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National Groups Aim to Build Latino-jewish Political Coalitions

December 31, 2002
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Rabbi Marc Schneier felt snubbed last summer when the Congressional Black Caucus held a retreat with the Asian American and Hispanic caucuses, and didn’t invite Jewish members of Congress.

“Why should the Jews just sit by and be left out?” Schneier asked, “We’re a minority,” too.

That’s why the organization Schneier heads, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding — which has 13 years of experience fostering intergroup ties — is trying to expand its operations, especially in the field of Latino-Jewish relations.

So, too, is the Latino-Jewish Leadership Council, which was created at the first-ever Latino-Jewish Summit in March 2001.

As the number of U.S. Latinos grows, members of the council say it makes sense to link Jewish political experience with Latino demographic influence.

“Hispanics and Jews have been working together for many years, but only in an informal way,” says Dina Siegel Vann, director of United Nations and Latin American affairs at B’nai B’rith International. B’nai B’rith is one of the leading forces on the council, which is headed by 15 board members.

Five spots on the board will be held by representatives from national Latino organizations. Five are held by national Jewish organizations — B’nai B’rith International, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and most likely Hillel and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The remaining five seats will be reserved for individual leaders.

Council members agreed at the summit to establish committees in four major policy areas: education, economic development and philanthropy, foreign affairs and immigration and media images.

With the council’s official launch not scheduled until February 2003, many of the campaigns are still in the planning stages.

The AJCommittee has suggested an organizing model similar to that used by the Polish American-Jewish American Council, which connects local groups across the country via regular conference calls and e- mail. The council’s member organizations are headquartered in different locations, some in Washington, New York or Los Angeles.

The Leadership Council will be able to dictate policy initiatives from the top down to its national membership bases.

The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding plans to open a Washington office by next summer to focus primarily on Capitol Hill, working directly with legislators in the Hispanic and black caucuses.

Working together on a leadership level will allow Latinos and Jews to mutually support each other on foreign policy concerns: Latino leaders say they are willing to support Israel in exchange for Jewish support for economic development aid to Latin America.

Now is a critical time to for strategic political alliances between two groups that have not interacted much in the past. Jewish intergroup relation efforts usually have focused on the black community, Vann said.

But in the “last decade, we have seen a demographic explosion” of the Hispanic population — they currently are the largest minority in the United States, numbering over 35.5 million, according to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute — and now “is an adequate time to reach out,” Vann said.

The goal of the Council is to build a common agenda where possible, and to “find issues which we can advocate together” said the AJCommittee’s Ann Schaffer, director of the Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Center for American Pluralism.

A March 2001 survey of Latino-Jewish relations, commissioned by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, found that 75 percent of each community considers it “very important” to work together to fight discrimination. Both communities overwhelmingly support universal health care and stronger family values, and members attend synagogue or church on a regular basis.

As is often the case with coalition building, however, leaders prefer to talk about “working together” instead of addressing rifts that might need to be addressed between the two communities.

Having a contentious issue may actually help strengthen Jewish-Latino dialogue, Schneier said, speaking from his experience building relationships with African American community leaders.

“Sometimes it takes a negative issue or even a minor schism” between two groups to initiate a truly authentic relationship, he continued.

The most significant difference between the two communities highlighted in the Foundation’s survey was bilingual education: Some 64 percent of Latinos “strongly support” bilingual education, a sentiment shared by less than 19 percent of Jews.

On other issues, 40 percent of Jews do not at all support President Bush’s faith-based initiative — which would allow government funds to go to religious groups that provide social services — while 40 percent of Latinos either strongly support or support the initiative.

Council leaders won’t say how the board will address points of difference.

“There will be differences,” Schaffer said, “but there is enough common ground” for the council to focus on issues both groups can agree on.

That’s a formidable task, considering that American Hispanics are such a diverse population — hailing from more than 20 countries — with different cultural experiences and values.

More than half the Hispanics in the United States, some 20.6 million, are of Mexican origin, according to the 2000 census.

Another 3.4 million come from Puerto Rico, 1.2 million from Cuba, 1.7 million from Central America, 1.4 million from South America and 765,000 from the Dominican Republic.

Jews also are not a monolithic population.

Still, as a result of the new initiatives committed leaders in each community are assured that next year in Washington, Latino-Jewish coalitions will have a place at the political table.

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