Israel’s Hispanic brigades

Members of the Latino-Jewish Alliance Trip to Israel meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem.

Latino-Jewish Alliance Trip to Israel, Peres_521 (photo credit: Courtesy of JINSA)
Latino-Jewish Alliance Trip to Israel, Peres_521
(photo credit: Courtesy of JINSA)
Israel’s support base in the United States is a key element in Jerusalem’s strategy for meeting the stiff challenges confronting the nation, but many in the American Jewish community are concerned that their size and influence may be shrinking. Thus, Israeli officials and American Jewish leaders have been intensifying their search for new allies and friends, and one key constituency that has been identified as a potential source of increased support is the American Hispanic community and, through them, the nations of Latin America.
According to the recent 2010 census in the United States, persons of Hispanic or Latino origin make up 16.3 percent of the populace, having already surpassed the number of Black Americans, which now stands at 12.4%. The Hispanic community is young and fast-growing, due to immigration and higher birth rates. Thus, the US Census Bureau projects that by 2050 one-quarter of the American population will be Hispanic/Latino. This segment of American society must be courted, or they could become easy pickings for the Arab and Muslim antagonists of Israel.
Realizing the need to reach out to American Hispanics, leading Jewish groups like AIPAC have launched special outreaches geared especially to educating Latinos on the Middle East and recruiting them to the pro-Israel cause.
On the surface, the American Jewish and Latino communities are different in a number of very important ways: language, religion, cuisine, music and so much more. But upon closer inspection, there are a number of shared interests and values that are quite surprising.
Jacob Monty, the chairman of the Latino- Jewish Alliance for A Secure America, told The Christian Edition recently about how he came to discover their commonalities.
“I don’t think they’re obvious at first blush,” said Monty, a Houston lawyer and political activist who helped lead a tour to Israel last January for Latino leaders. “They were not obvious to me and all the other participants until after we came back from Israel.”
The tour was sponsored by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), which set up the Latino-Jewish Alliance with Monty as its head.
Common cultures
The most obvious connection is between Sephardi, Spanish-speaking Jews and Latinos. But just being immigrants from other countries is a link in itself. Monty listed the immigrant experience as one shared identity between Jews and the American Latino community, which is easily one of the largest immigrant communities in the US. Likewise, Jews came to America in large numbers over the past two centuries, often due to persecution elsewhere. This shared background also allows Jews to positively present Israel as a melting pot of immigrants from all around the world who have returned home and succeeded in building a nation together.
Jews and Latinos have both maintained their own vibrant cultures within America, while also fitting in as good citizens. Both groups place a premium on maintaining close families. Many Latinos have seen the Jewish community take great strides and make enormous contributions to America’s unique democracy and way of life, often wielding influence far beyond their numbers. Thus they are seeking Jewish advice on how to model these achievements on behalf of their own communities.
Meanwhile, Israel and American Jews are presenting the rich traditions of Judaism as having made pivotal contributions to the modern notions of democracy and human rights.
The intersection of values and interests for Jews and Latinos is exemplified in a special undertaking of the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, California.
The first synagogue in Los Angeles, the Breed Street Shul, is located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. Today, that neighborhood is almost entirely Latino, but this does not mean the synagogue building sits empty. Instead, the Jewish community is working with Latinos to use the historic building as a shared community center.
Consul General David Siegel said that the project “has become a symbolic center for Latino-Jewish cooperation.”
Even in an area where Latinos and Jews have some clear differences – religious beliefs – there is plenty of common ground. Monty said that during their trip to Israel, his JINSA-led group noticed the freedom of worship at holy sites overseen by Israel, as opposed to the restrictions at some sites which were effectively controlled by Muslims.
“It’s very important for Latinos to have a connection to the Holy Land for religious reasons, and to feel they have free access to the biblical sites,” said Monty. He added that many Latino church leaders have become “very outspoken in their support of Israel.”
Tom Neumann, executive director of JINSA, said it is easier to encourage Latinos in the US to support Israel in part because they are pro-American and see Israel as an important American ally. Neumann noted that the US Latino community is “very anxious to work with us... They push us harder than we push them.”
Neumann insists these Latinos should be seen as genuine allies and given a role in advocating for stronger US relations with Israel.
“The people who come to our committee already support Israel,” he assured. “You don’t have to sell them on that. You just have to make them vocal.”
Common challenges
While Jews and Latinos share a number of similarities and concerns, there are still issues that present challenges to the relationship, not the least of which is anti-Semitism. The Anti- Defamation League (ADL) said in a recent report that a total of 42% of foreign-born American Latinos hold at least some anti-Semitic beliefs, although that number drops to 20% for those born in the US. This compares to 15% of the overall US population which were viewed as holding anti-Semitic beliefs.
For their part, the ADL is working to raise awareness of this concern, and has conducted educational efforts to combat this prejudice within the Spanishspeaking community. In particular, the ADL has honored Spanish journalist Pilar Rahola for speaking out against anti-Semitism.
