Courting majority minority



If the composition of the American public was in 2004 what it became in 2012, John Kerry would have been elected president.

According to Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, it is projected that by 2050, 47 percent of the U.S. will be white, 29 percent Latino, 13 percent  black and 9 percent Asian. The Latino community alone is projected to grow from 50 million to 128 million.

In this past election cycle, the turnout rate for black voters surpassed whites. While it would be easy to dismiss this as related to Obama, the surge in voting goes back to 2006. Also since 2006, Latino voting has skewed 70 percent Democratic with priority issues being education, employment, health care, budget, immigration and taxes.

By mid-century, the U.S. will be a majority minority. As these minorities become increasing percentages of the electorate, what will connect them with Israel?

“Public opinion helps to shape foreign policy options. If the public of the United States is strongly pro-Israel, that helps define policy. If it changes that could be problematic,” explains Mark Mellman.

Mellman, president and CEO of The Mellman Group, is one of the country’s leading public opinion researchers.

“I don’t think anyone is saying ‘Gee, four years from now we’ll have a president who is anti-Israel.’ We are saying, ‘How do we maintain public support for Israel?’ It requires work and outreach and now with different groups than in previous years.”

According to Mellman, it’s not a question of these groups connecting with the Palestinian narrative, it’s more a question of not connecting with foreign policy at all.

Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat welcomes the change in the complexion of the U.S., believing it adds an energy. He is, however, concerned that if the new majority doesn’t have an understanding of the history of the state of Israel and doesn’t interact with American Jews who serve as surrogates for Israel, they will be less supportive of Israel when important issues come up.

“That’s where you’ll get the blowback,” he said. Eizenstat also expressed concern over connections with the Palestinians.

“The problem is, and this is for Hispanic and Asian Americans and African Americans, they see themselves as minorities. If you look at polling on attitudes of African Americans, there is a much higher percentage of sympathy with Palestinians.” The sympathy comes from seeing Palestinians as a “disadvantaged minority” much in the way Eizenstat believes these growing American populations see themselves.

“So it’s not anti-Semitism, but it falls into the mantra that the Palestinians push — that they are oppressed minorities and Israel is the dominant force,” he explains.

The Jewish community needs to “make it clear, this is not a civil rights issue. It’s rather a very different conflict in which violence is being used and Israel’s right to be a state is questioned.” Eizenstat added that more left-wing academics tend to frame the conflict as domestic civil rights.

Operation Understanding

Talking, interaction, even friendship among American Jews and other populations is the key to getting Israel on the radar.

Rachael Feldman, executive director of Operation Understanding DC, a nonprofit that brings black and Jewish high school juniors together to foster understanding, says that while some black students, especially those who are Muslim, come into the program strongly identifying with the Palestinians, for many others, “it’s not on their orbit.” The organization’s goal is to create a group of black and Jewish leaders who will stamp out prejudice. It’s not really about Israel, although Feldman hopes that through the program, black students will understand “that this is a country that is important to their Jewish classmates.”

Israel “means the world to a people for whom it is their world. For non-Jews and non-Israelis, it isn’t the world, it’s a piece of it,” said Aaron Jenkins, an alum of OUDC and now its program director. He spoke to WJW just days before embarking with this year’s class on the three-week summer experiential, educational trip learning about black and Jewish culture and the civil rights movement. The journey takes the teens through New York City and then down South to retrace the Freedom Rides of the 1960s.

“There are definitely people who will cite differences between blacks and Jews and cite the struggle. We’ve had different folks in both communities — Louis Farrakhan and those who say we need to get behind the Palestinian cause. We have Jews who say the black power movement pushed us away. There are definitely clear divisions. Let’s not turn a blind eye to that. Let’s acknowledge that Farrakhan said anti-Semitic things. Let’s acknowledge that not every Jewish person was part of the civil rights movement.”

Noting that next summer is the 50th anniversary of “Freedom Summer,” Jenkins explained that OUDC teaches that 25 percent of the whites involved were Jewish.

