Who’s Challenging George Santos?

By | Oct 06, 2023
Jewish World, Latest
Six pictures of smiling candidates are displayed in two rows. Two are tinted red, four are tinted blue.

As part of this piece, Moment interviewed the current representative of New York’s 3rd congressional district, George Santos. That conversation can be found here.

In December of 2022, a month after his election to Congress, Representative George Santos of New York’s 3rd congressional district was caught in yet another lie—this time over various claims he had made throughout the campaign that his maternal grandparents were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and that he himself was Jewish. His explanation—that his claims were a misinterpretation of a joke that he was “Jew-ish”—served only to fan the flames of outrage. Since then, Santos has been caught up in myriad scandals and in May was indicted by a federal grand jury on 13 charges of fraud and money laundering, which was updated to 23 counts on October 10. Despite calls from within his own party to resign, Santos insists that he is running for reelection.

New York’s 3rd is America’s third most Jewish congressional district. And Santos’ untruths about his Jewish identity have served as a powerful motivator for people running to replace him. Currently, there are six (genuinely) Jewish candidates vying for the seat, 4 Democrats and 2  Republicans, among 19 total candidates in the race. And if there is a single throughline to the overlapping narratives of the Jews running in the 3rd district, it is this: They are angry. In particular, Santos’s demonstrably false claims about being Jewish and about his grandparents surviving the Holocaust struck a nerve. “The story he claimed to be his is actually my story,” says Zak Malamed, a 29-year-old Democratic activist currently running for the seat.

Fellow candidate Steve Behar, a longtime Democratic operative of Greek-Sephardi descent, echoes this sentiment, recounting his great uncle’s murder at the hands of the Nazis and the profound impact it has had on following generations in his family. “When someone takes what happened in Auschwitz and the Holocaust so lightly that he can make up a story…it’s just despicable.”

Anna Kaplan, a Democratic former state senator, is a refugee from religious intolerance in Iran.

“So disturbing. So hurtful,” says Anna Kaplan, a former state senator, herself a refugee from religious intolerance in Iran, who is running in the Democratic primary. She asserts that “he is making a mockery of our religion, of our traditions. And I can’t imagine any Jew, especially any Jew in this district who voted for him, feels good about this. It’s insulting.”

Daniel Norber, an Israeli-American businessman challenging Santos in the Republican primary, believes that the representative’s claim of being “Jew-ish” after previously claiming to be Jewish is what inspired so many Jewish candidates to run against him in 2024: “Santos unintentionally demonstrated that the Jewish voters in the district have a desire for a congressman who understands their background.”

Santos himself says he thinks “it’s amazing!” that there are six Jewish candidates currently challenging him. Noting the high proportion of Jews in the district, Santos argued in an interview with Moment that it is “indicative of the representation that the district wants.” He went on to repeat, by implication, his claim to Jewishness. “I just hope whoever wins, if it’s not me, whether it is a fellow Jewish candidate who’s running wins, Republican or Democrat, I just hope they bring a pro-Israel stance.”

Along with Malamed, Behar, Kaplan and Norber, a fifth Jewish candidate currently running in New York’s 3rd congressional district in 2024 is Democratic Nassau County legislator Josh Lafazan, who in 2017 became the youngest legislator in the county’s history at age 23. While Lafazan was not available for comment, in a March interview with the Long Island Press he said that “to see George Santos manipulate the emotions of Jewish voters for his own gain is so disgusting.”

Harvey Manes, an orthopedic surgeon, longtime Nassau County GOP donor and the final Jewish candidate challenging Santos, agrees. “He lies about everything. He’s a horrible person.”

New York’s 3rd principally consists of the North Shore of Long Island, and while it is largely made up of Nassau County, the district also contains parts of Queens. Historically, it’s been a Democratic stronghold—since 1992 it has voted for the Democratic candidate for president all but once (going for George W. Bush in 2004). The House seat was held by former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel from 2001 to 2017. Jacob Rubashkin of the Inside Elections newsletter characterizes the district as “a classic Long Island-based seat,” with a high percentage of Jewish residents (20 percent) as well as Italian Americans and New York City first responders (firefighters, cops, etc.). Jews in the district are largely secular and Ashkenazi, but the district also has Orthodox and Haredi, as well as Sephardi and Mizrahi populations. A plurality of the district’s Jews, and a significant concentration of Persian Jews, live in Great Neck, in the Northwest of the district. “The five Towns,” the colloquial term for a collection of five towns on the South Shore of Long Island, where much of Nassau County’s Orthodox community live, are not part of the 3rd district. Rubashkin also notes that it is one of the wealthiest congressional districts in the country and the wealthiest in New York.

One subject that’s already been dominating the race is the large influx of migrants moving—and being moved—to the New York area. Due to numerous factors, including instability in migrants’ home countries, politics in the United States and problems with the U.S. immigration system, the city and the outlying municipalities have seen a sharp increase of largely South and Central American immigrants, now more than 100,000 since last spring. The city is now dealing with overburdened schools, shelters and hospitals, as well as a looming budget deficit.

