George Santos’ “Jew-ish” performative politics

By Bill Simons

In the newly elected 118th Congress, George Santos is the most famous freshman member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The 34-year-old Republican congressman has generated enormous publicity in print and electronic media. During his 2022 campaign, Santos revealed an impressive list of accomplishments and a compelling background: bachelor’s degree from Baruch College, M.B.A. at New York University, Wall Street phenom at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, shared ownership in a family real-estate company and founder of the Friends of Pets charity. Employed at the World Trade Center, his mother suffered – and ultimately died – from the toxins released during the 9/11 attack. Santos revealed, “I’m very much gay” and identified as a “proud American Jew.”

During the election campaign, Santos elaborated about his Jewish lineage. On his mother’s side, the family name was “Zabrovsky,” common to East European Jews. His maternal grandparents escaped the Nazi genocide by immigrating to Brazil. In a campaign video, Santos employed footage of Nazi concentration camps while again asserting “my grandparents survived the Holocaust.” 

Post-election investigative reporting proved that Santos’ resume and biography were primarily false – outright lies. He did not graduate from Baruch, NYU or any other college or university. Nor was he employed by Wall Street titans Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. He was not part of a family real estate consortium. Santos’ mother never worked at the World Trade Center and did not die from toxins released on 9/11. Since Santos was previously married to a woman, Uadla, bisexual might more accurately describe his sexual orientation than gay. Moreover, the grandparents and mother of the Catholic Santos were not Jewish. His claim to be a “proud American Jew” is without validity. 

The Renaissance philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli counseled political leaders, “There is nothing more important than appearing to be religious.” It is unlikely that Santos ever read Machiavelli, but he did understand that there were a significant number of Jewish voters in New York’s affluent Third Congressional District, which runs from Long Island’s North Shore to the neighborhoods of northeastern Queens. Unlike businessmen, ballplayers and actors, amongst others, who changed their names to hide their Jewish identities, Santos followed the route of Gentile boxers of the 1930s, who adopted Jewish ring names to hype the gate, and attorney Jimmy McGill, who morphed into Saul Goodman, the fictional anti-hero of the drama “Better Call Saul,” to increase his client base. The latter explained his transition from run-of-the-mill lawyer Jimmy McGill to the hard-charging attorney Saul Goodman: “My real name’s McGill. The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys. They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak.” The opportunistic Santos, like McGill, understood that, despite antisemitism, there are times and situations where a Jewish identity is an advantage. In 2022, New York’s Third Congressional District was one of those. 

Having lost his previous election for the same post in 2020, Santos knew the demographics of the Third Congressional District. The district is about 11 percent Jewish, percentages that go even higher in tabulating activists and contributors. It was a swing district within striking distance for either party, particularly since the incumbent was not seeking re-election. Three Jews were vying for the Democratic nomination, the designation ultimately garnered by Robert Zimmerman. Jews, largely liberal, overwhelmingly vote Democratic, but a Jewish Republican would find some adherents, particularly since gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, a Jew, headed the 2022 New York State Republican ticket and might have coattails. 
Although running behind Zeldin in the Third Congressional District, Santos defeated Zimmerman (53.8 percent, 145,824 votes, to 46.2 percent, 125,404). At a time where perceptions of surging crime were rampant, Santos’ tough stance on law-and-order was the decisive factor in the election outcome. 

When the story broke, post-election, about Santos’ rampant falsehoods, outrage was bipartisan, roiling both sides of the aisle. Republicans were embarrassed to have him as a standard bearer, and Democrats called for Santos’ resignation. It is particularly instructive to look at the Jewish response to the Santos scandal. 

Jonathan Zimmerman, a University of Pennsylvania historian, minimized the significance of Santos’s canards about Jewish identity: “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.” Most Jews, however, expressed a very different view. Santos, confronted by the truth, tried to shade his claims about Jewish identity: “I never claimed to be Jewish. I am Catholic. Because I learned my maternal family had a Jewish background, I said I was ‘Jew-ish.’” Reform Rabbi Deborah Bravo retorted sharply, “You don’t just get to be Jewish and there is no such thing as being ‘Jew-ish.’”

Many Jews expressed moral indignation that Santos exploited the Shoah for political advantage. New York State Senator Anna Kaplan demanded that Santos apologize “for his reprehensible lies about his nonexistent Jewish faith and his complete false connection to the Holocaust.” Jews remain prominent in calls for Santos’s removal from the House, whether by resignation or expulsion. 

Given the weight of evidence, Santos grudgingly admits to misrepresentations: “I’m not going to make excuses for this, but a lot of people overstate in their resumes, or twist a little bit… I’m not saying I’m not guilty of that.” But he remains adamant that he did not break the law: “I’m not a criminal who defrauded the entire country and made up this fictional character and ran for Congress.” With on-going investigations by New York state and federal authorities over potential campaign and finance violations, Santos may face civil and/or criminal prosecution. Santos’ transgressions run the gamut. A story has surfaced that he fleeced a disabled veteran out of funds that would have provided life-saving surgery for the veteran’s dog. Former roommates claim that he stole an expensive Burberry scarf and Armani shirt from them. Moreover, Santos allegedly wrote fraudulent checks in Brazil. 

Should Santos’ House seat be vacated, two Jewish politicians – one Democrat, former opponent Robert Zimmerman, and one Republican, Nassau County legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip – are among those considering running for the office.

There is a Yiddish word for the Santos’ phenomena: shanda. 

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.