Claudia Sheinbaum’s Radical Jewish Heritage

The Right attacked Mexican president-elect Claudia Sheinbaum for being a “Jewish foreigner” and communist during her campaign. Her grandfather and his brother, emigrants from Lithuania, were both of these things.

Mexican president-elect Claudia Sheinbaum waves to supporters at Arena Mexico on June 8, 2024 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Hector Vivas / Getty Images)

On Monday night, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo made history as Mexico’s first female president-elect, winning nearly 60 percent of the vote. The writing was on the wall from the beginning. The Mexican right, though, seemed to start out its campaign confident in victory. As the polls stubbornly continued to show Sheinbaum’s tremendous lead over Xóchitl Gálvez, the opposition coalition became obviously desperate.

Increasingly, the campaign by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), National Action Party (PAN), and Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) went negative, opting for personal attacks. Sheinbaum’s Jewish heritage was an obvious target, but the tack the Right took is striking: it tried using this fact to show that she was not actually Mexican. This idea actually predates the electoral campaign, with social media rumors that have spread since at least 2021 alleging that Sheinbaum, then mayor of Mexico City, was born in Europe and was therefore ineligible for the presidency. But it was presented most explicitly when former right-wing president Vicente Fox, who rode the #Resistance wave to a blip of US relevance early in Donald Trump’s presidency, went so far as to attack her as a “Bulgarian Jew” and a “Jewish foreigner.”

Fox himself was only able to become president thanks to a 1990 constitutional reform that removed the requirement that presidents have two Mexican-born parents. Sheinbaum’s closest rival in the race for her party’s nomination, former foreign secretary Marcelo Ebrard, is also the grandchild of European immigrants, has two French last names, and actually lived in France from 2015 to 2017. So why is it Sheinbaum who is accused of being a foreigner?

Historian Daniela Gleizer writes that the postrevolutionary Mexican state promoted a national identity based on the idea of a “homogeneous population, the product of intermixing between natives and Spaniards.” “In its glorification of a ‘race of bronze,’” Gleizer says, “it excluded anything ‘that did not smell of Latin-Americanness,’” classifying foreigners into those who could be assimilated into Mexican mestizaje and those who could not. Among those who fell into the latter category were Africans, Asians, and Jews. This is likely why Sheinbaum’s campaign placed special emphasis on her Mexicanness and identification with the Mexican nation.

But it’s true that her family did originally come from somewhere else. Though Mexico was not as successful at drawing migration as other Latin American countries were, two people who did end up there were Chone and Solomon Sheinbaum, Claudia’s grandfather and great-uncle. The story of these two men — communists who survived imprisonment and deportation and rubbed shoulders with the great personalities of the Comintern — can shed some light on both who Claudia Sheinbaum is and the past and future of Mexican politics.

Europe to the Americas and Back Again . . . and Back Again

Born in Lithuania under the Russian Empire, Chone (1906–1989) and Solomon Sheinbaum (?–1958) grew up in times of great change. They shared a mother but had different fathers; Chone’s died months before he was born, and their mother remarried. In 1913, searching for opportunities denied to them by tsarism, the boys’ family sailed for the United States. They returned to Europe the next year. After 1914, the family lived in Poland, and in 1920 they went back to Lithuania.

As children, Chone and Solomon lived the aftereffects of the revolution of 1905; as young men, they saw firsthand the unimaginable political shifts unleashed by the revolution of 1917, including their own emancipation as Jews. Lithuania was a nerve center of Jewish political and labor activism in the Russian Empire — the Jewish Labor Bund, for example, was founded in Vilna in 1897. By 1920, Chone had joined the Communist Party of Lithuania. Following the Lithuanian-Soviet War, the party was outlawed, and he was imprisoned for three years. It would not be the last time he would be marked for punishment as a communist.

