2014 comment on Mondoweiss: “Like most American Jews, I was raised with the delusion that Israel was a safe haven for me, perhaps even the only safe place for Jews.” Whatever the source or nature of her Jewish identity, Salazar was presenting herself as a vocal left-winger of Jewish persuasion by early 2014. Her Jewish identity was used as an argument-ender on Twitter: “Is it anti-Semitic for a non-Jewish student to publicly impose opinion of whose voice is permitted in our Jewish communities?” Salazar sniped in the midst of a lengthy February 2014 Twitter exchange with the non-Jewish pro-Israel writer and activist Chloe Valdary (a Tablet contributor). “Please leave my Jewish community alone,” Salazar continued. “You don’t speak for us.”
All of the tweets posted under the handles @Julia_C_Salazar and @JuliaSalazarCU have been deleted. The replies to the account (or accounts) still survive, and almost all of them have something to do with Jewish issues or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Despite repeated requests by phone and email for clarifications, Salazar’s campaign would not make the candidate available to be interviewed for this story, either in person or over the phone. On two occasions this week, Tablet offered to delay publication of this article if it meant Salazar could speak with us. The campaign declined both times. (Tablet sent over a short list of questions about Salazar’s history with Jewish and Israel-related issues at 1 p.m. today, including one about where Salazar, who has claimed to be an immigrant from Colombia, was born. An hour later, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published a story about Salazar in which she acknowledged she was in fact born in Miami.)
Based on her activism with CUFI and other available evidence, she appears to have had a Christian upbringing. A 2009 funeral notice for her father, a former commercial airline pilot named Luis Hernan Salazar, indicates that the service was held at the Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Ormond Beach, Florida. When reached by phone, Alex Salazar, the candidate’s older brother and the operator of a number of Florida mango farms, said that one of their father’s brothers was a Jesuit priest. (He also seemed to know very little about her campaign and seemed surprised when I told him she stood a good chance of winning.) “There was nobody in our immediate family who was Jewish … my father was not Jewish, we were not raised Jewish,” he said. Their mother, Christine Salazar, indicated in a public September 2012 Facebook post that she planned on attending services at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, a nondenominational evangelical church in downtown Brooklyn. Although the candidate goes by Julia Carmel Salazar—and sometimes just Julia Carmel—in her professional life, her given middle name is Julia Christine Salazar, a discrepancy that makes it trickier to track down public records of the would-be state senator. A Julia Christine Salazar who shares Julia Salazar’s birthday and who had a mailing address in Columbia University’s Lerner Hall showed up in Florida voter registration records in May of 2017 as a Republican. This past July, the New York Daily News reported that Salazar had only registered as a Democrat “a year ago.”
Salazar touts her immigrant background, and has claimed that she moved to Florida at an early age. “My family immigrated to the US from Colombia when I was a baby,” she told Jacobin, a leading socialist journal. Salazar is “a working-class Colombian immigrant,” according to a lengthy profile in The Intercept written by a fellow DSA activist: “Salazar’s family emigrated from Colombia to South Florida when she was a baby. Her mother, already a U.S. citizen, wanted to raise Julia and her brother in the States.” New York magazine reports that Salazar is “a naturalized US-citizen.” On July 2, a Twitter user reported that she was “Listening to Julia Salazar talk about her life as a Colombian immigrant and a Jew of color.”
Salazar’s mother grew up in New Jersey and attended West Morris Central High School in Chester Township, according to her Facebook page—in that same New York magazine article, she’s identified as “Italian-American.” (Alex Salazar told Tablet that his mother’s mother immigrated to the United States from Italy.) Records on file with the Dade County registrar show that a Luis Hernan Salazar successfully sued a local car dealership in 1977 and applied for a $100,00 mortgage in 1979, events that took place over a decade before Julia Salazar was born. Her father petitioned for naturalization in 1982 according to a publicly available documents that Tablet has obtained—Luis and Christine Salazar applied for a $90,000 mortgage in 1987, and Salazar lists a Miami address in a July 1989 affidavit (the couple also secured a $260,000 mortgage for a Jupiter, Florida, property in July of 1993, worth about $460,000 in 2018 dollars. In December of 1993, they sold the house for $318,000, or about $550,000 today.) Even if Julia Salazar was born outside the United States, as of 1986, a child born in wedlock in a foreign country who had one parent who was an American citizen who had lived in the United States for a total of five years at any time prior to the child’s birth is automatically granted citizenship. A short online biography of Salazar’s brother, who is two years older than her, states that he was “born and raised in Florida,” with no mention of living in any other country. “We were born in Miami, both of us,” Alex Salazar told Tablet.
