Who cares George Santos lied about being Jewish?

Santos' lies are an opportunity to define what Jewish identity really means.
Rep. George Santos (R-NY) walks to a closed-door GOP caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol January 10, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

We’re curious…

Who cares if George Santos claims he’s Jewish…or Jew-ish? That’s what the New York Congressman told Fox News when asked to explain his lies about his religious background: 

“Even not being raised a practicing Jew, I’ve always joked with friends and circles, even in the campaign I’d say, I’m Jew-ish, remember I was raised Catholic.”

While there are plenty of jokes going around, we’ve been thinking about a different question. Does it matter if George Santos claims he’s Jewish or Jew-ish, or whatever he identifies as? 

Aside from the fact that it’s a lie and lying is wrong, who cares if someone pretends to be Jewish? We want to tell you why we think it matters — why Jewish identity really matters and is not something to trivialize.

George Santos’ lies about his religious background

Let’s start with what Santos actually said and what he lied about. In a campaign position paper, Santos boasted about being “a proud American Jew,” writing:

“As a proud American Jew, I have been to Israel numerous times from educational, business, and leisurely trips.”

In an interview in May 2022 and in his campaign bio, Santos falsely claimed that his “grandparents survived the Holocaust” and “fled persecution during WWII.”

Here’s how he told his family story this past November in an interview with the Jewish News Syndicate:

“I’m very proud of my grandparents’ story… My grandfather fleeing Ukraine, fleeing Stalin’s persecution, going to Belgium, finding refuge there, marrying my grandmother, then fleeing Hitler, going to…to Brazil. That’s a story of perseverance.”

There is no proof of any of these claims. One genealogist told CNN: “There’s no sign of Jewish and/or Ukrainian heritage.”

After Santos’ lies about his Jewish background were exposed, the Jewish News Syndicate wrote this in the comments of their video interview with him:

“As it turns out, Rep. Santos lied about his Jewish background, his connection to the Holocaust, and a bunch of other stuff on his resume.… Our interview took place a month before this was found out…. This interview is embarrassing, ironic, and infuriating all at the same time. :)”

Diversity of perspectives

Once the truth about Santos was revealed, the Jewish world began debating whether his lying about being Jewish was important or not.

On one side of the issue, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted: “George Santos owes everyone, including the Jewish community, an explanation and an apology…Using the Holocaust as a political prop is shameful, and such acts encourage Holocaust denial and distortion.”

Andrew Silverstein, a freelance writer at The Forward, agreed. “Santos faking being Jewish is secondary to the larger lie that his grandparents were Holocaust survivors,” he wrote. “It fits into a pattern of the congressman appropriating the suffering and tragedy of others.”

Others pushed back on this and said that Santos lying about his alleged Jewish ancestry wasn’t such a big deal.

Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania, argued in The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Santos’ fibs about his religious background aren’t nearly as serious as his other lies. As a Jew, I think they’re more like a joke.”

Zimmerman concluded: “Jews don’t agree about anything, including what makes us Jewish in the first place. So let’s stop worrying about whether George Santos is.”

Josh Katzen, the president of a Massachusetts real estate firm, had a similar view, telling the New York Times: “I’m supposed to care if, in an age of rabid antisemitism, a politician wants to join my tribe? Not at the forefront of my concerns.”

Our Take: It matters

So, does it matter that Santos lied about being Jewish or not? Here’s our take at Unpacked: It matters that he lied because it minimizes what it means to be Jewish.

Being Jewish isn’t an avocation. It isn’t something you just wake up one day and say: “Today I feel like being Jewish — that sounds really cool. I think I’ll tell everyone that I’m Jewish for the next couple of days.” 

Jewish identity is deeper than that. Simply saying you’re Jewish doesn’t make you Jewish.

So, what does it mean for someone to be Jewish? There is a definitional answer to this question. In a traditional sense, it means having a Jewish mom or converting through some legal process. For the purpose of becoming a citizen of Israel, it means having one Jewish grandparent.

That’s definitional, but what does it mean to be Jewish? We want to thank George Santos for inviting us to answer this question, and here are our thoughts:

First, being Jewish is about so much more than fighting antisemitism. To paraphrase David Suissa, editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal, we should define ourselves not just by what we are against, but by who we are and what we are for.

We asked ChatGPT to elaborate on what David Suissa said, and here’s what it told us:

That’s a great answer, ChatGPT! And why is being Jewish about creating a more just and equitable society? It all goes back to Abraham, the first Jew.

In Bereshit/Genesis 18:19, God says that he chose Abraham to be the founder of the Jewish people so that he will bring righteousness and justice into the world, and teach his children and all future generations to do the same. That is ultimately what being Jewish is all about.

Of course, it’s also about a whole host of things, including Torah, observing rituals, holidays, Israel, Jewish culture, community, food, and Hebrew.

It’s also about being part of a religious family. Jews are not just a culture, community, religion, or people, but an extended family. Two Jews might strongly disagree about a given issue, but that’s okay — they are still part of the same religious family.

Those are some ways a person might define their Jewish identity. How do you define yours?

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