WASHINGTON, May 7 (JTA) – When Barry Jacobs, a Foreign Service officer for 28 years and now director of strategic studies for the American Jewish Committee, learned that Mexican President Vicente Fox was to speak at the group’s annual dinner, he was more than surprised.
“It’s mind-blowing,” said Jacobs, who serves as the AJCommittee’s liaison to the Mexican Jewish community. “It was an incredible honor that he flew up for this event.”
Fox was eager to participate in the May 3 dinner, according to AJCommittee officials. In his speech, drew parallels between Jewish immigrants who left Europe seeking a better life in America and Mexicans who are moving to the United States for the same purpose.
“One feature stands out throughout history as a determining factor in the shaping of the character of the Jewish people – the experience of migration,” Fox said. “Time and again, Jewish communities had to travel to distant lands in search of a better life.
“In a sense, although for reasons very different from those of the Jewish people, Mexico has also become a country of migrants who, through their skills and hard work, contribute to the prosperity and cultural life of the communities where they have settled, particularly in the United States,” Fox said.
Fox’s well-received speech – indeed, his mere presence at the event – reflects the growing importance that Mexico’s 40,000 Jews have obtained in their country, say observers. When AJCommittee leaders visited Mexico in October and invited Fox, then the president-elect, to speak at their dinner, he accepted immediately.
“It says that the president of Mexico, not withstanding the size of the community, understands that a Jewish community adds quality to any country,” said Shula Bahat, AJCommittee’s acting executive director.
Jacobs said several members of Fox’s Cabinet have some Jewish background, even though Jews make up less than half of 1 percent of Mexico’s population.
“The importance of the Jewish community in Mexico is that they are a small community doing well economically,” Jacobs said.
Jews moved to Mexico largely as an alternative to the United States and Palestine at the turn of the 20th century, and have established a strong community, primarily in Mexico City.
Executives at a leading Jewish organization in Mexico say the community’s political clout has grown in recent years.
They note the important role Jews play in American politics, as well as Fox’s well-known desire to emulate America in both the economic and diplomatic arenas, as reasons for his eagerness to speak to the AJCommittee.
That, coupled with Fox’s friendship with President Bush, has opened new doors for the Jewish community in the political realm.
“We are very active in different areas of the national agenda,” said Renee Dayan Shabot, director of Tribuna Israelita, a leading Mexican Jewish community organization. “We have a close relationship with government officials, particularly in different projects that the new government has launched,” mentioning welfare reform as an example.
Bahat said the AJCommittee is doing mentoring projects with Tribuna Israelita.
The AJCommiittee also is urging leaders around the world to embrace their countries’ Jewish communities, no matter how small.
“Jewish communities around the world serve as a beacon, because the way a society treats its Jewish community says a lot about that society,” Bahat said.
Fox echoed those comments.
“Today, Mexico and the United States are intricately bound by the profound ties that unite Mexican and Mexican-American communities with their country of origin,” he said. “But we also have strong ties between our respective Jewish communities, which on a daily basis work for the benefit of our nations.”
Many American Jewish leaders have expressed surprise with the warm relationship Bush has developed with the organized Jewish community in his first 100 days in office.
In his own speech to the AJCommittee, Bush emphasized the need for religious freedom around the world and chastised countries that engage in religious persecution, singling out Sudan and China.
“The story of Exodus still speaks across the millennium,” Bush said. “No society in all of history can be justly built on the backs of slaves.”
He noted the human right improvements of several countries – including Morocco and Jordan – but pushed for others to do more to protect Jews and other religious minorities.
“It is not an accident that freedom of religion is one of the central freedoms in our Bill of Rights,” Bush said. “It is the first freedom of the human soul, the right to speak the words that God places in our mouths.”