Perhaps Salazar’s more interesting transformation is from someone deeply invested in Israel to someone who barely discusses the topic. Her campaign’s official Twitter feed hasn’t mentioned Israel or Palestine once, and the tweets from her Israel-heavy handles @Julia_C_Salazar and @JuliaSalazarCU are no longer online. In fairness, plenty of Tweets from @JuliaCarmel___ deal with the subject, although there are no tweets available on the account between Feb. 28, 2012, and Nov. 20, 2017, even though numerous replies to deleted tweets appear during this period. Earlier this month, when a string of high-profile figures were singled out for questioning at Israeli crossings, drawing unprecedented attention to the country’s border security practices, Salazar, who had written a first-person account of being banned from entering Israel just four years earlier, stayed silent. Her most extensive comments on the Israel during the campaign were texted to a JTA reporter, as part of an article published earlier this afternoon, several days after Tablet first contacted the Salazar campaign for this article.
Salazar might be following the example of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who wisely noted that “Middle Eastern politics is not exactly at my kitchen table every night.” Salazar’s campaign isn’t about Israel but about the things that really are kitchen-table issues in the district she hopes to represent: Tenants’ rights, health-care access, criminal-justice reform, and political change in Albany. Focusing on these set of concerns has worked so far—it might be that she senses nothing to gain from re-opening her whiplash-inducing history in Israeli-Palestinian affairs. She might even be a rare and eminently admirable type: Someone who has decided they’ve said everything they ever need to about the Jewish state and its neighbors. She hinted as much to The Forward. Salazar told the newspaper that “after graduation” she “didn’t feel like I could effect change [in Israel-Palestine], and I would still say I feel that way, and that’s why I’m just focused locally. And I don’t follow it closely like I once did.”
This is a striking statement for a leftist politician in New York. Cuomo’s anti-BDS executive order has become a contentious topic in New York politics, and Salazar co-authored a story about the targeting of boycott activists in 2015. Contrary to the timeline in The Forward, a lot of major Israel-related experience, including Salazar’s rejection at Allenby, her arrest at a 2014 IfNotNow protest, and her editorship for a JVP-linked blog, occurred when she was no longer a Columbia undergraduate.
But Salazar tends to move on from her past quickly. In her Mondoweiss articles and in the communications preserved on the Columbia J Street U message board, she makes no mention of her work with CUFI or her past belief in right-wing Zionism—even though her ideological conversion could easily have been used to bolster her case against Israel. When discussing her Jewish identity, she makes no reference to her past Christian beliefs and doesn’t allude to any process of rediscovering her Judaism, which is presented as something that has always existed for her. When discussing her career in activism, Israel-Palestine is now mentioned in passing, if it’s brought up at all (it gets no treatment in this interview in Jacobin, or in the Intercept piece). And when discussing her Israel-Palestine activism, important events in her own personal history—her travel, her shifts in perspective, and her border rejection—aren’t raised either.
Salazar has not been alone in her journey from right to left on Israel. She isn’t alone in defining a nontraditional Jewish identity, or in that identity becoming an impetus for activism. The Jewish left coalescing in New York has staked out a Jewishness that is proudly at odds with many of the longstanding markers of communal belonging—Julia Salazar is right at home in a milieu where religion, nation, denomination, and ethnic peoplehood don’t matter as much, or are looked upon as slightly backwards. Her supporters should be grateful that their formidable candidate arrived at what they believe to be the correct politics, whatever route she took to get to them and whatever she’s said about herself along the way.
Salazar’s election would be a breakthrough for the city’s Jewish left: proof that their institutions can become a pathway to formal political power, that anti-Zionist Jews can win high-profile elections, and that big things are possible when communities grow ravenous for some kind of change. Her career in politics might also convey a little of the dislocation of the current moment, for Jews and for American political life in general. Identity is both obsessed over and self-fashioned; meanwhile, newcomers can knock off incumbents on the strength of ideologies and political forces that wouldn’t have seemed viable or even operative just a couple years ago. Anyone can beat anyone—and maybe anyone can get elected as anything they decide themselves to be.
Additional reporting by Debbie Hall and John-Paul Pagano
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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.