Reappraising Jewish-Hispanic relations

Hispanic Americans should be natural allies of the Jewish community, especially in political terms.

latin jew 88 (photo credit: )
latin jew 88
(photo credit: )
In a recent column entitled "Give it a rest" (July 25), Prof. Samuel Freedman laments the American Jewish community's "obsession" with building ties to the African-American community. In listing reasons why the African-American community isn't as interested in the relationship, Freedman claims it has other, greater concerns; one of them being that Hispanics are surpassing them as America's largest racial minority. The Jewish community has been slow to realize this, and has undertaken far less community building with the Hispanic American community than with others. Hispanic Americans should be natural allies of the Jewish community, especially in political terms. Dr. Steven Windmueller, director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, asserts that Jews and Hispanics in America have much in common. These two cultures have both developed a similar pattern of community building, with a special focus on family, mutual aid societies and transnational links to their "motherlands." The idea of diaspora, of course, holds different meaning for various nationalities. Yet this notion of a cultural, philanthropic and political connection may provide a shared agenda. THE FOUNDATION for Ethnic Understanding compiled a landmark survey in 2003 which found that 75 percent of Hispanic and Jewish Americans consider it "very important" to work together to fight discrimination. Interestingly, 65% of Hispanics polled felt the Holocaust is not taught enough. However, when asked to "describe the relationship" between Hispanics and Jews in the United States, 40%-45% believed it was only "fair." This demonstrates the room for growth and the need for dialogue between the two communities. One area I have rarely seen addressed is the sense of shared history and roots. Few in or outside of the Jewish community are aware of the high number of "Hispanic" or "Spanish" Jews. Although today only a few hundred Jews in the US speak Ladino, there are thousands whose culture is rooted in Spanish tradition. Sephardi music is imbued with a familiar sound for Latino dance lovers, and more than one music historian has found Jewish roots in the familiar salsa, samba or meringue dance beat. There is even a Jewish/Latino/Ladino rap group, the Hip Hop Hoodios, who pepper their rhymes with Spanish and Ladino. PERHAPS EVEN more numerous than the Jews with Spanish and Latino roots are the Hispanics with Jewish roots. It has been suggested that almost half of the Spaniards and Portuguese alive today have Jewish ancestors, so it stands to reason that many of those who left the Iberian Peninsula for South and Central America had Jewish roots. In fact, many Jews fled Spain and Portugal for the New World because of the Spanish Inquisition, only to find that it followed them there. It is estimated that Mexico City alone has over 20,000 anusim or conversos. In 2003, a genetic test conducted by Family Tree DNA of men living in New Mexico, south Texas and northern Mexico found that 10%-15% had some Jewish DNA. In Brazil it has been estimated that 10%-25% are descended from forcibly converted Jews. The names Alvarez, Rivera, Lopez, Mendez and even Perez could indicate Jewish ancestry. Dr. Dell Sanchez, since finding out he had Jewish roots, has been on a quest to learn how many Hispanics have Sephardi ancestry, and claims "experts are saying that at least 10% of all Hispanics have Sephardic Jewish roots." Many Hispanics like Sanchez are finding Jewish roots through otherwise inexplicable traditions handed down through their family, deathbed confessions by parents or good old-fashioned genealogy. There are now enough Hispanic Jews who can build bridges between the communities and find areas of cooperation. In Chicago, the Sephardic Model Seder, a special Passover celebration, is held every year by the Alliance for Jews and Latinos - a group that aims to return to the common denominator of their distant pasts. LAST YEAR in Texas, the American Jewish Committee co-sponsored a three-day workshop with Mexico's Institute for Mexicans Abroad to highlight the discrimination some immigrants feel in the US. In this election year, Jews should reach out to other groups to build coalitions on issues of shared importance. To do this, our shared history and traditions must be evoked. Sephardim, anusim and Hispanics with Jewish roots should be thrust into the foreground of this endeavor and become a conduit for relations between the two communities. The writer is an editor at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs for the Middle East Strategic Information Project. This article first appeared in's "Sephardi Perspective" blog