Jews, Latinos set to launch a formal dialogue

Reaching across an economic gap and a sharp divergence in communal priorities, top Jewish and Latino groups plan to set up a formal structure for intergroup dialogue.

The organization, called the Latino Jewish Leadership Council, is to be launched officially in February during a meeting of Jewish and Latino congressmen in Washington.

For the Jewish participants, the formation of the council is a recognition of the growing clout of America’s 35 million-strong Latino community, and a partial response to studies showing a troubling degree of anti-Semitism among Hispanics.

“The Latinos are the largest minority in America, the fastest-growing population group, and they will have more and more voting power, so we need to reach out to them,” said Dina Siegel Vann, the Mexican-American director of Latin America and U.N. affairs at B’nai B’rith International and the driving force behind the project. “On the other hand, the Latinos want to become more savvy politically and more economically empowered, and they see Jews as a model.”

The council’s board will comprise five Jewish groups: B’nai B’rith, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and, pending final decisions, Hillel and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The five participating Latino organizations are the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Council of La Raza, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and the New America Alliance.

The creation of the council was approved in a closed-door meeting in Washington in September. The group’s first conference call took place on Monday, though the final details still need to be ironed out.

Observers said the two communities will try to reach a quid pro quo on their top issues — the Latinos will seek Jewish support in promoting a more generous immigration policy, while Jewish groups will want more Latino backing for Israel.

The task will not be easy. Jews have become more established and less sensitive to the plight of immigrants, especially since September 11th and the ensuing tightening of immigration regulations. And the intifada has created a sense of “underdog” solidarity between the Palestinians and the Latinos, rendering support for Israel more problematic.

Another hot topic will likely be foreign aid. Several Latino groups advocating increased American aid to Latin America have questioned the high level of aid received by Israel. According to Ann Schaffer, director of American Jewish Committee’s Belfer Center for American Pluralism, a compromise could be reached by having the Jewish community support increased aid to Latin America in exchange for Latino backing for unchanged levels of aid to Israel.

In addition, some Jewish groups are concerned by indications of a high level of anti-Semitism in the Latino community, most recently highlighted in a June study by the Anti-Defamation League, which showed that 35 percent of Hispanic-American respondents were strongly anti-Semitic. The same study indicated that 44 percent of foreign-born Hispanic-American respondents showed strong anti-Semitic beliefs, compared to only 20 percent of Latinos born in the United States.

While most participants in the council downplayed the problem, they agreed that one of the objectives is to dispel stereotypes on both sides.

“We need to learn about each other — Latinos should not consider all Jews media moguls and Jews should know that all Latinos are not maids,” said Siegel Vann, who has forcefully criticized the findings of the ADL study.

The Latino community also hopes Jewish groups can help ensure more Latino presence in the media and provide useful tools for economic and social integration.

While Jewish and Latino officials have met several times in recent years, it was essentially on an ad-hoc basis. B’nai B’rith and others pushed for the creation of a more institutionalized structure, similar to the ones fostering black-Jewish dialogue.

But while the idea was proposed back at a July 2000 Latino-Jewish Congressional roundtable, and reaffirmed at a Latino-Jewish meeting in March 2001, it took many months to finally agree on a formal structure.

Observers cited the diverging priorities and the absence of front-burner conflicts between the communities as the main reasons for the delay.

“This is long overdue,” said Larry Gonzalez, the Washington director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “The potential political impact of a Jewish-Latino alliance could be huge. Just imagine the situation in New York, Florida and California.”

The plan is to have a board of directors with the 10 groups and five outstanding individuals involved in Latino-Jewish affairs. A former San Antonio Mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton, Henry Cisneros, has had his name bandied about, but there are only two confirmed individual board members.

The first one is Sarita Brown, a Mexican Jew who heads the Hispanic Scholarship Fund Institute and was active in promoting educational initiatives for Latinos during the Clinton administration. The other is Emily Gantz-MacKay, a human rights activist who was one of the founders of La Raza and also works for the New Israel Fund.

“We have a unique situation where we have people who are both Latino and Jewish,” said Gantz-McKay, head of the not-for-profit consulting firm Mosaica. “The two communities have very similar values, common experiences as immigrants trying to achieve a place in American society, so there is an obvious connection.” The initial budget for the council is slated to be $45,000 and the objective is to raise funds from foundations and individuals.

Not all Jewish groups responded to the invitation—most notably the ADL. Stacey Burdett, the ADL’s associate director of government affairs, said this was due to a “scheduling problem” and that the ADL had not made a formal decision.

Participants said the American Israel Public Affairs Committee would only be an associate organization since it is a one-issue group. Hillel and the Religious Action Center, while fully supportive of the initiative, still need to decide on levels of involvement, officials at the two organizations said.

The American Jewish Committee’s Schaffer stressed that her group had long been interested in Latino-Jewish relations. The AJCommittee published a book on the issue last year and its board of governors is slated to discuss the Latino vote in the recent elections at its December annual meeting.

“This is an important initiative and having top Latino groups involved in it is important because we need parity to show this is a real commitment,” she said. “We have many common policy stances — like a fair and generous immigration policy, promotion of civil rights and anti-discrimination.”

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