AJCommittee seeks to expand Jewish-Latino ties

WASHINGTON — 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 Latino 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 [this region] 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. Jewish groups such as the AJCommittee have been forming coalitions with organizations such as the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

"There's enormous social distance between Jews and Latinos — we have no history of shared residential closeness," said Stephen Steinlight, AJCommittee senior fellow and director of publications. Yet, he contended, they are "for the most part Democratic and their political positions are selectively conservative over the same issues, crime and criminal justice, and also [show] a growing skepticism about the welfare state."

Steinlight is editing a book, slated to appear soon 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," Kamasaki said in a phone interview.

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 Latino community. The 1989 Lautenberg Amendment made them eligible for the full package of refugee benefits, including English classes, job training and 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 United States 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, 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."

Last spring, Jewish organizations signed a letter in support of the Central American and Haitian Adjustment Act, co-sponsored by 100 House members. And 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 American University, bridges that divide.

"We feel at home in both communities," said the 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."

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.

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."