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Israelis, Palestinians vie for Latino support during Pope’s visit

by Simone Wilson

May 27, 2014 | 1:43 pm

Pope Francis waves to a crowd in Bethlehem. Photo by Simone Wilson

Pope Francis waves to a crowd in Bethlehem. Photo by Simone Wilson

The first Latin American pope brought a wave of Latino love with him on his trip to the Holy Land last weekend.

At Pope Francis’ public prayer at Manger Square on May 25 in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, near the site where Jesus is believed to have been born, Spanish was being spoken almost as much as Arabic. Flags from Argentina and Spain flew alongside those of the Palestinian Authority and the Vatican.

Francisco Primero, te quiere el mundo entero! (Francis the First, the whole world loves you!) a group of Spanish tourists chanted as they rushed the square, surrounded by giddy Palestinian schoolchildren. And then, louder: “Viva El Papa! (Long live the Pope!)

On the walls of stone buildings above the tourists, Palestinian Museum officials had hung mural-sized posters mixing images from classic Christian paintings with photos of Palestinian suffering. In one, a re-mixed “Madonna in the Meadow” showed the Virgin Mary huddling with Baby Jesus under the infamous separation wall that now divides Israel and the West Bank. In another, “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” the saint’s hand was replaced by a Palestinian’s holding out his ID for an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint.

“Welcome to Palestine,” a huge banner proclaimed on the local mosque. “The detainees in the occupations prisons are pleading for freedom and dignity.”

So began Day One of the “Hasbara Superbowl” between Israelis and Palestinians, in which the ultimate prize was support of the international Christian community — and, in particular, Christian Latinos.

Joseph Hyman, president and founder of the Center for Entrepreneurial Jewish Philanthropy, made the Superbowl comparison back during the first-ever Israel Summit last January, where 17 pro-Israel organizations were vying for funding from some 100 philanthropists. The star of the summit, Hyman said, was Fuente Latina, an organization that assists Spanish-language media looking to cover Israel and the region. The organization needed a funding boost to provide extra resources during the Pope’s much-anticipated visit to the Holy Land.

Its pitch was a no-brainer. Latinos form the largest minority in the United States -- this year, they even surpassed non-Hispanic whites in California.

And in the University of California system, where impassioned debates over whether to divest from Israel have been pushing student-government meetings late into the night (as at many other campuses across the U.S.), more Latino students than white students have been accepted for fall 2014.

That’s not to mention the 21 countries that make up Latin America — whose population is 90 percent Christian, and mostly Catholic, like the pope — plus Spain and Portugal.

Fuente Latina’s director, Leah Soibel, an American with Argentinian parents, founded the organization in December 2012 after working seven years at The Israel Project, another nonprofit that aims to improve Israel’s image abroad. “We’ve been preparing for weeks,” she said in an interview a few days before the Pope’s arrival. “It’s going to be 72 hours of madness when he’s here. A lot of people are going to be watching — all eyes on Jerusalem.”

Even more than his predecessors, Pope Francis has captured hearts beyond the Catholic world: A pop-culture icon for his focus on the disenfranchised and his willingness to break molds of papal opulence, Francis was named 2013’s “Person of the Year” by Time Magazine. He speaks tirelessly of the importance of inter-religious dialogue and of putting social justice before capitalism. At a press conference in Jerusalem arranged by Fuente Latina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the leader of Argentina’s Jewish community and one of the pope’s closest friends, called him “probably the most influential person in the world.” 

Soibel said that the three employees at Fuente Latina normally process 50 to 100 requests in a month. In contrast, during the Pope’s visit, the organization was providing heavy assistance to about 300 media outlets.

Fuente Latina connected reporters with Spanish-speaking experts in Israel, arranged press conferences — most notably, the one with Rabbi Skorka, who co-authored the pope’s book on inter-religious dialogue — and took them on helicopter rides across Israel.