“How is that, when Jews are only 2 percent of the population?” he asks them. They talk about tikkun olam and talk about social justice and kids connecting with social justice more than religion.

“We talk about Heshel and King. We talk about Stokely Carmichael and black nationalists standing with Palestinians and the struggle for social justice. Then we let the students have those conversations together.”

For Jenkins and OUDC, it’s about creating space for the conversations.

An international relations major during his years at Williams College, Jenkins returned to D.C. to work first with the City Council and then John Kerry. He was part of a Project Interchange delegation to Israel made up of African American nonprofit and business leaders. He explains that before going to Israel, he never discussed the country or its issues with his Jewish friends.

“When I went to Israel, I became part of the conversation,” he said.

He talks about standing in Sderot and walking onto a playground that had to be fortified to sustain a bomb blast and learning that the funding for that came from the American Jewish community.

“How do you live in a land the size of New Jersey where you have very serious political issues? Israel has to coexist with Palestine and the larger Middle East. Project Interchange gave me that firsthand lived perspective, not having access to a Birthright program or a strong cultural affinity to go. But now I’ve been to the Wall.” He jokes that now he has an “Israeli mentality” with friends saying to them, “let’s talk about things we don’t talk about.”

He teaches the students, “Let me listen to people I don’t normally listen to. Let me talk to them about things that are important to me and then give pause and listen to what they have to say.”

Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, tells of accompanying a minister who had just returned from Israel to a sermon he was giving in an inner city. She brought 20 IDF soldiers. All of a sudden, she remembers, the soldiers began talking about buses blowing up.

“The more exchange, the more we see people, the more we get away from the political,” she continued. “We are two societies that share a set of values. When we singularly focus on the conflict, we miss what we share in common as two people.”

‘The way the Latino community goes, so goes the U.S.’

During a program on the future of Latino-Jewish relations, David Harris, executive director of American Jewish Committee, recalled the planning for a meeting with the new president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto. Israel was on the agenda. He says that a Mexican American friend, who was also an alum of Project Interchange (an educational institute of AJC) asked if he could be the one to speak on behalf of Israel, asking the new president to support Israel “because I, as a Mexican American, support Israel.”

Herein lies the triangular alliance between the three — Latin America, U.S. and Israel. When AJC began working with Latino communities in the 1960s, it was because of civil rights and workers rights. It was about intergroup relations, explains Dina Siegel Vann, director of the group’s Latino and Latin American Institute. Israel advocacy has been added in recent years. She believes her work follows AJC’s ethos and mandate. Originally founded in 1906 to advocate on behalf of Russian Jews, AJC believes it is “important that certain elements are in place so that all minorities can thrive,” Siegel Vann said. “We care about the well-being of all minority communities. Issues like inclusiveness, human rights, all things that make Jews safe in a society.” The idea being, no minority is safe in a community unless all minorities are safe. Our survival is dependent on our relationships with other minorities. And, while the Jewish community demographics are shrinking, “we have to make sure coalitions are strong and they see us as partners,” she explained.

Siegel Vann joined AJC from B’nai B’rith where she was head of Latino relations. Under her, AJC hosts missions to Israel and the Americas, launched the bipartisan Latino Jewish Congressional Caucus, convenes workshops for U.S. Latino diasporas and pioneered Latino Jewish Bridges on campus, to name a few.

The Jewish community must be proactive in its outreach efforts. As Eizenstat points out, the workplace is still segmented. Hispanics are still seen as subordinate. There are fewer opportunities for interaction and a natural building of friendships as may occur, for example, with the upper-income Asian American community.

There are Jewish-Hispanic communities. We share the experience of being a diaspora. And we understand what it is like to immigrate because of insecurity or duress. Stephanie Guiloff, associate director of the Latino and Latin American Institute, explains that many Hispanics now living in the U.S. have a complicated relationship with their countries of origin. The American diasporas are sources of financial remittance to their homeland communities, but while there is a sense of pride, there is at times a desire to have distance and to integrate into American society. Here, with our connection and support of Israel, the Jewish community can serve as a successful model.