Three years later, a free man once more, Chone left home again. His younger brother went with him. Given that they had briefly lived in the United States as children, Chone and Solomon may, like most Jews who left Europe, have been heading there. If they were, they found their way blocked: like today’s Central American migrants, many Jews heading for the United States in the ’20s were prevented from entry by laws like the Immigration Act of 1924 and ended up stuck in other countries of the hemisphere. By 1925, the Sheinbaum brothers were in Cuba, whether or not the island had been their plan.

The brothers joined the newborn Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), where Solomon became active both in the party’s Jewish section and youth work department as well as in the National Workers Confederation of Cuba (CNOC). Though they were newcomers in the Americas and learning Spanish, they would not have been culturally isolated in their organizations: Jews had a strong presence in the PCC, where four of the party’s thirteen founding members were Jewish. Like other Comintern-affiliated parties, the Cuban party had a Jewish section, as well as a Chinese one, given the large Chinese presence in Cuba.

An article from a 1929 issue of La Correspondencia Sudamericana, a publication of the Comintern’s South American Secretariat, denounces Machado’s deportation of Chinese members of the PCC (Centro de Documentación e Investigación de Cultura de Izquierdas).

Both the PCC and CNOC had been outlawed by this point, and their members lived under threat of assassination by the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado. The PCC had in fact gone underground only fifteen days after being founded, with its very first secretary general deported to Spain. This was probably the period when the Sheinbaum brothers picked up their recorded aliases: Chone went by Arturo Ramírez, while Solomon was García Blanco. Their wariness was vindicated when both brothers were detained in 1928. As “undesirable foreigners,” they were subject to deportation, and both found themselves on a ship bound for Mexico. Most likely they would have been dropped in the port of Veracruz. The Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky had been through that city three years earlier: “People don’’ hang around in Veracruz for very long,” he wrote. “They buy a knapsack, change some dollars . . . and off they go to the station, to buy a ticket to Mexico City.”

The Sheinbaum Brothers’ Mexico City Years

In the Mexican capital, the brothers, predictably, joined the Mexican Communist Party (PCM). Given the close ties between the Cuban and Mexican parties, they may have already known PCM members before their deportation. But in terms of safety, Chone and Solomon had jumped from one frying pan into another. Then a decade old, the PCM was frequently targeted for repression, with members regularly surveilled, harassed, jailed, and assassinated. Nevertheless, it was active across the country and counted many foreigners among its ranks in its early years. Its founders and early agents included Indian anti-colonial activist M. N. Roy, Japanese journalist Sen Katayama, and American newspaper editor Bertram Wolfe.

The Sheinbaums quickly made themselves useful. Solomon worked alongside exiled PCC founder Julio Antonio Mella in the Association of New Revolutionary Emigrees from Cuba (ANERC) and in the Mexican section of the International Red Aid. Both brothers were members of the Central Committee of the party’s Mexico City branch, where Solomon eventually became head of the finance and agitprop sections and editor of El Soviet, a party newspaper. Active in the heart of the PCM’s operations in Mexico City, it is not hard to imagine that the brothers would have known emblematic figures of the age like Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto Sandino or Salvadoran communist leader Farabundo Martí, who were also in Mexico’s Federal District in the late ’20s.

Chone and Solomon’s arrival in Mexico coincided with the short-lived golden age of Mexico’s Jewish left. There was a small community of Mexican Jews prior to the Mexican Revolution, but as in Cuba, many put down roots in Mexico after being barred from entering the United States. Also as in Cuba, many brought with them the political and cultural traditions of communism, Bundism, and Poaeli-Zionism. The communist-affiliated sections of this left founded the Radical Workers’ Center (Radikaler Arbeter Tzenter) in 1927 to organize Jewish workers and promote communism, and historian Daniel Kersffeld notes that Solomon’s work was of great importance in bringing the PCM and the Radical Workers’ Center together.

In 1930, repression of the PCM reached terrible new heights. As his interim presidency was ending, Emilio Portes Gil broke off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and arrested the leaders of the PCM and organizations affiliated with it. Taking an inauguration-day assassination attempt as its pretext, the incoming government of Pascual Ortíz Rubio began to deport foreign communists like the Italian Tina Modotti and the Jewish Ukrainian Yuri Rosovski and to imprison Mexican ones in the infamous Islas Marías penal colony.

