Unexpected Allies

July 23, 2013
BY Meredith Jacobs

If the composition of the American public in was in 2004 what it became in 2012, John Kerry would have been elected president.

According to Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, it is projected that by 2050, 47 percent of the U.S will be white, 29 percent Latino, 13 percent black and 9 percent Asian. The Latino community alone is projected to grow from 50 million to 128 million.

This past election cycle, the turnout rate for black voters surpassed whites. While it would be easy to dismiss this as related to Obama, the surge in voting goes back to 2006. Also since 2006, Latino voting has skewed 70 percent Democratic with priority issues being education, employment, health care, budget, immigration and taxes.

By mid-century, the U.S. will be a majority minority. As these minorities become increasing percentages of the electorate, what will connect them with Israel?

“Public opinion helps to shape foreign policy options. If the public of the United States is strongly pro-Israel, that helps define policy. If it changes that could be problematic,” explains Mark Mellman.

Mellman, president and CEO of The Mellman Group, is one of the country’s leading public opinion researchers.

“I don’t think anyone is saying ‘Gee, four years form now we’ll have a president who is anti-Israel.’ We are saying, ‘How do we maintain public support for Israel?’ It requires work and outreach and now with different groups than in previous years.”

According to Mellman, it’s not a question of these groups connecting with the Palestinian narrative, it’s more a question of not connecting with foreign policy at all.

Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat welcomes the change in the complexion of the U.S., believing it adds an energy. He is, however, concerned that if the new majority doesn’t have an understanding of the history of the state of Israel and doesn’t have interaction with American Jews who serve as surrogates for Israel, they will be less supportive of Israel when important issues come up.

“That’s where you’ll get the blowback,” he said. Eizenstat also express concerned over Hispanic and Palestinian connections.

“The problem is, and this is for Hispanic and Asian Americans and African Americans, they see themselves as minorities. If you look at polling on attitudes of African Americans, there is a much higher percentage of sympathy with Palestinians.” The sympathy comes from seeing Palestinians as a “disadvantaged minority” much in the way Eizenstat believes these growing American populations see themselves.

“So it’s not anti-Semitism, but it falls into the mantra that the Palestinians push — that they are oppressed minorities and Israel is the dominate force,” he explains.

The Jewish community needs to “make it clear, this is not a civil rights issue. It’s rather a very different conflict in which violence is being used and Israel’s right to be a state is questioned.” Eizenstat adds that more left-wing academics tend to frame the conflict as domestic civil rights.

“Human rights is one of the thorny issues between Latin Americans and Israel,” echoed Saul Weisleder, diplomatic representative of Costa Rica, during a breakout session at the recent AJC Access Summit entitled “The U.S. Latin America and Israel: A Critical Alliance?” He noted that this is particularly the feeling among the younger generation of diplomats and suggested to the young audience that this is where they could help change the situation, “Young people can talk to them.”

Operation Understanding

Talking, interaction, even friendship among American Jews and other populations is the key to getting Israel on the radar.

Rachael Feldman, executive director of Operation Understanding DC, a nonprofit that brings 24 black and Jewish high school juniors together to foster understanding, says that while some black students, especially those who are Muslim, come into the program strongly identifying with the Palestinians, for many others, “it’s not on their orbit.” The organization’s goal is to create a group of black and Jewish leaders who will stamp out prejudice. It’s not really about Israel, although Feldman hopes that through the program, black students will understand “that this is a country that is important to their Jewish classmates.”

Israel “means the world to a people for whom it is their world. For non-Jews and non-Israelis, it isn’t the world, it’s a piece of it,” said Aaron Jenkins, an alum of OUDC and now its program director. He spoke to WJW just days before embarking with this year’s class on the three-week summer experiential, educational trip learning about black and Jewish culture and the civil rights movement. The journey takes the teens through New York City and then down South to retrace the Freedom Rides of the 1960s. “There are definitely people who will cite differences between blacks and Jews and cite the struggle. We’ve had different folks in both communities — Louis Farrakhan and those who say we need to get behind the Palestinian cause. We have Jews who say the black power movement pushed us away. There are definitely clear divisions. Let’s not turn a blind eye to that. Let’s acknowledge that Farrakhan said anti-Semitic things. Let’s acknowledge that not every Jewish person was part of the civil rights movement.”

