With the upcoming presidential elections entering their crucial stage, myriad discussions and analyses about the implications of the Hispanic and Jewish vote are consistently in the news. Mitt Romney visited Israel this past week with the purpose of reaching out to local US citizens and contributors in order to grow, even by a notch, what has traditionally been a Jewish vote favoring Democrats. In the previous election, President Obama received 78% of the Jewish vote. Results of the latest AJC (American Jewish Committee) poll show that even though the President continues to enjoy Jewish support, his popularity has diminished to 61%. In fact, these decreasing numbers do not reflect Jewish ambivalence by some, probably unjustly, regarding the President’s alleged unfavorable treatment of Israel rather concerns about the slow economy and access to affordable health. But they also focus on national security as a priority in their electoral preferences.
The growing Hispanic vote also continues to be dissected over and over as large swaths of the Latino electorate are present in swing states and now more than ever with an unprecedented opportunity to determine who will lead this country for the next four years and the top priorities on the national agenda. These include the creation of jobs, access to quality and health education and of course immigration reform, issues that have a strong impact on the well-being of a majority of US Latinos.
Even as Latinos and Jews today appear to lead parallel lives, they seem to share a common vision of what national imperatives ought to be. Certainly, the establishment of a political coalition between both communities can have a determining effect on the future face of this nation.
For decades we at the Latino and Latin American Institute of the American Jewish Committee have focused on building bridges between Latinos and Jews at the national and hemispheric levels and on exploring what our common agendas are and how we can work shoulder to shoulder to advance them. From these efforts, we have been able to identify multiple spaces, in geography and time, shared by communities as well as historical experiences and values that should inspire us as allies.
In order to understand in depth about the attitudes and perceptions on Jews and the Jewish agenda of the different segments within the US Latino universe and be able to map out effective outreach and collaboration strategies, AJC partnered with the renowned firm Latino Decisions to undertake an extensive and rigorous national survey (link) at the end of 2011. The latter, the largest and most rigorous ever undertaken on the subject, consisted of 2000 telephone interviews in 5 cities and 8 focus groups
What are some of the conclusions of this landmark study?
1) Interpersonal Connections Are Crucial – The study showed that familiarity breeds a more positive Latino view of Jews and their issues. Interpersonal connections are of the essence given that Latino culture stresses trust and loyalty in the creation of substantive, long-term professional and political alliances.
2) Socio-Demographic Profiles Strongly Impact Perceptions- About 45% of all Latino-Jewish interaction occurs in the work environment. As members of both communities increasingly meet in this and many other environments, relations will tend to be more positive.
3) Encouraging Latino Empowerment Will Positively Address Perceptions of Jewish Power- Many Latinos, especially those living in cities with high Latino and Jewish populations, tend to view Jews as having undue influence in business, finance and the entertainment industry. Much of this sentiment may actually reflect Latino frustrations about their own economic and political status rather than anti-Jewish feeling, especially since many of the same Latinos expressing this perception of Jewish power, also attribute positive personal traits to Jews—honesty, commitment to family, and interest in social justice.
Increased expressions and initiatives of partnership, solidarity and mentorship in fields where Hispanics are underrepresented such as law, philanthropy, media and politics could certainly be of help in addressing these perceptions.
4) There is a need to effectively articulate historical, ethical and pragmatic commonalities in building a Latino-Jewish alliance. Most Latinos interviewed could not identify common elements between the two groups. At the same time, there was no opposition towards bringing the two communities together. This suggests potentially rich ground for cross-cultural activity and developing alliances.
In fact Jews and Latinos can trace their common histories to the Iberian Peninsula from which they sailed together escaping persecution in the XV century in order to build a new society in the Americas and became an integral part of the process of “mestizaje”.
Both communities have strong arguments, whether ethical or motivated by enlightened self-interest to search these alliances and thus advance their individual and shared agendas.
5) Incorporate Latino Jews as an effective national, ethnic, religious and cross-cultural bridge. Latino Jews throughout the US just as me should be the most effective national, ethnic and religious bridges between both communities. We can act as compelling interlocutors and cultural translators as we strongly convey commonalities and a sense of shared histories and fate.
6) Emphasize Common Transnational Identities- Latinos and Jews share transnational identities and multiple “homelands.” and the tension between “becoming American” and maintaining cultural distinctiveness. In the survey, 63% said they have a strong Latino identity and 42% also report having a strong American identity. The perception that Jews stick together and feel kinship to Israel is perceived positively among Latinos, because of their own multiple attachments.
7) Foreign Policy is a potential sphere for common action- American Hispanics tend to focus on domestic issues, especially immigration, rather than on foreign policy. No Latino organization stresses foreign policy despite the fact that large numbers of Latinos have families living in Latin America that are impacted directly by US policies. In addition, Hispanics serve at a very high level in the Armed Forces, and that should make the community more attentive to our country’s policies in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Foreign policy is a field of great interest and focus for the US Jewish community due to strong bonds to the State of Israel and Jewish communities around the world. In their process of political empowerment it’s probable that Hispanics will increasingly become aware of how, through their involvement in foreign policy priorities, they can impact US policies in areas such as immigration, trade and security in the Hemisphere and other latitudes.
In this context, an alliance between Latinos and Jews, the next “great coalition” can have unprecedented consequences.
Dina Siegel Vann, a native of Mexico City, serves currently as Director of the Latino and Latin American Institute of the American Jewish Committee in Washington, DC, which pursues outreach and coalition building efforts with the Latino communities in the US while at the same time strengthening the ties between the US, Israel and Latin America, Jewish life in the region, and the stability and prosperity of all of the Americas.