Chone and Solomon were caught up in this terror, and both brothers were arrested at a labor action and jailed in December 1930. (Among those jailed with them was future literary giant José Revueltas, a teenager at the time.) As foreigners, the brothers once again faced deportation. But here something almost unbelievable happened: though Solomon was expelled from the country, Chone managed to pass himself off as Mexican to local authorities and escape deportation.

Or maybe not. Although the version of the story above was given to historians Victor and Lazar Jeifets by the brothers’ children, an article titled “Our Prisoners” in the late March 1931 issue of PCM newspaper El Machete identifies both brothers by their real names. Of the “comrades seized at the United House of Labor,” it reads, “only Salomón Shienbaum [sic] remains in prison and under threat of deportation.” The paper calls on party members to protest the president and attorney general and demand Solomon’s freedom and right to asylum, and it is hard to accept that Chone could have passed himself off as Mexican if his and Solomon’s names were public knowledge.

Whatever really happened, Solomon’s deportation must have been agonizing for both brothers, especially since he remained in jail for two months longer than Chone did. Together they had crossed the Atlantic twice as children and once again as young men. They had seen comrades killed in Cuba and Mexico. More than brothers, they had become mature militants together in the same parties, and they likely never saw each other in person again.

Chone remained in Mexico City and became a leading figure in the party. He joined the Central Committee of the PCM’s Mexico City branch in 1933 and took charge of the party’s antiwar work in 1934. Chone was also elected to the Central Committee of the national party three times in the 1930s, becoming secretary of the Central Committee and a member of the party politburo at the VII Congress of the PCM in 1939. He also started a family, marrying Emma Yoselevitz, a fellow Lithuanian. Their son Carlos, Claudia Sheinbaum’s father, was born in 1933.

The Crisis of the ’30s

These years, under the presidency of the leftist Lázaro Cárdenas, saw the PCM’s return to legality and intense, successful involvement in worker and peasant struggles. They were also years of growing difficulty for the party: all but locked out of the ruling party, the PCM struggled to chart a course independent from Cárdenas’s government and decide on the correct posture toward the moderate-dominated Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). The party was also riven by disagreements over how to handle the presence of Leon Trotsky in Mexico. All of these developments were noted with concern within the Communist International, for which the PCM was a key player in Latin America.

Probably unbeknownst to Chone and the PCM, in 1933, the year before Cárdenas took office, the Interior Ministry adopted a secret official policy forbidding immigration by Africans, non-Japanese Asians, Soviet citizens, and Roma people. Several groups from Eastern Europe and the Muslim world were also deemed undesirables. The next year, Jews were added to this list: irrespective of nationality, they were “the most undesirable of all.” Consular staff abroad were instructed to deny entry to Mexico even to Jews who had already been granted visas. In this way Mexico was not unique: the German refugee crisis was beginning, and many Western nations were closing their doors.

A 1934 Mexico City Red Aid flyer denouncing the antisemitic campaign of the Pro-Race Committee, which lobbied the Mexican government to deport “exotic” foreigners and gave rise to the Gold Shirts in 1933. (University of New Mexico)

Various racist and antisemitic far-right groups were also founded during the ’30s. Daniela Gleizer identifies these as expressions of the anti-Cárdenas middle class’s “rejection of government policies that increased the power of the proletariat to the detriment of the middle and business classes.” For its part, the PCM was outspoken in opposing these groups on an anti-fascist and internationalist basis, famously fighting the fascist Gold Shirts in Mexico City’s main square on Revolution Day in 1935. Cárdenas himself took a hands-off approach to the Jewish refugee issue, preferring to advocate for Spanish Republican exiles and leave the matter in the hands of outspokenly antisemitic ministers. This was surely a blow to the longevity of the communist Jewish left in Mexico, which faded away almost entirely after World War II as the community lurched toward Zionism.