Noting that next summer is the 50th anniversary of “Freedom Summer,” Jenkins explains that OUDC teaches that 25 percent of the whites involved were Jewish.

“How is that, when Jews are only 2 percent of the population?” he asks them. They talk about tikkun olam and talk about social justice and kids connecting with social justice more than religion.

“We talk about Heshel and King. We talk about Stokely Carmichael and black nationalists standing with Palestinians and the struggle for social justice. Then we let the students have those conversations together.”

For Jenkins and OUDC, it’s about creating space for the conversations.

An international relations major during his years at Williams College, Jenkins returned to D.C. to work first with the city council and then John Kerry. He was part of a Project Interchange delegation to Israel made up of African American nonprofit and business leaders. He explains that before going to Israel, he never discussed the country or its issues with his Jewish friends.

“When I went to Israel, I became part of the conversation,” he said.

He talks about standing in Sderot and walking onto a playground that had to be fortified to sustain a bomb blast and learning that the funding for that came from the American Jewish community.

“How do you live in a land the size of New Jersey where you have very serious political issues? Israel has to coexist with Palestine and the larger Middle East. Project Interchange gave me that firsthand lived perspective. Not having access to a Birthright program or a strong cultural affinity to go. But now I’ve been to the Wall.” He jokes that now he has an “Israeli mentality” with friends saying to them, “let’s talk about things we don’t talk about.”

He teaches the students, “Let me listen to people I don’t normally listen to. Let me talk to them about things that are important to me and then give pause and listen to what they have to say.”

Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, tells of accompanying a minister who had just returned from Israel to a sermon he was giving in an inner city. She brought 20 IDF soldiers. All of a sudden, she remembers, the soldiers began talking about buses blowing up.

“The more exchange, the more we see people, the more we get away from the political,” she continues. “We are two societies that share a set of values. When we singularly focus on the conflict, we miss what we share in common as two people.”

‘The way the Latino community goes, so goes the U.S.’

During a program on the future of Latino-Jewish relations, David Harris, executive director of American Jewish Committee, recalled the planning for a meeting with the new president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nietoa. Israel was on the agenda. He tells that a Mexican American friend, who was also an alum of Project Interchange (an educational institute of AJC) asked if he could be the one to speak on behalf of Israel, asking the new president to support Israel “because I, as a Mexican American, support Israel.”

Herein lies the triangular alliance between the three — Latin America, U.S. and Israel.

Costa Rica’s Weisleder argues during that AJC breakout session that relationships are hurt when Israel closes embassies in Latin American countries in favor of Asian nations.

“When you do it, you are saying ‘Latin America is not important’ but then you come to us and say, “We need your support for this and that.’ This is a problem.”

In response, Eliav Benjamin of the Israeli Embassy turned to the crowd of young advocates and explained, “Let me say we see a lot of importance in Latin America. This is why we need the U.S to help. We are losing Latin America. At the end of the day, it comes down to money.”

So when supportive U.S. Latinos reach out to their homelands, they can reach where Israel may not be able to.

Weisleder warned “you cannot just be a transmitter of a message of Israel … you must not just speak slogans. You must understand the interests of all sides.”

When AJC began working with Latino communities in the 1960s, it was because of civil rights and workers rights. It was about intergroup relations, explains Dina Siegel Vann, director of the group’s Latino and Latin American Institute. Israel advocacy has been added in recent years. She believes her work follows AJC’s ethos and mandate. Originally founded in 1906 to advocate on behalf of Russian Jews, AJC believes it is “important that certain elements are in place so that all minorities can thrive,” Siegel Vann says. “We care about the well-being of all minority communities. Issues like inclusiveness, human rights, all things that make Jews safe in a society.” The idea being, no minority is safe in a community unless all minorities are safe. Our survival is dependent on our relationships with other minorities. And, while the Jewish community demographics are shrinking, “we have to make sure coalitions are strong and they see us as partners,” she explains.

Siegel Vann joined AJC from B’nai B’rith where she was head of Latino relations. Under her, AJC hosts missions to Israel and the Americas, launched the bipartisan Latino Jewish Congressional Caucus, convenes workshops for U.S. Latino Diasporas and pioneered Latino Jewish Bridges on campus, to name a few.

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