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Jewish Journal

The Age of Coalitions

Numbers...do not predict...influence

by James D. Besser

March 22, 2001 | 6:59 pm

Two recent events in Washington pointed to some interesting -- and potentially troubling -- changes in the Jewish political landscape in the new century.

First, the Census Bureau started releasing data from the 2000 survey of the nation. The most dramatic finding: a surging Hispanic population is poised to outnumber African Americans, thanks to a decade-long explosion in immigration.

In the same week, B'nai B'rith held a first-of-its-kind conference with Hispanic groups, and the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding used the event to unveil a groundbreaking survey. The object of both was to probe public policy positions the two communities share and to begin the process of building pragmatic coalitions.

The conference did not produce any dramatic breakthroughs, but it pointed the Jewish community in the right direction.

To maintain the political influence developed during the past 50 years, Jewish leaders will have to become much more energetic and creative in working with the minorities that are taking their rightful place in the American political cosmos.

And to do that, Jews will have to return to a much broader mode of political activism. Support for Israel will remain a vital concern, but Israel alone cannot provide the substance for the kinds of coalitions Jews will need to maintain hard-won political clout.

The plain fact is, Jews are a tiny and diminishing proportion of the U.S. population, while other groups are experiencing dramatic growth.

The Hispanic population, according to the recent census, grew about 60 percent since the last census; the community totals about 35.3 million.

Hispanics aren't the only group experiencing rapid growth. The Asian community surged 72 percent, bringing the overall Asian population to almost 12 million.

The census does not ask questions about religion, so it has nothing to say about the Jewish population. But other surveys show that there are about 6 million Jews in this country, or about 2.2 percent of the total population. And that proportion has been shrinking, thanks to intermarriage, assimilation and a lower than average birthrate.

In politics, though, the Jewish community is living proof that numbers alone do not predict political influence.

The community's passion -- both on domestic issues and Israel -- has generated a potent tradition of activism. Jews have become important players in electoral politics; in the Democratic party, Jewish activism is one of the threads holding the party together.

And affluent Jews, mostly working on behalf of the pro-Israel cause, have become critical funders and fundraisers in both parties, a fact that multiplies the community's influence.

But other communities, in many cases openly using the Jewish community as a model, are learning the same techniques.

The Hispanic community is much more diverse than the Jewish community, and it lacks the kind of overarching, unifying issue that Jews have with Israel. But Hispanics are increasingly affluent, and they have the advantage of being a genuine "swing" vote, actively courted by both major parties.

Asians have been remarkably successful in educating their children and building a strong economic base.

In the next few decades, these groups and others will solidify their own positions in American political life, boosted by both the kinds of tactics the Jewish community has employed with great success and by their own far greater numbers.

They will build coalitions with each other as well, creating powerful political blocs on issues of common interest.

This doesn't mean that Jewish power is doomed, but it does mean that our community's leaders will have to spend much more time and energy bringing their organizations into effective coalitions with these groups.

And those coalitions must be based on mutual support and sensitivity.

It is not enough for Jewish groups to demand concrete support for Israel, then offer just general statements of support for things like civil rights. Increasingly, these groups want specific help with items on their agendas, both domestic and foreign.

The B'nai B'rith conference represented a first step in trying to identify some of the issues that could serve as the nucleus of effective coalitions.

Some of the issues will be easy. Jews, Hispanics, Asians and others have a clear common interest in better immigration and refugee policies, and in better services for new arrivals. All three communities take special care of their elderly and want to maintain important government programs.

Foreign aid is more difficult. Hispanic groups -- like African American organizations -- are unhappy that foreign aid to the areas they care about the most is a minuscule proportion of the overall budget.

To their credit, some pro-Israel groups have been fighting for an expansion of aid spending globally, even as they work to protect Israel's huge proportion of it. But it may take more, including active advocacy of aid programs that potential coalition partners care about.

Coalition building in this new and more competitive era will require a high degree of pragmatism.

A majority of Latinos support expanding the use of religious groups to provide health and social services; most Jewish groups oppose the new "faith-based" thrust. That conflict doesn't mean the two communities shouldn't be working harder to find other issues on which they agree and to pursue them in a cooperative way.

Local Jewish community relations councils have led the way in reaching out to other ethnic groups and building effective coalitions on the local level. That model has to be expanded in the national arena as the nation becomes more diverse and as other ethnic communities follow the trail to political influence blazed by American Jews.

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