There was positive news on this front in early December, when the Latin American Parliament passed a declaration condemning anti-Semitism at its annual General Assembly held this time in Panama. The resolution specifically targeted conspiracy theories evoking Jewish control of media, finance, governments; denial of the Holocaust; and delegitimization of the State of Israel as contributing factors to “the new anti-Semitism.”
The declaration stated that “the members of the Latin American Parliament view anti-Semitism as a social manifestation that damages human dignity; denounce anti-Semitism as unacceptable in any society and incompatible with democracy; condemn the use of anti-Semitism as a political instrument; for strengthening education to contain anti-Semitism, the oldest prejudice, and to encourage respect, tolerance and coexistence.”
Still, outside the US many Latinos are lending their sympathies to the Palestinians, and a number of Latin American nations have backed the Palestinians on certain key grievances against Israel. For instance, several Latin American countries officially supported Palestinian efforts at the United Nations for unilateral statehood this year, some going so far as to endorse the pre-1967 lines as the borders of “Palestine.” Also worrisome is the fact that Brazil and Venezuela have taken a softer stance toward the Iranian nuclear threat. Israel’s ability to present its side of the conflict within the Spanish-speaking world often runs up against anti-Israel media bias. Many Hispanic Americans and people in Latin American countries get their news on Israel and other topics via the media in Spain, where the coverage on Israel is “terrible, all onesided,” explained Monty. So one way to increase understanding of Israel and to demonstrate the rights enjoyed by Israeli Arabs is to bring Latinos to Israel to see for themselves.
“Going to Israel is expensive but it’s well worth it, because we really saw the dial move with regard to some of the people’s perception of Israel,” said Monty.
Siegel added that his consulate recently partnered with the massive Spanish television broadcaster Univision to produce a program honoring Col. José Arturo Castellanos, who helped save Jews from the Nazi genocide while serving as the consul general to the El Salvador mission in Geneva, Switzerland.
Castellanos has been recognized as a “Righteous Gentile” by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the LA consulate hoped retelling his story would help sway some to the justness of Israel’s cause.
Common cause
Of course, some of the challenges facing Israel and the Jewish community in the Spanish-speaking world are concerns for US Latinos as well. For example, the government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has built ties with Iran, the main sponsor of global terror.
Tehran has had terrorist operatives in South America for decades, including those that bombed the AMIA Jewish community center and the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in the 1990s which killed more than 100 people.
Yoram Ettinger, a former Israeli Consul General in Houston and now the CEO of Second Thought: A US-Israel Initiative, said the Iranian activity in Latin America is a threat to more than just Jews. “The deepening involvement of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah in terrorist activities in Venezuela and other Latin American countries constitutes a key mutual threat to the Jewish state and to the Latino community and the US in general,” he warned.
That mutual threat has certainly registered with US Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, an American of Cuban descent who has proven to be a very strong supporter of Israel. Now the chairwoman of the powerful House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ros-Lehtinen has called for and endorsed legislation supporting Israel and its security in the US Congress on multiple occasions.
And some in Latin America have bucked the trend and proven to be true friends of Israel. For instance, Colombia, a rotating member of the UN Security Council, publicly refused to join the bandwagon of Latin nations ready to recognize Palestinian statehood at the UN Opening Assembly in September.
Monty said a Jewish-Latino joint trip to Colombia is planned for March, in part “because we’re very proud that they stood with Israel and the United States and were against that unilateral declaration [by the Palestinians].” Monty noted that it will also give the Jewish community a chance to support the Colombians in some of their concerns, such as trade.
So while developments in the international arena pose dramatic challenges to Jewish-Hispanic relations, they offer new opportunities for cooperation.
Ettinger noted that American Jewish leaders are well aware that the Latino community is growing in the US, both in numbers and influence.
“Hispanics are rapidly advancing up the political, business and media ladders in the USA... The enhanced political role of the community in the US is reflected in the House of Representatives, in governors’ mansions, in state legislatures, and it is a derivative of the higher profile of the community in academia, media and business.”
In light of that growth, it is not surprising that Siegel considers their outreach to the Latino community as a “top priority.” He said the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles has emphasized the importance of building individual relationships.
Recounting the story of a young Hispanic girl who visited Israel for the first time, Siegel said that when she was asked by her teacher about the trip she commented, “I didn’t know that there were any people there. I knew that there was a Dead Sea. I knew that there was a Sea of Galilee. I didn’t know that there were any people there.”
“We need to connect more on the human level, and we have to humanize Israel,” said Siegel.
Monty was confident that Jews could help Hispanics find the balance between successful integration into American society and maintaining their own cultural identity and traditions.
“We can be a big brother, so to speak, who has been there, done that,” he concluded.
Joshua Spurlock is a veteran reporter covering Israel and related issues, and currently serves as editor of The Mideast Update (