Trade Deal Holds Different Appeal for Jews North and South of Border

The debate over the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement has revealed an interesting split between Jewish groups north and south of the U.S. Mexican border.

The Jewish community here has been virtually silent on an issue that has been something of an obsession in the capital of late.

Traditionally, “Jewish groups have not taken a position on trade issues,” said Bert Seidman, Washington representative for the Jewish Labor Committee, which seems to be the only major Jewish group actively involved in the NAFTA issue.

Like most U.S. labor groups, the Labor Committee opposes the accord.

But the situation in the small, close-knit Mexican Jewish community is very different.

Mexican Jews, many of whom are involved in business, are strong backers of the accord, which has support from various segments of Mexican society.

“Most Mexican Jews support NAFTA,” Dina Siegel, the director of Tribuna Israelita, a human relations agency of the Mexicans Jewish community, said in a telephone interview.

And the Mexicans have discussed it with their Jewish counterparts north of the border, some of whom have, in turn, passed on the Mexicans’ concerns to U.S. officials.

Mexicans have recently come to appreciate the “importance of lobbying,” said Judit Bokser- Liwerant, a political science professor in Mexico City who served as chief editor of a book on the Mexican Jewish community.

NAFTA MAY INCREASE MEXICO’S MODERNIZATION

As a result, there has been a “governmental expectation” in Mexico that “the Jewish community may talk to American Jewry” to support NAFTA, Bokser-Liwerant said.

NAFTA, regarded as one of the most complex trade documents ever negotiated, would make Canada, the United States and Mexico into a giant, powerful free trade zone.

The United States and Canada already have such an arrangement, so the focus here has been on the effect of adding the less-developed country of Mexico to the mix.

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to take up the issue Wednesday.

In meetings with Jews from the United States, the Mexican Jews have stressed the importance of the agreement to their community and to Mexico in general.

Jason Isaacson, Washington representative for the American Jewish Committee, said that on an AJCommittee mission to Mexico last February, NAFTA was the “No. 1 topic” in meetings held with Mexican Jewish leaders and the Mexican government including President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

While AJCommittee has not actively lobbied the U.S. government on NAFTA, Isaacson said, the group’s leaders have made an effort to pass along the views of the Mexican Jewish community to members of Congress and administration officials.

“It’s not as though we go in and say what Mexican Jews think about NAFTA,” Isaacson said. “But when the subject comes up, we express sympathy with our sister community in Mexico.”

Mexican Jews have supported NAFTA because they think it would increase economic modernization in their country.

With many Mexican Jews involved in business and industry, any “opening to new markets would benefit the Jewish community a lot,” said Siegel of Tribuna Israelita.

In addition, while not all agree, some in the Mexican Jewish community think NAFTA would encourage further political modernization in Mexico, and thus would create a more tolerant atmosphere for minorities.

“In a pluralistic society, there would be more space” to legitimize “Jewish identity and Jewish belonging,” said Bokser-Liwerant.

There is a close relation between “an open market and an open society,” she said.

Mexican Jews also have said they would welcome the closer ties to the United States that the agreement would bring, in part because of the close ties between the United States and Israel.

If NAFTA fails, it is possible that a “nationalistic reaction” could emerge in Mexico that would not help the country move toward “diversity, pluralism, and tolerance,” Bokser-Liwerant said.

The Jewish community of Mexico, centered in Mexico City, is estimated to number just 50,000, out of a population of some 88 million.

In addition to the Jewish community in Mexico, Jews from other parts of Latin America have said that if NAFTA does not pass, it will affect them badly.

‘A MEASURE OF AMERICAN INTENTIONS’

Jews from Chile and other South American countries have also expressed concern that if Congress rejects NAFTA, it will indicate that the United States is rejecting Latin America.

Warren Eisenberg, head of B’nai B’rith’s International Council, said some Jews throughout Latin America see NAFTA’s passage as “a measure of American intentions” on both trade issues and U.S. attention to the region in general.

There is concern among Jews of Latin America that if NAFTA is not passed, it will signal that “America is turning its back, and Japan will pick up the load,” Eisenberg said.

The B’nai B’rith office here has not taken a position on NAFTA.

In fact, NAFTA has stirred barely a ripple among the major American Jewish groups. With the exception of the Jewish Labor Committee, almost none of them have taken a public position on the issue that is dominating political talk in the capital.

Labor Committee officials agree with most other labor groups that Americans would lose jobs to Mexico as a result of the agreement.

And the group is criticizing as inadequate the so-called NAFTA “side agreements” that address concerns such as Mexico’s environmental problems.

But there is a special Jewish angle to their anti-NAFTA position, Labor Committee officials said.

“Anything that will disadvantage low-wage workers in the U.S. and Mexico,” such as NAFTA, would contradict Jewish philosophy, Seidman said.

“The issues of dispute in NAFTA are Jewish issues,” said the group’s executive director, Michael Perry. “Social and economic justice, a quality environment, an economy that works, full employment policies.”

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