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Latinos and Jews Seek Political Alliance

November 14, 2012 By:
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Pundits may debate for years whether or not the Jewish vote mattered in 2012. Photo by Greg Bezanis

The question of whether the Jewish vote still matters is likely to be debated for years to come.

But no one is questioning, in the wake of Election Day, the importance of the Latino vote, not after Hispanics accounted for 10 percent of total voters and helped President Barack Obama win key swing states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

This unprecedented display of electoral muscle — something that’s been decades in the making — along with U.S. government projections that Latinos will account for about one third of the U.S. population within 40 years, has refocused attention on the need to strengthen alliances between Jews and Latinos.

Although it might be obvious why Jewish groups would seek to align themselves with a community that is growing in size and influence, it might not be readily apparent what Latino groups could gain from such a collaboration. As it turns out, Hispanic leaders say they have much to learn from their Jewish counterparts.

Napoleon Garcia, publisher of Impacto Latin, a Philadelphia-based community newspaper, pointed out that Jews comprise 2 percent of the population but make up more than 10 percent of the U.S. Senate. Hispanic Americans, on the other hand, make up 16 percent of the national population, but comprise just 2 percent of the Senate.

“We have absolute political disadvantages because we don’t understand the importance of political empowerment,” said Garcia. “We should take the example of the Jewish community. My idea is that we should join forces. We share political values. We share family values. We share religious values.”

Garcia was one of about 30 Jewish and Latino leaders who attended a Nov. 13 Center City workshop — planned well in advance of the election by the national arm of the American Jewish Committee — that was meant to serve as a springboard to a more formal coalition.

In the discussions, participants identified three broad areas where the two ethnic groups might be able to work together, though many of the specific aims were left to be worked out later. The first concerned political empowerment and working toward the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.

The Republican Party’s hard-line stance regarding immigration was largely seen as driving Hispanics away from Mitt Romney. In recent years, a growing number of Jewish groups have taken on immigration as a top issue. Several local Jewish organizations formed an immigration task force about a year ago. The group,  under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council, was created to help educate and mobilize the community on the issue.

Another aim of those gathered this week at the AJC forum was for the two groups to work to improve education in the region. They also examined how Jews might be able to help a wider portion of the Hispanic community  achieve economic empowerment.

Cultivating support for Israel among Latino Philadelphians ­wasn’t discussed explicity, but Rabbi Mark Robbins, the AJC’s area director, said that gaining friends for the Jewish state is one of AJC’s long-term goals.

“We have our own self-interest and it is legitimate, but the ethic of our tradition of tikkun olam propels us to be involved outside our parochial community,” said Robbins. “That is our responsibility and we take that seriously as Jews.”

Ann Schaffer, who directs AJC’s pluralism efforts nationally, said her group “is not asking Latinos to come out and lobby for Israel. That’s a step too far right now. Part of what we do is explain why Jews are so connected to Israel.”

Still, other groups see Hispanics as natural supporters of Israel. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, has hired several professionals devoted to Hispanic outreach; at its 2012 policy conference, AIPAC went out of its way to show off the African-American and Latino presences.

Experts in the field said that as much as 70 percent of the local Hispanic population is comprised of Puerto Ricans, who automatically hold American citizenship and, in the case of many families, have been settled in the country for several generations. At the same time, the region has growing Mexican, Columbian and Brazilian populations, which have their fair share of undocumented immigrants

Well before the presidential election — in which the majority of Jews (69-70 percent) voted for Obama but the Republican share of the Jewish vote increased  to about 30 percent — at least one social scientist was looking at the Jewish vote and the Hispanic vote side by side.

Ira Sheskin, a demographer at the University of Miami, said Jews have traditionally been overrepresented in elections and Hispanics underrepresented, but that may be changing.

“We need a coalition between Hispanics and Jews. Where we can find common ground, I think it clearly deserves to be explored,” said Sheskin. “I think the Jewish vote still matters. It didn’t matter as much in this election as it has in previous elections. Jews are very active.”

Donating to political campaigns in huge numbers, he said, “will get Jews noticed” whether or not the Jewish vote is important in a particular election.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the formation of a strong coalition between Jews and Latinos is a lack of familiarity. While ties may be longstanding in cities such as Miami and New York, the relationship is in its infancy in Philadelphia, according to Cynthia Figueroa, president and CEO of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, a local organization focused on promoting economic growth and fighting poverty.

“I don’t think that either community knows what the other has to offer,” Figueroa said, adding that she thinks Latinos can emulate Jews in how to retain a distinct cultural identity while fully integrating into American society.

Also, with the Latino demographic comprised of individuals from different places with vastly different cultures — say, Puerto Rico and Peru — Hispanics could also learn from the American Jewish experience of successfully bridging the once-wide chasm between Jews originally from Eastern Europe and those of German origin, Figueroa said.

If there’s one elephant in the room, it’s the history of anti-Semitism in parts of Central and South America, which observers say is sometimes carried with immigrants to this country.

However, a 2012 AJC survey about Latino attitudes toward Jews found that those sentiments are changing, and in many cases, not held at all by those born in the United States. 

Still, the survey found that 48 percent of Latinos felt Jews had too much influence on Wall Street, and 52 percent said that Jews probably feel more loyal to Israel than the United States. But 78 percent of respondents said Jews are committed to family life and 61 percent said  Jews have made a positive contribution to cultural life in the United States.

Many concluded from this data that there is ample potential for a relationship and members of each group simply have to get to know one another better. 

Hoping to do just that, participants in the local AJC discussion are making plans for a joint Jewish and Latino tour of Philadelphia and also possibly hosting  an event on immigration policy.

For Garcia, the publisher, all this represents a step in the right direction, but he’s really looking to looking to work toward identifying common achievable goals.

“The majority of the citizens of this country — black, white, Hispanic — they don’t really understand the importance of political power and what can be achieved through it,” he said. “We need to try and find a political agenda.”

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