March 9, 2011
The new power of a Latino-Jewish coalition in L.A.
(Page 3 - Previous Page)
POLICY PRIORITIES: ISRAEL OR IMMIGRATION REFORM?
Building interethnic relationships requires conversations like these — conversations that take place at the leadership level and involve balancing different priorities. It’s a challenging process.
But even as these bilateral conversations are ongoing, many other separate projects are being undertaken by a variety of Jewish organizations. The projects are aimed at a much broader segment of the Latino population. They are also, by and large, far more specifically focused on increasing Latino support for Israel.
The Israel Project, which disseminates pro-Israel information to journalists around the world, launched a Spanish Media Program last October in an effort to improve the overall image of Israel in the Spanish-language media. Even the Israeli diplomatic corps in the United States is working to get its message out to the U.S. Latino community through the media. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren did his first extended Spanish-language television interview on Univision in January. (The ambassador spoke English, but host Jorge Ramos gamely said he hoped the next interview would be en español.)
Other organizations are working to spread pro-Israel messages through faith-based channels. Federation’s Holy Land Democracy Project takes local teachers, most of them from Los Angeles’ predominantly Latino Catholic schools, to Israel over the summer to allow them to experience Israel. It then presents them with a curriculum for Israel education to use in their classrooms.
Israel also is part of AJC’s course about Judaism for Latino Pentecostal pastors, La Esencia del Judaísmo. Since it was launched in 2007, more than 250 Los Angeles pastors have taken the course.
And the small, Los Angeles-based Israel Christian Nexus (ICN) works to galvanize support for Israel in Southern California’s Evangelical communities, many of which are largely Latino. Last December, Pastor Daniel de Leon, who leads a community of more than 6,000 at Templo Calvario in Santa Ana, spoke in Spanish at an ICN-sponsored event in Anaheim, where more than 1,000 Christians had gathered to hear from Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Despite these and other efforts, Israel isn’t high on most Latinos’ agendas.
De Leon regularly leads his parishioners in prayers for Israel, but, he said, they are far more concerned with job opportunity, immigration policy and educational advancement.
“When you’re trying to survive,” de Leon said, foreign policy “is not uppermost in your mind.”
In January, The Israel Project published data intended to show that “in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hispanics support Israel by a better than five-to-one margin.” But a close look at the data supports almost the exact opposite conclusion.
Of the Latinos polled about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 44 percent said that the United States should support Israel. That may vastly outnumber the 6 percent who said the United States should support the Palestinians — but a full 50 percent of those polled expressed neither opinion.
Many Latino leaders echoed this assessment of Latino public opinion on Israel. Ayón, the political scientist, said that this shouldn’t come as a surprise. “Foreign policy is a foreign subject for most people,” Ayón said. “Even if they have some familiarity with it, they’re not involved with it. It tends to be managed by elites.”
Elites like Peter Villegas, an executive with a large, multinational corporation, who is on the boards of MALDEF and the Alliance for a Better Community, an established leadership group of Los Angeles Latino leaders. Villegas is a member of AIPAC’s national council. He has been to four AIPAC Policy Conferences in Washington, D.C., and has traveled to Israel twice on AIPAC missions for Latino leaders. But he knows that members of his community don’t really pay that much attention to foreign policy, let alone events in Israel and the Middle East.
“I’ve always been interested in world affairs. I’ve always watched activities and events internationally with interest, and this relationship [with AIPAC] has helped provide me with knowledge,” Villegas said. “With others in my community, the U.S.-Israel relationship is not high on the agenda of the Latino community.”
Villegas appeared on the panel with Padilla at YICC in February. As he does every time he speaks to a Jewish audience, he sent this simple, clear message to the pro-Israel Jewish community: “That you have a friend. That you’re not in this alone,” Villegas said. “That my community is concerned.”
Jewish community leaders could be said to be walking a similar course when they speak out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. Countless times in recent years, Jewish groups have made statements about the need for legislation reforming the U.S. immigration system — despite the fact that American Jews don’t put the item very high on their own political agendas.
AJC speaks out strongly and frequently in favor of immigration reform, and its Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion does occasionally touch on immigration issues. In 2007, in response to a question asking American Jews to identify “the most important problem facing the United States today,” more were concerned about the Iraq war (16 percent), the economy and jobs (22 percent), terrorism and national security (15 percent), and health care (19 percent) than were worried about immigration (8 percent).
In 2008, the AJC survey asked what respondents would like to hear the candidates for president speak about. Far more American Jews wanted the presidential hopefuls to talk about the economy (54 percent) than wanted to hear about immigration (2 percent).
The Jewish groups that support comprehensive immigration reform typically say that their positions are based on a combination of lessons from American Jewish history, Jewish values and a vision of America as a country of immigrants, but it’s clear that they do this to help solidify Latino-Jewish alliances as well.
“It’s the fundamental rule of coalitional politics,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism. The RAC was one of at least six national Jewish organizations that urged the lame-duck Congress in late 2010 to pass the DREAM Act, which would have offered a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States by their parents before they turned 16. “If you want to have a friend,” Saperstein said, “you’ve got to be a friend.”
ABOVE ALL, CONNECT
In his answer to Karra Greenberg’s question at YICC, the first thing Padilla said — before he spoke about the need for Jews to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level — was that the issues that matter to Latinos are the same ones that matter to other Angelenos. Latinos, Padilla said, want quality public education, safe streets, good job opportunities — just like Jews do. “There’s not a special set of issues,” he said.
Neither the Latino nor the Jewish community is monolithic, but it seems easier for these communities’ leaders to support one another’s unique political priorities than it is for them to identify the priorities that their communities share. Many Latino leaders have traveled to Israel and talked positively about the experience; many Jewish groups have made statements in support of comprehensive immigration reform — still, finding a shared set of goals is proving challenging.
“I don’t think there are competing interests,” NALEO’s Vargas said. As far as the Latino-Jewish leadership meetings, Vargas said, “I think that one of the things that we are struggling for is identifying what our mutual interests are.”
And that’s not the only challenge to building a Latino-Jewish coalition; establishing the criteria to demonstrate success is also difficult.
“It’s hard to actually assess the success of these efforts,” said David Lehrer, who founded the Latino-Jewish Roundtable when he was ADL regional director. “The only way to do it is to poll people, which is expensive and time consuming. So you just have to assume that more connections are better than fewer connections.”
And that’s essentially the message Padilla conveyed at YICC last month — except that he was talking about all Latino-Jewish connections, not just at the leadership level. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Padilla said, he hadn’t experienced the “Eastside-Westside” divide between Jews and Latinos that he sees in the city.
Padilla emphasized the power of informal connections to foster mutual understanding. He recounted an experience from his childhood in a San Fernando Valley public school. He offered a friend half of his sandwich, but the friend, who was Jewish, said he could not accept. That’s how Padilla learned about keeping kosher.
Then again, Padilla added, “The first seder I got invited to was when I got into office.”
His meaning was clear: Padilla may have learned about what Jews don’t eat in public school, but it wasn’t until he was elected to city council that someone invited him over to find out what Jews do eat.