By 1939, writes historian of the Mexican left Barry Carr, there was a “widely held belief that the Communist Party had become flabby, formless and without a clear sense of its long term goals.” The September 1939 plenum of the Central Committee decided that the party would hold its first Extraordinary Congress to rectify this situation. To that end, the plenum also appointed a Purging Commission.

In attendance at the congress in March 1940 was a delegation from the Comintern. Although their influence on the Congress is debated— Trotsky depicted them as running a show trial on Moscow’s behalf; Carr rejects this view — the Comintern envoys pushed the congress’s mandate toward replacing the party’s entire national leadership.

In January, the Purging Commission’s sights came to rest on Chone Sheinbaum. Something like a faction had coalesced around him and two other leading party members, and they were accused of corruption, opportunism, and links to Trotskyism. Solomon Sheinbaum’s name was brought up during the proceedings — maybe the first time Chone had heard news of his brother in almost ten years.

Solomon, it turned out, had made his way to the Soviet Union, joined the All-Union Communist Party, and put his Cuban and Mexican days to work collaborating in the Latin American section of the Comintern’s Executive Committee. But in 1936 he had been expelled from the party, and now Chone was finding out that his younger brother was in exile within the USSR, an accused Trotskyist. Their family connection was used to paint Chone as a Trotskyist spy, and he and his faction were expelled from the PCM on February 2. If we take Trotsky at his word, the party called Chone back to testify against General Secretary Hernán Laborde and Central Committee member Valentin Campa, which he did, venomously. Both were expelled from the party in March.

It seems that Chone relocated to Jalisco, took up work as a jeweler, and spent several years trying to reenter the PCM. To this end, he submitted a printed self-criticism to the party in August 1954. The text of his letter is remarkable for its withering assessment of his own role in the crisis of the 1930s. Instead of relying on the working masses and preserving the party’s independence, he wrote, the leadership of the PCM “unconditionally supported Cárdenas’s policy” and upheld the “unprincipled policy” of “Unity at Any Cost.” “For a number of years Arturo Ramírez [Chone’s alias] held the position of Organizational Secretary of the Central Committee,” Chone wrote, “and is thus one of the most responsible for the Party’s deviations in this area.” He accepted “full responsibly for the grave mistakes [he] committed.”

His efforts worked. At the XIX Party Congress in September 1954, Chone Sheinbaum was readmitted into the PCM alongside none other than Diego Rivera, himself expelled for Trotskyism in 1929.

Chone Sheinbaum’s Final Escape

In the meantime, the Jewish left in Mexico was experiencing a steep decline. Communists and Bundists fought bitterly throughout the 1940s, with their movements weakening and Zionism becoming the community’s dominant expression of ethnic activism by the ’50s. The fact that Claudia Sheinbaum today appears to be at least a non-Zionist — she condemned Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2009 and follows Los Otros Judíos, a page run by anti-Zionist Chilean Jews, on Twitter/X — could have something to do with her paternal family’s influence.

Though back in his party, the waves of repression that Chone Sheinbaum had lived through were not over. Throughout the 1950s, the PCM and other communist parties in Mexico endured a new onslaught by the governments of Miguel Alemán and Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, with communists frequently kidnapped, jailed, and purged from labor unions. In 1957, Chone himself became a victim of this violence. At this point a member of the State Committee of the PCM’s Jalisco branch, he was abducted by state agents and interrogated about his own activities and those of his twenty-four-year-old son Carlos, who had been the organizational secretary of the Communist Youth (FJCM) since he was nineteen.

Here the Ruiz Cortines government turned to a particularly sinister tactic. Perhaps inspired by the United States’ 1954 demand that Mexico extradite exiled Guatemalans who had fled their country after the coup against Jacobo Árbenz, the Mexican government attempted to hand him over to the Guatemalan military dictatorship. (There is some irony in the fact that, in October, his granddaughter will take the reins of the state that not only did this to him but that has in recent years deported thousands over the Mexico-Guatemala border.)

