Latino Jews in the United States have been watching this year’s presidential campaign with both eagerness and foreboding.
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The eagerness comes from the growing empowerment of the Latino community, as more than 55 million Latino citizens will yield a potential 28 million votes on November 8. There are somewhere between 200,100 and 227,700 Latino Jews, three-to-five percent of the U.S. Jewish population of 6.7 million. They feel themselves vital parts of both the general Latino and Jewish communities.
The foreboding this election season comes from the rhetoric that refers disparagingly to Latinos and projects contempt for immigrants. No one feels this threat more than Latino Jews in the United States. After all, we understand more than others the danger of hateful rhetoric that demeans a particular group. Latino Jews feel stigmatized as members of both groups due to historical anti-Semitism which forced our families to immigrate to Latin America in the first place and anti-Latino voices in the U.S. which have become increasingly strident in the last year.
The toxic stew of controversy, as well as the attempt to connect migrants with terrorism, will challenge whoever wins the election to exert leadership in putting this genie back in the bottle, to repair frayed ties to friendly Latin American countries and engage positively and productively with the diverse Latino populations in the United States.
One positive factor is that Latino Jews can serve as ambassadors between the American Jewish and Latino communities. This potential role was highlighted in a landmark AJC research study of Latino Jews in the United States that was released earlier this year. It found that most Latino Jews in the U.S. do not only use the term “American” to identify themselves, preferring, instead, to refer to their country of origin. Latino Jews, even those born in the U.S, maintain strong ties to the countries in Latin America that welcomed their families in two waves, after the First and Second World Wars.
I experience that dual identity because I am both Mexican and American. My mother was born in Mexico to Jewish parents who fled Poland in 1924. They could not get into the United States because of its restrictive immigration laws but did manage to enter Mexico, where two successive presidents invited Jews fleeing persecution in Europe and the Middle East to settle. My father is a first-generation American Jew whose parents came from Lithuania in the early 1900s, passed through Ellis Island, and settled in New York City. A World War II veteran, he attended college and graduate school on the GI Bill, and then traveled to Mexico for post-doctoral work, where he met and married my mother. My husband and I immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 with our two daughters. I, like most of the 35 million Mexican-Americans, currently have family on both sides of the border.
We must not lose sight of the fact that Mexico and the U.S. are strategic partners. As Mexican Foreign Secretary Claudia Ruiz Massieu pointed out in her address to the AJC Global Forum in Washington in June, the Mexican and U.S. economies are increasingly intertwined. “The United States benefits, greatly, from economic relations with Mexico,” she said, “and the American people benefit, immensely, from the presence of Mexicans in this country.”
Because the Jewish and Latino communities share immigrant experiences, we together continue to advocate for repair of the country’s broken immigration system. The hope is for Congress to formulate a solution that balances a generous and humane immigration policy with attention to national security concerns.
Looking ahead, Latino Jews will play a critical role in deepening understanding and furthering interactions between Latinos and Jews across the U.S., and fostering stronger ties with Latin America. Based on our common historical experiences and sense of shared fate the Jewish community is called upon to speak loud and clear against the further demonization of our Latino partners.
Dina Siegel Vann is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs.