Hispanics/Latinos · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism

Benjamin Cardozo is not Hispanic

Here is an op-ed piece I had hoped to publish a couple of months back when the “Benjamin Cardozo is Hispanic” craze really started.

Before I’d even heard Sonia Sotomayor was picked as the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice nominee, I received an email from Jewish friends saying she was not. According to them, Benjamin Cardozo, a Jew, was the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. Half-asleep and wide-eyed I clicked on the attached link about Cardozo and found he was Portuguese by way of New York, the Netherlands and England. I reread the information twice to see if I was missing something.

The term “Hispanic” includes Spaniards, Spanish-speakers across Latin America and those descended from either. Latino connotes being from Spanish-speaking Latin America and excludes Spaniards. As a Latina, these definitions are as simple and clear-cut to me as the notion the sky is blue and grass is green. But I had to look them up to prove this to my Jewish husband and friends who were angered these definitions did not include Portuguese from Brazil or Portugal. I couldn’t make sense as to why I, a born and bred Latina, was trying to explain to a bunch of white Jews why someone wasn’t part of my people before I’d even had my morning coffee. Not that coffee would have helped.

I didn’t expect the attacks that ensued when I told them Cardozo was not Hispanic. They said my definitions were faulty. That Portuguese and Spanish folks are all “pretty much the same.” Pretty much the same? Really? Had the French and Italian also been made honorary Latinos the night before? Weren’t they “pretty much the same,” too?

One Jewish friend wrote that since all identities are social constructions, they are malleable and anyone could call themselves whatever they wanted, “so there’s no reason Cardozo can’t be Latino.” After having spent the entire day explaining why Cardozo wasn’t Hispanic to every Jewish friend who’d forwarded me articles about him, I huffed and puffed, writing back that I would whoop this friend’s ass if he repeated this nonsense to my face.

No matter how I explained things, I offended my Jewish friends. “Don’t you like Jews?” they asked. But no one thought twice about offending me. “Don’t you know what Hispanics are?” I might have asked. While it’s true the term Hispanic didn’t exist when Cardozo was alive, Cardozo identified primarily as a Jew and calling him Hispanic would be a stretch even under today’s definition. Would he have “self-identified” if the term had been available? We’ll never know. Even if he had, Portuguese-speakers are not considered Hispanic so the Hispanic community wouldn’t have taken him seriously as one of our own.

Even today, it’s hard for people to grasp hyphenated identities. I often hear, “Hispanic and Jewish, say what? Black and Jewish, no way!” People are only recently coming to terms with people who have multiple identities thanks to the explosion of mixed-race, multicultural families and our current president, a product of this brave new world. It’s “cool” now to have multiple identities. I gather that’s why people are wondering what Cardozo would’ve called himself today. How cool would it have been if he’d represented two peoples in one shot? But the fact is, he didn’t and does not.

There is nothing “cool” about this media circus. It has left me dumbfounded and hurt. I feel betrayed by my Jewish brethren. Are they trying to steal something from my Latina side? On the whole, this has made me very uncomfortable. Every article about Cardozo is another attack—everyone from NPR to the NY Times weighed in! Every time people tell me the definition of a Hispanic could be/should be enlarged to include Cardozo, I feel myself grow smaller. When some Jewish friends finally conceded Cardozo did not fit the standard definition of Hispanic, they acted like they were doing me a favor because they did not want to hurt my feelings since I was obviously “really sensitive” about the subject.

So, nu, what if tomorrow morning non-Jews decided who is and who isn’t a Jew? Maybe the definition would now include people who “self-identify.” No conversion necessary, anyone who thinks they might be Jewish, anyone who feels they might be Jewish, can be Jewish. Why not? Would it trouble my Jewish friends that outsiders had gotten together behind their backs to decide who is or isn’t part of the Jewish people?

When I heard Sotomayor was nominated, I was excited because she wasn’t just the best nominee, she was a Latina. She had grown up in the projects and made it to the Ivy League, giving me hope that more young people in the Hispanic community could also “make it.” As a former NYC public high teacher, the first-generation child of Hispanic immigrants, seeing Sotomayor nominated made me feel like this country I have lived in all my life finally sees me.