Daniel Norber, an Israeli-American businessman challenging Santos in the Republican primary, points at the border fence between Egypt and Israel.

Republican businessman Daniel Norber, himself the son of immigrants, argues that “we are a country with an open heart and we should always receive immigrants.” At the same time, he decries the federal government for enabling this type of illegal immigration. Democratic activist Zak Malamed lists the migrant surge as a top concern, noting that he has called on President Biden to declare a national emergency, while fellow progressive Democratic operative Steve Behar connects it to the housing crisis that has long plagued New York City.

The issue of rising violent antisemitism is also alarmingly salient for Jewish voters in the district. An Anti-Defamation League audit, published in March 2023, found that the incidence of antisemitism in the United States in 2022 was the highest ever recorded (since the ADL began tracking in 1979) and had increased by 36 percent from 2021.

Many of the candidates take a partisan position on the issue, blaming either Trump or “The Squad” for the rise in antisemitism. “Smarten up, Jews,” says Republican Surgeon Harvey Manes, “this is not the Democratic Party of your parents’ generation.” In contrast, Behar—who says he has personally witnessed antisemitism, as well as xenophobia and Islamophobia, within the district—argues that “Trump made it okay to say things that maybe people thought about but didn’t say.” Taking it a step further, Malamed contends that antisemitism has been mainstreamed within the GOP. He also praises his own party’s efforts, saying, “I’m proud to be a Democrat because at any moment when Jews face antisemitism, our leadership comes together and stands against it.”

Zak Malamed is a 29-year-old activist running in the Democratic primary.

From an international perspective, one of the more divisive topics facing American Jews is the Israeli judicial reform initiative. Santos, although eager to tout his pro-Israel bona fides, has not spoken publicly on the issue. The challengers’ public statements indicate that they all consider this to be a domestic Israeli issue. While not entirely surprising—this same tact has been taken by President Biden and both parties’ leaderships—it is telling of just how thorny the topic has become or, at the very least, that there isn’t much political upside in taking a hard stance. Norber, the only Israeli American currently running, highlights the need for compromise between the two sides. Similarly, Malamed says he would urge Israel’s governing coalition to come to an agreement with the opposition, noting that the Israeli public “recognizes that there are parts of the judicial system that need improvement.”

Democratic State Senator Anna Kaplan argues that “the residents of Israel speak for themselves, and what kind of country they want,” but she also expresses hope that Israel will remain a democracy. Likewise, Behar extols Israel’s status as the only democracy in the Middle East and describes a recent trip to Israel to see extended family on both sides of the debate. “The so-called reforms seem to insulate Netanyahu from legal problems,” he says.

Santos’ would-be successors each have different takes on the Biden administration’s attempt to re-enter the Obama-era Iran nuclear pact. Kaplan, for whom the issue hits close to home, says that maintaining a dialogue is important but also that “working with this regime is giving them credibility, and they don’t deserve credibility.” She further notes that “you have to really consider whom you are trying to reach a deal with, and what their word really means.”

Norber, the Republican Israeli-American businessman, bemoans a lack of coordination between the U.S. and Israeli governments on the issue. He maintains that “Netanyahu has to do a better job of diplomacy in order for us to do what’s necessary to not get into the nuclear deal.”

So far Kaplan, Malamed and Lafazan have each raised between $400,000 and $500,000; no other candidate, Jewish or otherwise, has raised more than $200,000. Jacob Rubaskin of Inside Elections says that the race is a toss-up, perhaps slightly in the Democrats’ favor, but which candidates will make it to the general election is anyone’s guess.

Harvey Manes is an orthopedic surgeon and longtime Nassau County GOP donor.

The whole race could be upended in the event that Santos resigns. While the experts, candidates, and Santos himself all seem convinced that he will run for reelection, recent reports that he is working on a plea deal with federal prosecutors have spurred speculation that he could resign his seat in exchange for a reduced sentence. If Santos resigns, a special election would be held before the regular election in November. In such an event the party leadership in Nassau County would most likely pick the nominees for the special election.

Rubashkin thinks the Democratic leadership would pick Tom Suozzi, the former Democratic congressman who retired to run for the New York governorship in 2022. On the Republican side, he says, “the situation is a lot murkier.” Rubashkin suggests that Nassau County GOP Chair Joe Cairo Jr. could pick Mazi Melesa Pilip, an Ethiopian Jewish legislator in Nassau County. An Orthodox Jew and former paratrooper who made aliyah before immigrating to the United States, Pilip, who is also the mother of seven, was touted as a potential successor to Santos in the immediate aftermath of his scandals but has so far not announced her candidacy for the seat. Jewish Republican and Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman is another potential candidate.

Despite his impending legal troubles and his multitude of false claims about his biography, ethnicity, education, work history, criminal record and sexual orientation, Santos remains undeterred. In the face of calls to resign, he has stayed steadfast in his insistence that he will run for reelection. And, notwithstanding what appear to be long odds against him, his opponents, Jewish and otherwise, are not taking his defeat for granted.

Top image: Clockwise from top left: Harvey Manes, Anna Kaplan, Josh Lafazan, Zak Melamed, Daniel Norber, and Steve Behar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.