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With New Community Leader, Mexico’s Jews Push for Reform

March 18, 2004
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In a time of increasing terrorism and rising anti-Semitism, many Jewish communities around the world have made security their No. 1 concern.

But in Mexico, the country’s Jews have both the fortune and misfortune of having concerns about economic security atop the community agenda.

The new president of Mexico’s Central Jewish Committee says he is determined to work with all levels of the Mexican government to ensure that the country moves toward economic stability.

Benjamin Speckman began a two-year term on Jan. 1 as president of the group that officially represents the Jewish community in Mexico.

“The principal goal we have is to reinforce all the relationships we have with the social, political and cultural figures in the country,” said Speckman, a Mexico City native who is a former president of the Jewish Sport Center here. “These are hard times in Mexico in every aspect, so it is important to have these relationships.”

Mexican Jews, like other Mexicans, are hoping that a recovering U.S. economy will pull the United States of Mexico out of its economic slump. Although the Jewish community in Mexico has not suffered economically like the one in Argentina, about one in 10 Jews in Mexico receives community aid.

“We’re obviously not going back to the years of great bonanza, but we hope to have an adequate situation for the community,” Speckman said. “We hope that people who don’t have jobs will find them, that businesses that aren’t going well will improve.”

One priority for the committee will be encouraging the passage of President Vicente Fox’s fiscal reforms, which could resurface this year in the Mexican Congress. The reforms failed in a special congressional session in late December after internal fighting in the Institutional Revolutionary Party led to political gridlock.

Although Mexico’s Jewish leaders don’t want to endorse a particular reform agenda — the details of which are highly political — they believe that some reform is essential.

“We are convinced that if the country goes ahead without some type of reforms, we’re going to be at a standstill,” said Mauricio Lulka, the executive director of the Central Jewish Committee. “The country changed, the structure changed, but there weren’t reforms, so we’re going backwards.”

Focus on the reforms could be delayed during the first half of the year as the country gears up for gubernatorial and municipal elections taking place in 14 Mexican states beginning in May. And there is a lot of talk here about potential candidates for the 2006 presidential election.

The Central Jewish Committee does not endorse candidates, but it does make policy recommendations.

“We have no other interest than Mexico moving forward, because if Mexico moves forward, the community moves forward,” Speckman said.

There are about 50,000 Jews in Mexico, most of whom live in Mexico City. The Central Jewish Committee is comprised of six communities in Mexico City, which are mostly distinguished by the origin of the members’ ancestors, as well as the Jewish Sport Center and the communities in Guadalajara, Monterrey and Tijuana.

The committee this year will be closely watching the actions of the National Council to Prevent Discrimination, which began operating in January in accordance with the landmark Federal Law to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination, signed by President Vicente Fox last June.

The law specifically declares anti-Semitism an unacceptable form of discrimination.

Each local government entity is expected to ratify the federal law, and Mexico City’s Miguel Hidalgo delegation in January became the first to do so, creating a local version of the national council that enforces the law.

“We remain involved in the process because we obviously have a lot of interest in this moving forward,” said Speckman, who added that relations between Jews and non-Jews in Mexico generally are excellent.

For Speckman, a top priority for the Jewish community in Mexico continues to be security.

A chief of security sits on the committee, and each community designs its own security measures. They often include armed guards, metal detectors and extra security on holidays.

“Terrorism has changed the rules of the game. With the incident in Argentina,” Speckman said, referring to the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community headquarters in Buenos Aires, “we’re realizing that if it can happen there, it can happen in Venezuela, it can happen in Costa Rica, it can happen in Guatemala. Why not Mexico? We will take every precaution we can.”

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