Habla espaol, anyone

They are the fastest-growing minority group in the United States, with rapidly increasing economic and political clout.

With large concentrations residing in key states such as Florida, Texas and California, they have the ability to determine the outcome of presidential elections, and their voice in local and national policy issues grows stronger with each passing year.

They are the Latino population of America, and it is time for Israel and the Jewish community to start reaching out to them and cultivating their support.

According to a report released last month by the Census Bureau, the number of Hispanic Americans is expected to soar from about 36 million today to nearly 103 million by 2050, meaning their share of the overall U.S. population would nearly double, from 12.6 percent today to 24.4 percent.

Thanks to higher birthrates and increased immigration, this means that in practical terms Latino Americans have outpaced other minority groups, such as blacks and Asians, and will overtake them numerically in the decades ahead. Politically, socially and economically, they will be a force to be reckoned with.

The demographic explosion will be felt in virtually all fields of American society. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the largest source of new workers in the American economy will be young Hispanic Americans.

A study released by the University of Georgia in July 2002 found that the buying power of Latinos is increasing faster nationwide than that of any other minority group in the nation. In terms of spending power, Latinos’ economic clout rose from $223 billion in 1990 to $490 billion in 2000 to $580 billion in 2002. By 2007, it will approach $1 trillion.

According to the author of the study, Jeff Humphreys, “the U.S. Hispanic market is already larger than the entire economies of all but 11 countries in the world, and by 2007 it may exceed the GDP of Canada, the eighth-largest economy in the world.”

A recent Associated Press report noted the far-reaching impact of Latinos on the media industry. “As many American newspapers struggle to hold on to readers,” the report said, “the industry’s Spanish-language segment is expanding circulation and seeing competition increase.”

The number of Spanish-language dailies and weeklies published in the United States has more than doubled, rising from 166 in 1990 to 344 in 2003, with new papers popping up everywhere from Georgia to Washington state.

What all this means for Israel and the American Jewish community is that we must start to do intensive political and community outreach to Latino Americans, looking for areas of common interest and concern and issues that we can work on together for the benefit of both groups.

More importantly, though, greater resources and energies must be invested in garnering support among Latinos for Israel and its cause. We must reach out to Latinos, in Spanish, and make Israel’s case to them.

Thus far, this has not been done. A check of several prominent official government Web sites, such as those of the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, reveals that there is no separate section for information on Israel in Spanish.

Similarly, pro-Israel groups such as AIPAC-American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Zionists Organization of America, which produce reams of excellent material in English, do not as of yet offer Spanish-language information on the Jewish state and its struggle for survival.

There is also a dearth of books, videos and other material in Spanish on Judaism, Jewish history and Zionism, essentially meaning that many Spanish-speakers are unfamiliar with Jews and Israel.

This situation can easily be rectified, if only Israel’s leaders and American Jewish organizations have the foresight to do so. Trips to Israel for prominent Latino community leaders and politicians should be organized, Israel’s embassies and consulates should start addressing Hispanic audiences and material should be translated into Spanish.

Of course, it would be wrong to lump all Latino Americans together and view them as a monolithic bloc. Cubans in Miami are different from Puerto Ricans in New York or Mexicans in California. But if we do not start to better understand this community and take its growing influence more seriously, Israel and American Jewry will lose out.

For, as we should know by now, when a vacuum exists in the world of hasbara (Israel’s public relations), it does not long remain empty. Our foes will almost certainly fill it, unless we move expeditiously to do so.

And so, if the Census figures are correct, the key to ensuring ongoing and long-term U.S. support for the Jewish state may just lie in the answer to a very simple question: Habla Espanol, Israel?

For the sake of Israel’s future, the answer had better be: si.

Michael Freund was deputy director of communications and policy planning under former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This column previously appeared in The Jerusalem Post.