Building a Latino-Jewish Alliance

By Henry Cisneros

Published October 10, 2003, issue of October 10, 2003.
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The interwoven histories of Jewish and Latino people have played important roles in the development of many American communities, and our joint contributions will only gain in significance. The prospects for cooperation between our communities are great — if we act upon areas of common interest and build working relationships based on trust and mutual respect.

Such trust and respect begins with an understanding of the richness of the traditional bonds and contemporary interactions that link our communities. Among the ancient currents infusing the modern Hispanic heritage are the contributions of generations of Jews in Spain. Much of the work of the great philosopher Maimonides was carried out in Spain and shaped not only Jewish philosophy, but Spanish thought across the ages.

Over time Jewish and Hispanic cultures evolved toward common appreciation for our humanity, and both express themselves through strong family traditions. The family moments of Passover celebrations are matched on the Hispanic calendar by such religiously rooted rituals as Las Posadas and Noche Buena. Jewish families celebrate the passage from youth to adulthood with bat mitzvahs in the same way that Latinos celebrate Quinceañeras for their daughters at 15. Both are cultures which respect the wisdom of the elderly and remember ties to families in “the old countries.” These antecedents help us to understand each other.

But more important than our interwoven histories and traditions are the mutual stakes we have in the American future. Both groups will become more important in American life by every measure that defines our society. The Jewish community should be proud of the history-making breakthroughs it has made in national politics, from an outsized number of congressmen to a presidential candidate. Latinos, for our part, have just become the fastest-growing minority group in the country and are making unprecedented progress in virtually every sector of American society.

We can learn from each other and in so doing enhance our country’s prospects. Latinos can learn from the power of Jewish unity, which evidences itself in impressive clarity of community interests and a capacity to articulate and act upon defined goals. Many lessons can be learned from the intellectual work which has over time defined the core of Jewish uniqueness within America while developing the ability to function at the highest reaches of the larger secular society. The powerful example of celebrating Jewish religious and cultural values within a diverse and complex nation suggests important lessons for how a multicultural America evolves in the new century.

Latinos can also learn from the Jewish commitment to education, from a culture where the most respected position, rabbi, means “teacher.” The concept of tzedakah, of giving generously, is important for Latinos to learn as we develop our economic capabilities and our own ethic of philanthropy. And of course the Jewish example in the United States of being able to absorb immigrants from around the world is important for Latinos, given present patterns of immigration.

In return, I humbly suggest, there are lessons from the Latino heritage which may have applicability to the modern American Jewish community.

The intensity of devotion to our families is a dominant aspect of our lives and is important in a time when so many forces conspire to destroy the moorings of family life. Many Latinos respect communal traditions, a fact which often creates tension in our hyper-competitive and individualistic contemporary society.

Among Latinos there is an admirable affinity for the marginalized and the poor. Perhaps it is because so many Latinos are newly arrived and remain at the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Such community values offer a counterpoint to the cynicism, the civic exhaustion and the spiritual emptiness too frequently experienced on the economic treadmill of modern American life. Those values also share common ground with Jewish values that respect human dignity, fairness and justice. These are important values upon which to anchor our future relations.

These points of common understanding enable us to act together on important challenges now before the nation. There is no greater challenge facing the United States, and certainly its lower-income populations, than to continue to develop public education. This is an area in which we have common interests and reinforcing political capabilities. Immigration policy is another area for cooperation.

In foreign relations, the sustenance of ties between Israel and the United States will be served by educating Latinos about the Jewish state and its important role as a beacon for democracy and freedom in the Middle East. Latinos will undoubtedly play an influential role in American foreign policy with respect to Mexico and Latin America in the years to come. An aspect of the multilateral agendas that emerge should include continuing support for Israel. We can also work together on cultural and media issues. We have mutual interests in assuring that our multicultural society continues to be respectful of the traditions and cultures of the individual groups which comprise it.

As we realize the many points of common interest, it is important that we not leave our prospects for cooperation to chance. It is not enough to meet periodically in social settings within our communities, or to hope that events bring us to concrete cooperation. It is important to set up the instruments of mutual education, of information exchanges, of frank dialogue and of organized action.

As we create those instruments, it will be important to recognize that our work together will not be exclusive. We will each have multiple working relationships with other groups in American society. We will not always agree on every point, but we can make great progress when we do forge agreements.

Our relationship should be a conversation of equals, without patronizing by either of our peoples. The Jewish community has established a position of immense influence in our nation; Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the American population. We can bring those respective strengths to a working relationship. There will be shifting alliances and fluid issues, but our work can be grounded in the conviction that our respective interests — and indeed our destinies — will be enhanced through honest dialogue and a trust born of experience.

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