I recall, as a child, overhearing very derogatory and racist remarks about Latino Americans where everyone below the border was referred to as “a Mexican” or as “cheap labor.” Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to do work in Central and South American countries such as Argentina, Guatemala, and El Salvador and had the chance to spend time in Panama, Mexico, and Belize. I learned a lot about these cultures and gained a much deeper appreciation for Latino Americans in my home American community and where they have come from. I also learned a deeper narrative of why and how so many have immigrated to the U.S.
Jews and Latino Americans live parallel lives, yet do not mingle (according to a recent survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee [AJC]).“Latinos see Jews as part of the white establishment, not as immigrants,” said AJC’s Latino and Latin American Institute director, Dina Siegel Vann. “We need to convey to them that we share a history of immigration.”
Jews and Hispanics should work together, for both communities share many values, such as a desire to maintain their distinctive cultural identity. A recent American Jewish Committee survey indicated that while many Hispanics did not know Jews, many had favorable views toward Jews:
• 78 percent believe Jews have a commitment to family life
• Two-thirds believe that Jews have a strong religious faith
• 61 percent believe that American Jews make a strong cultural contribution
• 53 percent believe that Jews support civil rights
There is a lot of room for growth in our relationship with the Latino community. Another survey conducted in 2001 showed that:
• 36.1% of Latinos believe “there is anti-Semitism in the Latino community”
• 44.6% of Latinos and 39.6% of Jews believed that “the relationship today between Hispanics and Jews in the United States” is not excellent or good but just fair
• 36.1% of Latinos and 20.3% of Jews believe there is an “anti-Latino sentiment in the Jewish community”
• 20.2% of Latinos believe that the Catholic Church did enough during the Holocaust as compared to only 6.2% of Jews
• 20.6% of Latinos believe that the United States is too supportive of Israel as compared to only 6.2% of Jews
On a positive side though, 72.5% of Latinos and 76.5% of Jews believe that it is very important for “Hispanics and Jews to work together in order to strengthen laws to prevent discrimination.” There is so much potential for collaboration, mutual learning, and friendship.
Oddly, Hispanics and Jews may have more than cultural values in common. For example, many Hispanics do not know of the history and cultural legacy of Spanish Jews (the Sephardim, or their Ladino language). In addition, a number of Hispanics would be surprised to know that they carry Jewish DNA, and may be descended from those forcibly converted to Christianity (the “conversos”). A 2003 genetic test of men living in New Mexico, southern Texas, and northern Mexico revealed that about 10 to 15 percent had some extent of Jewish DNA. Many Hispanics named Alvarez, Rivera, Lopez, and Mendez have found that they may have Sephardic Jewish ancestors. In Chicago, the Alliance for Jews and Latinos celebrates these common roots annually.
Of course, there are obstacles. In 2011, a Hispanic Santa Ana Councilwoman, accused a local Jewish businessman of “ethnic cleansing,” and compared him to Hitler. Fortunately, many Hispanics called for her to resign, and she did issue an apology. At the same time, some Jews have forgotten the immigrant legacy. Polls in 2011 revealed that a majority of American Jews approved of the Arizona law designed to combat illegal immigration, which was perceived by many as a racist attack on all Hispanics. Some fringe Jewish factions have taken a hard stance on a group they offensively refer to as “illegal aliens.” They, of course, forget that very significant numbers of Jews have entered America illegally over the last two hundred years. The narrative, that all Jews came to the U.S. legally, has been shown to be completely false. Many Jews facing persecution fudged their passports and many Israelis and Jewish immigrants today are still in the U.S. illegally.
We are overdue in cultivating a strong Jewish-Hispanic relationship. Over the last 50 years, we’ve done a good job at Jewish-black relations and Jewish-Christian relations. Due to tensions in the Middle East, many have begun more Jewish-Muslim relations. But in addition to our neglect of Jewish-Asian relations, we must tend to Jewish-Hispanic relations.
Hispanics comprised 10% of the electorate nationally in 2012, and played a very significant role in key swing states including Florida, Colorado and Nevada, as 71 percent of Hispanics voted for President Obama (versus about 27 percent for Romney), a margin comparable to those of American Jews and Muslims. This rapidly growing group will undoubtedly play an increasingly important role in future elections.
Jews have been very successful change-makers in the world because throughout history we’ve often been outsiders. But today we’re accepted in America. So the new question becomes how can we still play the role of outsiders now that we’re insiders? How can we continue to exist on the periphery, to be a voice for those on the margins, and to be the social agitators for a more just and holy world when we’re fully included on the inside?
We have generally related best to those on the periphery, those minorities on the periphery of society. For this reason, among many others, we should be closer with our Latino American brothers and sisters but we tend to live in different parts of our city.
We should explore, as a community, more opportunities to invite Latino Americans into our community and also to leave our bubbles to meet others in their home communities. Jewish Latinos can play a crucial role in building bridges between Jews and Latinos and we all can do our part as Jewish ambassadors as well. We should stand with all minorities seeking to be treated with basic human decency. This is our covenant. This is the dream: that all people may live freely in the world. May we as the Jewish people continue to act as global and local leaders building bridges and standing in solidarity with all minority partners for a more just, equitable, and free world.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"