Washington Week

Jewish World Review August 8, 2000 / 7 Menachem-Av, 5760

Jews, Latinos explore common ground


By Paula Amann


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THEY ARE TWO GROUPS that share a multitude of values. Yet they have not always acted in concert, let alone stayed in touch. In recent years, however, the Jewish and Hispanic communities are finding increasing common ground.

Family, community, education, a strong sense of heritage, the right to immigrate in time of crisis these are some of the concerns that bind America's Jews and Latinos.

And growing ties between the two group's leaders and organizations are strengthening the fledgling relationship between them.

"The Jewish-Latino relationship is now viewed as an absolute priority for our community," said American Jewish Committee Washington, D.C., Area director David Bernstein. "There are over 300,000 Latinos in the Washington area and we see them as increasingly active politically and more and more willing to work with coalition partners in achieving our collective goals."

The phenomenon has been emerging during the past five to 10 years. Groups such as the AJCommittee and the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington have been forming coalitions with organizations such as the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

"There's enormous social distance between Jews and Latinos we have no history of shared residential closeness," Stephen Steinlight, American Jewish Committee senior fellow and director of publications, said in a phone interview. Yet, he contended, "They are arguably the closest [ethnic groups] in the country for the most part Democratic and their political positions are selectively conservative over the same issues: crime and criminal justice, and also a growing skepticism about the welfare state."

Steinlight is editing a book, slated to appear in the fall under the AJCommittee's imprint, that explores both the pitfalls and potential of political coalition between the two groups.

Charles Kamasaki, senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, underscored both aspects of the budding relationship.

"On the legislative front, support for civil rights enforcement, fair and humane immigration policies, hate crimes legislation, promotion of tolerance for diversity, the Latino and Jewish communities have been really close allies," said Kamasaki, reached by phone at his office.

At the grassroots level, on the other hand, the two groups rarely meet, he added.

"The big problem between the two communities is that there's little local contact the result of enormous disparity in income, political power and residential segregation in our society."

Kamasaki further noted potential points of conflict in the legislative arena. In a time of shrinking foreign aid budgets, for instance, more aid to Israel may mean less to Latin America.

And while Jews and Latinos largely agree on immigration, the special status granted to Jews from the former Soviet Union rankles some in the Hispanic community. The 1989 Lautenberg Amendment made them eligible for the full package of refugee benefits English classes, job training, welfare which hundreds of thousands of Central American immigrants had to do without, said Kamasaki.

When it comes to Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans who arrived in the U.S. during the "low-intensity wars" of the 1980s, he added, "Their situation is not terribly different from that of the Russian immigrants ... Many couldn't meet the standard of 'well-founded fear of persecution,' but nobody doubts that Jews from Russia [faced anti-Semitism] or Salvadorans had reasonable fears of death squads."

However, at the time, the Central American refugees became casualties of cold war politics, suggested Kamasaki. "It was untenable for the United States to say regimes they were supporting were persecuting their own people."

In March, 10 Jewish organizations signed a letter in support of the Central American and Haitian Adjustment Act, co-sponsored by 100 House members. Supporters hope to add it as an amendment to H1B, a bill allowing temporary high-tech workers.

Of course, the two ethnic groups have a point of overlap: Latino Jews, who number roughly 100,000 in the United States.

Claudio Grossman, dean of the Washington College of Law at The American University, bridges that divide.

"We feel at home in both communities," said this Chilean-born synagogue member, adding, "All of us have relatives in Latin America ... When I hear about foreign aid to Latin America, I have a personal attachment."

Syndicated columnist Douglas Bloomfield, the JCCouncil's immediate past president, gave an example of the importance of close ties between the two ethnic groups.

They just may have prevented an explosion and helped both communities heal from a tragedy.

In the fall of 1997, Salvadoran youth Alfredo Tello Jr. was brutally murdered in Aspen Hill, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C. One of the two Jewish teens arrested committed suicide in custody. The other, Samuel Sheinbein, fled to Israel where his father held citizenship and was later convicted there.

"This created a lot of fury in the Hispanic community," said Bloomfield, "but because of relationships [between Jews and Latinos], there was the ability to defuse it."

A few weeks after the incident, the WJW's Eric Fingerhut reported efforts by both the JCCouncil and the AJCommittee to mediate between the Latino community and the Israeli embassy in the wake of the killing.

This dialogue in time of crisis followed roughly a decade of joint work between the JCCouncil and Hispanics, said Bloomfield in a phone interview last week.

Coalitions have their own powerful mathematics, he suggested. "One and one makes three. Hispanics and blacks and Jews working together: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

In an effort to share skills for organizing at both national and local levels, the AJCommittee held an Ethnic Leadership Institute in spring 1999, which it hopes to repeat. The four-part seminar, involving Latinos, Asians and Jews, covered the realms of politics, social service, philanthropy and cultural continuity.

In the Washington area in particular, the Jewish-Latino relationship seems to have gained momentum.

"A lot of national issues are local issues to begin with," pointed out Walter Tejada, Virginia state director for LULAC, reached by phone.

Four years ago, for instance, the AJCommittee teamed with LULAC, Latinos for Citizenship, Leadership and Civic Duty (LCLC) and the Coalition of Hispanic Agencies and Professionals (CHAPA) on an immigration problem keenly felt in Virginia's Latino, Jewish and Asian communities.

"The common ground was that legal residents who had been in this country for years were now at risk of losing their food stamps," said Tejada.

The Immigration Rights Coalition, forged among Hispanic and Jewish, as well as Asian organizations, scored a small victory in the end. The Virginia government, said Tejada, ultimately chose not to enforce the controversial rules affecting the seniors.

This early effort led to others that continue today. Coalition partners are now combating an effort by Eckerd Drugs to build a pharmacy on a soccer field in Fairfax used by the mostly low-income Latino neigborhood.

It's just another issue on which Jews and Latinos are making common cause in local communities as well as on Capitol Hill.

Behind these grassroots and legislative efforts, direct dialogue remains crucial, said BBI legislative affairs director Jason Epstein.

"Although we're already working together, it's no substitute for knowing our partners," he said. "We have to know the internal politics of other groups so we can better understand each other's sensitivities. ... This is what makes for solid relationships."

Without a deeper knowledge, even mutual admiration has the potential to mislead, suggested the AJCommittee's Bernstein. For instance, the Jewish community's very success in surmounting prejudice has left it open to erosion by assimilation.

Latinos, he said, "often see us [Jews] as a model community and we have to take pains that they understand our shortcomings as well as our strengths."



Paula Amann is news editor for Washington Jewish Week. Comments by clicking here.


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