WASHINGTON, March 7 (JTA) Think of the American Jewish and Latino communities as two longtime friends who have just decided to get more serious.
After years of dialogue mostly at the local level top organizations and leaders met here this week at the first national Jewish-Latino summit to discuss the development of a common agenda and ways to strengthen the alliance between the two groups.
But even those involved with the summit admit that the issue of bilingual education looms as a potential problem for closer ties between the two groups.
The Jewish community organized, wealthy and politically savvy and the Latino community, the fastest-growing minority group in America, need each other to help push their common legislative priorities, leaders say.
The two communities already have worked closely on a number of legislative issues, such as civil rights enforcement, immigration policies and hate crimes legislation.
A joint declaration of principles discussed at the summit is being circulated among Jewish and Latino groups, according to Dina Siegel Vann, Latin American Affairs director for B’nai B’rith International, which co-sponsored the summit.
The declaration calls for fair portrayals of Jews and Latinos in the media, strengthening of public education, support for Israel, increased aid to Latin America and economic empowerment for minority communities.
Groups attending the conference included the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the United Jewish Communities, the National Council of La Raza, the New America Alliance and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
The conversation between the two communities was long overdue, said Maria del Pilar Avila, executive vice president of New America Alliance, an organization of Latino business leaders that also helped organize the summit.
“Together, we are stronger,” del Pilar Avila said, noting that a joint Jewish-Latino task force will develop a plan of action within the next two months.
A national survey of Latino-Jewish relations released at the summit showed a number of areas of commonality between the communities, such as support for stronger anti-discrimination laws.
But one striking difference was that nearly a third of Jewish respondents to the survey do not support bilingual education at all, while almost two-thirds of Latinos said they strongly support it.
That divergence could become a barrier between the two communities, said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a New-York based group that focuses on relations between Jews and other ethnic groups and which conducted the survey.
Siegel Vann said that despite the Jewish respondents’ answers in the survey, Jewish organizations by and large do support bilingual education.
Schneier believes education will be the primary issue the two communities can rally around. In addition, he said, areas of disagreement ultimately will energize and help the Jewish-Latino relationship by forcing them to discuss their differences.
Some 500 respondents from each community were interviewed for the survey. The Latino sample was far younger fully half under the age of 40 than the Jewish group, almost half of whom were 55 or older.
Other survey findings include:
* Forty percent of Jewish respondents are strongly opposed to President Bush’s faith-based initiative, while 40 percent of Latinos support the plan;
* Three-fourths of the Jews and half of the Latino respondents said the Catholic Church did not do enough to help Jews during the Holocaust;
* Approximately one-third of both Jews and Latinos think there is anti-Semitism in the Latino community, while 36 percent of Latinos and just 20 percent of Jews feel there is anti-Latino sentiment in the Jewish community;
* Half of the Latino respondents said they were unaware of how Jews were treated during the Spanish Inquisition;
* Two-thirds of Latino respondents said schools do not teach enough about the Holocaust, a higher percentage even than among the Jews (55 percent);
* Twenty percent of Latinos believe U.S. policy is too supportive of Israel.
The summit showed a commitment by national groups to develop the communities’ relationship and a willingness to learn from the ongoing local dialogues, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who spoke at the summit.
A number of local efforts are under way to bring the two communities closer.
For example, the Detroit Jewish Initiative matches the Jewish community with the Community Health and Social Services Center and the Detroit Public Schools on projects to improve the health of Detroit’s Latinos.
In Chicago, the Alliance of Latinos and Jews, developed in 1994, focuses on areas of common concern such as business and economic development, immigration, education and social and cultural affairs.
New America Alliance and B’nai B’rith International have started a Latino Jewish Fund that will help support the growing relationship between the two communities at the national, state and local levels.
National organizations now will push local people to model successful programs, Saperstein said. The Religious Action Center, for its part, will step up its efforts in coalition-building, local social services and intercultural programming, he said.