On one such sky tour, Soibel explained the reality on the ground to reporters from Mexico and Columbia, with an emphasis on Israel’s reasoning for building the separation wall and the fear experienced by Israelis near the border. The group also touched down in Sderot to tour a police exhibit of rockets that have been fired from Gaza. “When they don’t feel they’re getting enough attention, they begin to send rockets again,” Soibel said of the terrorists in Gaza.


Fuente Latina Director Leah Soibel with a case of rockets fired on Israel from Gaza. Photo by Simone Wilson

Later, the Mexican reporter wrote in an online piece for her news site, Religión Confidencial, that although the pope would observe the separation wall, in many Israeli cities he would also observe minimal separation — places where Jews, Christians and Muslims live in peaceful coexistence.

Jewish philanthropy leader Hyman said of the helicopter rides: “For journalists to look at the size of Israel and understand its nature, it lends a sensitivity to why Israel is so concerned on the existential front.”

The Vatican also pulled its weight in the battle for public opinion. The pope’s visit was the picture of balance: He ate lunch with Palestinian refugees and spontaneously stepped down from his Popemobile to pray at the separation wall in Bethlehem, which is covered in anti-Israel graffiti. On the other side of the Green Line, he laid a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and blessed a group of gravely ill Christian Arab-Israeli children (at the request of Israel’s branch of the Make-A-Wish Foundation).

The pope also stopped for an instantly iconic photo of three very different Argentinians — the heads of Argentina’s Jewish, Catholic and Muslim communities — hugging at the Western Wall.

“He will try to balance,” Rabbi Skorka said in advance of the pope’s visit at the Fuente Latina press conference. “This is going to be his policy in his speeches and in his acts. Total balance, this is what he is.” 

But while Pope Francis tried to spread his love evenly, Israeli and Palestinian heads of state fought for the upper hand. After the pope’s stop at the separation wall, Israeli Prime Minister Benjaman Netanyah steered him toward a Jerusalem memorial for Israeli victims of terrorism, so he could pray there, too. And both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas argued in their welcoming speeches that life is better for Christians under their jurisdiction.

Abbas condemned “the settlement enterprise, and daily attacks on places of worship including churches and mosques.” He also emphasized his willingness to “work together to strengthen the Palestinian indigenous Christian presence in the Holy Land, especially in Jerusalem.”

Netanyahu, meanwhile, told the pope: “The rights of Christians in this state are protected. To my sorrow, that doesn’t happen in other places in the Middle East. … Palestinian terrorists not only hurt us, they also harm Christians.”

Rima Saba, an American-educated Palestinian and “staunch Catholic” from Ramallah, spoke to the Journal in the crowd at the Bethlehem rally — the pope’s only public, open-air event while in the Holy Land. “This is an international, historical moment,” Saba said. “It means a lot for Palestine and its people. This is the land of Jesus Christ, but it also carries a lot of meaning and emotion for us as Palestinians. The fact that [the Pope] chose to come to Palestine first shows he really has clarity of vision, vis à vis the Palestinian question — that we are refugees, that we have been tortured and evicted.”

An increasingly popular annual conference called “Christ at the Checkpoint,” a project of the Bethlehem Bible College, has tried to loosen Israel’s monopoly on Evangelical Christian financial and moral support abroad.

“With every passing month, more evidence is emerging that these anti-Israel Christians are succeeding in reaching beyond the evangelical left and are influencing the mainstream,” David Brog, executive director of Christians United For Israel (CUFI), wrote after this year’s conference. “In particular, they are penetrating the evangelical world at its soft underbelly: the millennial generation.”

OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano, author of the “¡Ask a Mexican!” column and an advocate of Jewish-Latino relations, agreed that although Israel has wooed many members of the Latino political class, it's losing them at college level: “In the Latin market in general, but especially in the U.S. and among young people, the Palestinians are definitely winning the battle.”

According to Arellano, the "brown people oppressed by white oppressors” narrative is easy for pro-Palestine groups to sell to young Latinos going through their "leftist years where they love all revolutionary causes.”