Transported to the southern border state of Chiapas, Chone was assigned a guide who would escort him overland to Guatemala and deliver him to the military junta. But again displaying the talent for survival he showed throughout his life, Sheinbaum managed to escape custody on the road and return to the capital of Chiapas. There he was recaptured but managed to get in touch with his wife and a lawyer. Probably given the blatant illegality of his deportation, he was freed, returning to Guadalajara.

Who Is Mexican?

Chone Sheinbaum died in Mexico City in 1989. He had outlived his party: the PCM was officially dissolved in 1981. Its last remnants were integrated into the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in 1987. Even if he was no longer an active militant, Chone would have been well aware of these developments — his granddaughter Claudia was married to one of the PRD’s founders, a fellow student leader.

With a family history like Claudia Sheinbaum’s, one might well wonder why the presidential candidate of a popular left party did not play up her political pedigree. She mentioned her parents’ participation in the 1968 student movement — what stronger way to prove her Mexicanness than to emphasize her generational ties to the nation’s historical left in their entirety?

From Sheinbaum and Morena’s point of view, the answer was probably simple: to emphasize her family background — whether in its recent immigrant, Jewish, or communist dimensions — would likely hurt rather than help her. Anti-communism remains a staple discourse of the Mexican right, and the racial component of national identity that took shape in the 1930s endures. It does not help that the country’s small Jewish community is widely seen as a cloistered and conservative bourgeoisie. In this sense, neglecting to mention the Sheinbaum family’s Jewish-communist history could reflect a realistic reading of what the Mexican electorate finds acceptable in 2024.

But that careful treading also raises questions that echo from the time of Chone Sheinbaum’s militancy in the Mexican Communist Party. For anti-communists, a communist is by definition a foreigner. Unable to see how class struggle is born out of society’s own contradictions, reactionaries since Edmund Burke have hunted for the external agents and outside agitators who must be manipulating the mob. Communists, Jews, and migrants are one and the same in the anti-communist mind, all inherently foreign to the national body.

Today hundreds of thousands of foreigners are traversing Mexico. In 2023, the International Organization for Migration registered the record-setting figure of more than 782,000 irregular migratory events, up 77 percent from 2022 and part of a 132 percent increase since 2021. Most of these people are bound for the United States, but like Eastern European Jews in the ’20s, thousands of them will surely settle in Mexico. Historic Afro-Mexican and Asian Mexican communities tend to live in ethnic enclaves — how will national identity handle large numbers of residents who can be spotted as non-Mexican, either nationally or racially, living in places where they were previously invisible? More succinctly: Who is Mexican? Who will be?

These questions have increasingly serious stakes. Real estate speculation and gentrification are rampaging through Mexico City, Oaxaca, and other centers, with working people priced out and often physically thrown out of their homes at the behest of landlords and developers. A few weeks ago, Mexico City woke to find English-language posters in the historic center reading “Gringo go back to your country. Mexico is for Mexicans, no one else.” Many self-identified progressives nodded — it was only later that some realized that the same prints were part of a series of posters attacking migrants, Jews, Muslims, abortion, and gays, produced by Mexicans in Defense of the Nation (MDN). Who are they? Their social media shows a neo-Nazi group claiming the mantle of Revolutionary Mexicanist Action (RAM), the Gold Shirt fascists of the ‘30s.

Groups like MDN are marginal in Mexico, but if Morena’s answer to problems as critical as the housing question is half-hearted regulations on Airbnb (and in the absence of a popular movement advancing a strong structural analysis of gentrification), fascists posing as antigentrification fighters may find more purchase for their ideas — and their answer to the question of who is Mexican is very clear.

In the 1930s, as the state shaped immigration policy to favor foreigners it thought would be most easily assimilable, the Mexican Communist Party actively incorporated “undesirable” foreigners into its ranks. It campaigned against fascist groups like the Pro-Race Committee, whose antisemitism the party recognized as a ploy to channel mass discontent away from capitalists and toward Jewish, Chinese, and Arab workers in Mexico. Can the militant potential of the thousands of migrants in Mexico today be activated by any of the country’s progressive forces? With millions of people on the move across the Global South today, the answer to that question will resonate far beyond Mexico’s borders.