But the moment my Jewish friends decided Cardozo was the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice and Sotomayor wasn’t, I realized many people in this country still don’t. They don’t even trouble themselves to learn about my culture before deciding who my people are and are not. They’re too busy feeling insanely clever at having put one over on the Hispanic community and they never bothered to think twice whether they were hurting anyone in the process.

4 thoughts on “Benjamin Cardozo is not Hispanic

  1. When I first heard this whole Cardozo-Sotomayer brouhaha, I thought the whole thing was ridiculous.

    I remember when I was in high school, I had to argue with people often about whether Jews were white or not. I argued on two counts:

    (1) Avoiding the discussion of how much racial (read: genetic) commonality does or not exist between Jews from different communities, the fact remains that at least within any one given Jewish community (let's say, Ashkenazi) to the exclusion of all other Jewish communities, within that one community, intermarriage was traditionally low, and so the Jews of a given locale would be racially distinct from the gentiles of that same locale.

    (2) Quite aside from anything genetic, “race” also includes such factors as culture. Whatever a Jew's race may be, the fact is that he is quite culturally distinct from his non-Jewish neighbors. I noted that whatever the color of my skin, I am not a “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant”. Culturally-speaking, I am far more similar to a Yemenite or Moroccan or Indian Jew, or even a convert with no genetic Jewish ancestry at all, than I am to any WASP. Diana Muir Appelbaum and Paul S. Appelbaum, in “The Gene Wars” (Azure/Techelet Winter 5767 / 2007, no. 27, http://www.azure.org.il/article.php?id=30), make the point that not only do the Palestinians not have Jewish ancestry, but that even if they did, they lack the cultural link to the Biblical people of Israel that would grant them legitimate claim to land of Israel. (This is my personal answer to the claim that the Ashkenazim are descended from the Kuzar Turks; first, I say, scientific evidence disputes this claim; second, I say, even if this claim were true, a convert is as Jewish as a born-Jew, so what difference does it make if all Ashkenazim are descendants of converts? Cultural identification trumps the genetic.)

    Regarding this second factor, viz. the preeminence of the cultural and the genetic: it is precisely based on this that it was clear to me that Cardozo was not the first Hispanic judge. I don't know much about Cardozo, so perhaps I'm wrong, but as far as I know, he was predominately a Jew and an NYC American. As far as I know, he did not consider himself a Hispanic and identify with Hispanic culture.

    I think the whole debate evinces a pathetic greed. These Jews who are calling for Cardozo to be considered the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, they are displaying jealousy, play and simple. It is not enough for them to let the Hispanic community have their candidate, have their pride. The Jews must begrudge them even that, must steal even this honor. Cannot we let the Hispanics have their own glory, even as the Jews have ours? The Arabs and the Spanish try to steal Maimonides as their own; must we do the same, and try to steal Hispanicity from the Hispanics?

    One random tidbit about Cardozo, that I found absolutely fascinating: Rabbi Angel at Congregation Shearith Israel (S&P)on the Upper West Side – I forget whether the father, Marc, or the son, Haim – tells the story of when Shearith Israel was considering becoming Conservative. Cardozo, then a young man of some twenty-odd years, stood up and delivered an impassioned speech about how, observant or not, every Jew must preserve authentic Judaism so that his children receive the “real deal” unabridged. Cardozo's speech won the congregation over, Rabbi Angel said, and it is solely due to Cardozo that Shearith Israel is an Orthodox congregation to this day.


  2. Some Jews look phenotypically white. Some Jews don't. So I wouldn't say all Jews are white but some Jews definitely look white and are perceived as white. The mainstream believes Jews only come in one color: white.

    Love that story on Benjamin Cardozo!


  3. I really don't get this whole “we did it first” thing. Even if Cardozo were in fact from Spain, the bottom line is that Sotomayor is unique in her position.

    And maybe your Jewish friends who don't know what a Hispanic is should try telling a Brasileno that he's Hispanic (remind them to wear protective gear!)…


  4. Benjamin Cardozo is a Portuguese Jew(very rare by the way). Cardozo is a Portuguese name. How he is even considered of being Hispanic, is beyond me. Portugal and Spain are two totally different countries in every aspect. All these two countries have in common are that of being neighbors. France also neighbors Spain and i doubt people are confusing the French of being Hispanics. Such ignorance! I am Portuguese/American, and would be furious if someone confused me with being Hispanic.


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