In 1992, Marcela Kogan and I wrote in Hadassah Magazine, "Future support for Israel may depend on the relationships developed between the Jewish and Hispanic comunities." At that time, the American Jewish Committee was one of the few Jewish organizations devoting much effort to building bridges with the Hispanic community.
We noted that unlike the sometimes rocky relationship between Jews and African-Americans, Jews and Hispanics have gotten along. The reasons include, the issues of greatest concern to Hispanics are also of interest to Jews; most Hispanics have little knowledge or interest in Middle East issues and many Jews have Hispanic backgrounds.
Hispanics are concerned about unemployment, education, crime and immigration; concerns Jews share. On the other hand, Jews and Hispanics are sometimes competing for money from the same pot, such as foreign aid to Israel versus Latin America. On immigration, both groups worry about how many of the limited available spots should be allocated for each.
Jews and Hispanics also will increasingly be competing for the same elected positions. One of the earliest examples occurred in 1990 when a Cuban Republican defeated a Jewish candidate. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen went to Israel shortly thereafter and subsequently built strong ties to the local Jewish community. In the more than two decades she’s been in Congress, Ros-Lehtinen has acquired a national reputation as one of Israel’s staunchest allies in the House of Representatives.
For Jews to build relations with Hispanics, it is important to understand that the term represents a very diverse group of individuals, including Mexicans, South Americans and Cubans. While, as we saw in the election, most Hispanics voted like Jews, as liberal Democrats, a small population, including many Cubans are staunch conservatives who vote more like Orthodox Jews. The Hispanic vote constituted 10% of the electorate and 75% favored Obama according to Latino Decisions (the Jewish vote for Obama was 69%). Only 44% of Cubans, however, voted for Obama.
Some Hispanics may also be influenced by the policies of their native countries. While South American nations played a key role in securing the partition of Palestine, many have more recently allied with Israel’s enemies. This is especially true of Venezuela under Chavez. Others have also allowed Hizballah to infiltrate their nations and have improved relations with Iran.
Just as the Republican Party woke up on November 7th and realized the importance of cultivating the Hispanic community, so too did Jews interested in politics. In the last 10 years, the process had already begun and great strides have been made in establishing relations since Marcela and I wrote our article. Still, there is a long way to go, given that most Hispanics know little about Israel and care even less.
A good place to start the relationship-building process is on college campuses. According to the AICE/TIP survey last year, Hispanic students, like all other students, had virtually no sympathy for the Palestinians (3%), but they also had the lowest level of support for Israel of any group other than Asians (another constituency that require more attention from Jews). Only 27% of Hispanic students supported Israel compared to 32% of all students and 60% of the general public.
Often, Hispanic groups on campus have identified with progressive, Third World organizations and joined the chorus of Israel’s detractors. One reason is they have been convinced that Palestinians are victims like other minorities, but another is that Jewish students have not actively engaged them. As with the broader community, the tendency has been to worry more about relations with African-Americans and Muslims. Given the general lack of sympathy for the Palestinians, and the absence of knowledge about Israel, Hispanic students are an ideal population to seek out, educate and ask to form a coalition based on a positive, mutually beneficial agenda.
It is no exaggeration to say that the future of U.S.-Israel relations may depend on the development of close Jewish-Hispanic ties. We’ve gotten a late start, but it’s not yet too late.