He said this stems from the reality that “the Israel question registers not a blip for Latinos — not until one side of the other comes to them with their perspective. Kind of like, ‘We’re yours, whoever gets to us first.’"


Pope Francis drives by a crowd holding Palestinian flags in Bethlehem. Photo by Simone Wilson

Separate polls conducted by The Israel Project and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) over the past few years have shown that U.S. Latinos, in particular, are somewhat of a blank slate when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“There’s a lack of awareness” about the region among Latinos in the U.S., Soibel said. “They have more pressing issues, like immigration, health care, economy. We know very well that Israel is down the list of things that matter personally to them.”

But as Latinos become more politically and economically empowered in America, said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the Latino and Latin American Institute at AJC, “they’re slowly but surely becoming a very influential and important group, which will have an impact on decision-making in this country. So it’s important to us that they understand what Israel is about. That they understand we are partners.”

Geraldo Rivera, a columnist for Fox News Latino, likewise pointed out in 2011 that Israel would not be a state, nor would Palestine enjoy “non-member state” status at the United Nations, if not for the Latin American voting block.

“Relations between Latin America and Israel are starting to look like a budding love affair,” World Politics Review commentator Frida Ghitis wrote in February following a wave of cross-globe visits between Israeli and Latin American leaders.

“Israel and Latin America have discovered each other — or, to be precise, a portion of Latin America has,” she added. “Latin America is increasingly falling into two separate camps, and it is one of those camps that has found an affinity for Israel.”

Speaking to the Journal at the pope’s prayer rally at Manger Square, most religious tourists from Spain and Latin America distanced themselves from the Israel-Palestine issue, refusing to take a stance.

“It’s very complicated,” said Laura Rodriguez, a Catholic visitor from Spain. “There’s no one truth about it.”

Also in the crowd was Buenos Aires politician Lidia Saya, who said she had traveled to Bethlehem with a group of 60 dignitaries, including Argentinian religious leaders Father Pepe Di Paola and Rabbi Alejandro Avruj. “The grand majority of us [Argentinians] don’t understand the conflict. The grand majority don’t have a position,” she said. However, “coming here, and having to go through a checkpoint just to get to the plaza — I can see that it’s very bad for the citizens.”


Argentinian journalist Nelson Castro interviews religious tourists from Argentina in Bethlehem. Photo by Simone Wilson

Carlos Boselle, also from Buenos Aires, was on a tour with around 70 Catholics from across Latin America. He said that many Israelis and Palestinians had tried to argue their position to him. Although he called the Israelis “big fanatics,” he said he understood that “Israel has its reasons” for building the separation wall. “They’re protecting their rights, too.”

Another group of sunburned Argentinians heading back through the checkpoint at the end of the day looked rather shell-shocked when all the Palestinians were pulled off the bus and examined for 20 minutes before they could continue on to Jerusalem.

According to Vann at the AJC, missing this prime era for Latino outreach could have big consequences. 

“It could go one way, or it could go the other way,” Vann said. “Because there’s a lack of information out there [about Israel], you have an incredible opportunity, if you do it correctly in a strategic way, to inform. … There’s a sense of urgency and a small window of opportunity to make a difference before Latinos truly become empowered.”

AJC, as well as the Anti-Defamation League, runs dozens of Israel tours for Latino politicians, faith leaders, culture-makers and other dignitaries. But other organizations, like Fuente Latina, have taken a more back-channel approach to reach a greater audience.

“As this area began to heat up in terms of the Arab Spring, which was widely covered by the Latino media — Syria, Egypt, ongoing issues here in Israel — there was a growing demand” for Spanish-language press resources in the region, Soibel said.

And with the pope’s visit to Israel, demand flew off the charts — opening new opportunities for Latino outreach. “When you have a journalist that is taking one stance versus another stance, it’s about making that personal connection,” Soibel added. “That’s why the language is so important.”

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