June 27, 2002
Selling Israel to Progressive Latinos
Although progressives' cause-of-the-month is criticizing Israel's treatment of Palestinians, it has been endemic in the Latino left for years.
These progressive Latinos claim solidarity between themselves and Palestinians based on their supposed shared experience of being "people of color" resisting an invading "white" conqueror. Many Latino student organizations have formed alliances with Muslim and Arab groups in support of Palestinians, while rarely acknowledging Jewish groups, and often standing in direct opposition to them. The Palestinian-Latino left relationship is so entrenched that in the 1980s, for example, members of La Raza Unida Party (a Chicano political party) sent a delegation to meet with Yasser Arafat to discuss their respective situations.
This stance in and of itself is not anti-Israel, although it can easily be construed as such when fringe groups like La Voz de Aztlán are mistaken as an accurate reflection of the sentiments of the Latino community. But Latino students' championing of the Palestinian cause should cause concern for Jews, since the end result can be an entire generation of Latinos who equate Israel with a terrorist state not worthy of existing.
As a young Latino progressive, I believe in the state of Israel, despite what I feel to be sometimes unfair actions towards Palestinians. I'm sure that many of my peers who protest against Israel and claim allegiance with Palestinians would feel the same way I do if they knew the special ties between them and the Jews, and how the ideal of Israel can serve as an example for us and our parents. This week, with the opening of the Latino-Jewish festival, would be a good time to start.
Amid a Southern California demographics change of increasing Latinos, and with more Latinos involving themselves in politics, it is imperative on the behalf of Jews to show Latinos why Israel is important. Moralistic and theological arguments are not enough; the best way to do this, is for Jews to reconnect with a community that they have largely ignored for decades and emphasize still-salient ties. Latino-Jewish relations are currently at the point where each side has a set construct of the other community, making it complicated and nearly impossible to understand each groups' special issues. If Latinos and Jews cannot relate on a personal level, then how can Latinos be expected to support an idea as complicated and special as Israel?
Each side's respective dehumanization of the other must be changed before any discussion of Israel is brought into discussion. Many Latinos stereotype Jews as uncaring Westside socialites who never bother to venture into the Latino sections of Los Angeles. Conversely, some Jews see Latinos as unmotivated Third World migrants and are weary of their growing political clout.
One starting point in breaking down these stereotypes is pointing out the likeness of the Latino and Jewish immigrant experience. Like their Eastern European Jewish counterparts of the 20th century, Latino immigrants today flee repressive regimes and horrific economic conditions in search of a better life in the United States. By each side taking note of this, Jews can better understand the current situation of many Latinos, and Latinos can view the Jewish success story as an assimilation model to emulate.
Having connected on such a personal and historical level, Jews can start explaining Israel in an immigrant context that can be better appreciated by Latinos. For example, Jews have always raised money to support Israel. Many Latino immigrants, likewise, remit much of their hard-earned pay to improve living conditions in their home countries. But Israel is rarely depicted as an immigrant project and Latinos instead have to navigate through mainstream media reports of American government (as opposed to community) funding for Israel. If Latinos were to know the individual monetary (not to mention personal) investment proffered by Jewish Americans to Israel, Latinos would be much more concerned about its gradual destruction, since the parallel between Israel and their home countries would be unmistakable.
Viewed this way, the actual meaning of Israel will become a common theme that can be considered a shared ideal for both groups. Dispossession from their ancestral homelands is a central tenet of the Jewish and Latino experience, and Jews have managed to stake a claim to what was once theirs. Though Latinos are not seeking a homeland for themselves, they nevertheless pine for the land of their youth, back before it was ravaged by revolutionary and economic chaos. Emphasizing Israel as the culmination of an immigrant dream, rather than a God-mandated search, would play much better for overwhelmingly Christian Latinos who could care less about the religious aspect of Israel.
To make all of these points possible, the historical Jewish-Latino relationship in this city -- one that has been largely forgotten by both sides -- must be renewed. The barbed-wire fence surrounding the still-magnificent Breed Street shul is the only reminder for today's Latinos that Jews once lived among them in Boyle Heights. Jews forget that their support of councilmember-turned-Congressman Ed Roybal, during the 1950s, was one of the first indicators of Jewish political influence in traditionally anti-Semitic Los Angeles, and also paved the way for other cross-ethnic coalitions that continued up to last year's mayoral race. Though inroads have been reestablished by the Jewish and Latino elite, the common communities on both sides must be included in this dialogue in order to begin having a fuller understanding of Israel by all -- most importantly, the students.
It's up to American Jews themselves to reach out and teach us in the Latino community. If they don't, then Jews shouldn't be surprised when they see a young Latina claiming she is a Palestinian, denouncing Israel as a terrorist state.