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Will Mexico’s Claudia Sheinbaum, a Jewish Woman, Blaze a Trail or Follow One?

Mexico’s presidential campaign is well underway and if the polls are to be believed, Claudia Sheinbaum, a physicist and candidate of the left-leaning ruling Morena party, could be the country’s next president. Ms. Sheinbaum, who is of Jewish descent, holds a staggering 30 percentage point lead over Xóchitl Gálvez, a tech entrepreneur of Indigenous descent. However, the election is not until June 2, and politics, like life, is full of surprises.

That the two leading candidates are women is seismic in a country imbued with machismo, where gender violence is rampant and the fight for women’s rights has been especially sluggish under the incumbent president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, who is limited by Mexico’s Constitution to one six-year term.

When AMLO became president in 2018, he promised that the poorest Mexicans would be his priority and blasted the “neoliberal” establishment for ignoring the concerns of the “people.” That rhetoric has worked. He has maintained high approval ratings throughout his presidency. Ms. Sheinbaum, who lacks his charisma and political acumen, is seen as the continuator of his political project.

If elected, Ms. Sheinbaum will be Mexico’s first Jewish president. She rarely identifies publicly as Jewish and has neither played up nor sought to avoid her identity. As a Mexican of Jewish origin, I have seen with amazement and optimism how so many Mexicans, in a predominantly Catholic country, are backing someone of her gender and religious origin.

That she’s the front-runner says something about the degree to which the country’s effervescent democracy has redrawn the role of minority groups. Though it remains to be seen if winning the presidency, as she is poised to do, will bring about a positive and definitive change, beyond a popular political project.

Centuries ago,the Catholic Church in Mexico fanned the flames of hatred toward Jews. Ms. Sheinbaum will legislate from buildings in downtown Mexico City near the Palace of the Inquisition, where crypto-Jews — a term used to describe Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity by the Spanish crown in the 15th century but continued to practice Judaism in secrecy — were tortured during the colonial period. Also in proximity is the Plaza del Quemadero, where they were burned at the stake in autos-da-fé — public executions meant to dissuade others from participating in what the church described as a false and perverted faith.

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