Latinos and Jews are increasingly seen as new partners within the American political story. And yet, the two communities are at very different points in their communal development. Latinos, who today comprise the largest minority community (16.3%) within the United States, with some 50 million residents, are described as a political force in ascendancy. In turn, Jews are among the smaller ethnic-religious communities (1.7%) and at this point are in fact poised to lose some of their numerical and political clout. This reality can be seen in various congressional districts and state Assembly and Senate races in New York and California, where Latino candidates are likely to replace Jewish officials. Will these communities challenge each other for political power?
Another way to understand these dynamic contrasts is reflected in the mean age comparison of the two communities. Latinos in this country average 27.4 years (for all Americans, 36.8 years of age), while for Jews the estimated mean is 48 years.
Yet, there are significant common elements to this emerging relationship. In the 2008 presidential elections, outside of the African-American vote, Jews (78%) and Latinos (67%) represented the two strongest ethnic voting blocs supporting Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. Interestingly, the two communities share a number of other core historical and social features. In high-density population states that have significant electoral votes, including New York, California, Florida, Texas and Illinois, one finds a heavy concentration of both Jews and Latinos.
Both communities also share various public interest concerns, including a desire for a comprehensive immigration policy, quality public education, a national security plan to deal with international terrorism and an economic development strategy for jobs and growth.
Stepping back, it is important to understand and appreciate the complex character of the Latino population in the United States. In fact, it is not one community but a series of communities divided by generation, nationality, and economic and social status. To take a single example, Cuban Americans often have little in common with Mexican Americans.
As Latinos retain close connections to their home villages and regional communities, there is a particular fascination with how Jews have created and sustained their philanthropic, political and cultural ties to the State of Israel. This Diaspora-homeland relationship represents one of the potential binding features between our two communities. While Latinos are interested in the Diaspora-Israel connection, their knowledge of, and support for, Israel remains problematic, posing a challenge and an opportunity.
In a recent study by the American Jewish Committee, 61% of Latinos interviewed believed that “Jews make positive cultural contributions to the United States.” When asked about whether Jews had too much influence, 42% responded that it was “probably untrue,” yet 38% said that it was “probably true” or “certainly true” that Jews in this country had too much power.
Among the challenges that the Jewish community faces within certain Latino circles is the presence of Old World Catholic theological notions that present a narrow and negative view of Jews and Judaism. Over time, as more Latinos become familiar with Catholicism in America and through expanding their personal connections to Jews, these images and attitudes ought to be recast.
Many Latinos first engage Jews or learn about the Jewish community through their labor union connections; others are encountering Jews in the business world or through their employment in Jewish homes.
When speaking about Jews, Latinos are particularly interested in how we have organized ourselves and whether our communal models could effectively serve their constituencies. They also want to understand how we sustain generational continuity. Aligned with that concept, Latinos will often ask how we employ symbols, myths and rituals in preserving our identity.
In advancing strategies for working with Latino leaders, Jews from Latin America can be particularly valuable as connectors in interpreting traditions, social values and political culture that uniquely define and shape the Hispanic world.
Certainly in the arena of music, one can find an array of opportunities around which our communities can share cultural themes. Is it too far-fetched to suggest Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) as a possible point of engagement?
Over the next decade, Jews and Latinos will have an opportunity to expand their institutional connections, both on the political level and within the cultural and social arena. As a result of these relationships, a Latino-Jewish alliance could ultimately be transformative.
Steven Windmueller is Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College’s Los Angeles campus.