Sam Witkin, executive director of Project Interchange, the nonpartisan, nonpolitical organization that has taken 6,000 opinion leaders and public policy makers from 72 countries to Israel (including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor), speaks of the shared values between the two communities.

“They are an immigrant society,” he said. “Israel is an immigrant society.” On a recent mission with Latino leaders, Witkin brought the deeply religious group to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although the tour guide was trying to hustle the group along, Witkin noticed one person, the deputy chief of NYPD counter terrorism, still praying and insisted the group stay until everyone was finished. “This guy came up to me and said, ‘Sam, this is a remarkable experience for my profession. I never dreamed I’d pray in this place,’ ” Witkin recalled. “Tears were streaming down his face.”

Siegel Vann’s staff examines issues that are important to the various Latino communities and understands both the positive and negative stereotypes Hispanics have of Jews. Here is where opportunities are found.

Results of the 2011 study by polling firm Latino Decisions included Latino stereotyping of Jews as having too much power in arenas like business, finance and media. But also uncovered were the communities’ belief that Jews are honest, committed to family and social justice. “This shows that Latinos are frustrated and want a seat at the table,” explained Guiloff. “This becomes an opportunity, it becomes I want to encourage you, I want to be partners and work with you.”

The key is partnership — not show, not paternalism. So when the AJC sponsors workshops on topics ranging from philanthropies and politics to how to talk to the media, the panels include Jewish leaders and Latino counterparts.

“How do we borrow the Jewish cultural imperative for education?” asked former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros during the conversation with AJC’s Harris. While immigration was the go-to issue, it is education that, according to Cisneros, will make the difference between the Latino community being contributory or “large and left behind.” And, considering the size of the population and even more impressive growth trends, is there any wonder why they say, “the way the Latino community goes, so goes the U.S.”

“Really serious conversations about collaborations on educational models, prototypes, magnet schools, charter schools, accession to college, scholarships … is to me, critical,” said Cisneros. “Similarly with immigration. The Jewish community is not a novice to immigration. It has 100 years plus of history of coming to settlement housing and defense organizations that help make the case. It’s now time to talk concrete collaboration. The Latino community needs voices of respect in the U.S., voices that don’t sound like Hispanic names and look like Hispanic faces saying we need immigration reform.”

And in return, we may get voices that don’t sound Jewish, asking for continued support of Israel.

There is still work to be done. “We believe Latinos don’t worry about foreign policy — it’s an area we’d like to work on,” said Siegel Vann.

She cites strategies as more missions with Project Interchange and sending the message that Israel is a strategic ally to the U.S. “If you care about U.S. standing in the world and the Middle East, about security, if you are going to be an empowered minority, you have to be concerned about foreign policy — that has to be on the table. You can’t just talk about domestic issues.”

Ultimately, she said, “The right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state is nonnegotiable.”

“You can’t be partners with someone who wishes you dead,” adds Guiloff.

Asian Americans

Eizenstat has spoken with AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, about reaching out to Asian Americans. While he admires the commitment AIPAC has made to reaching out to the Hispanic community (hiring several full-time, non-Jewish, Hispanic staff members who bring with them a sensitivity for the best way to address that community on behalf of Israel, reaching out to Hispanic lawmakers and identifying future Hispanic leaders and bringing them to Israel), he believes the Asian American community is being ignored. “If the new immigration bill comes to bear, there’ll be an increase in more skilled workers and more high tech-trained people,” which Eizenstat argues will cause an even more rapid growth.

The 17 million Asian American immigrant population has doubled since 2000, making the Asian American community the fastest growing. Yet, it is still small enough that it is often dismissed. “We are like Americans on probation,” said Mee Moua, president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center.

Asian Americans represent a powerful consumer base, expected to reach $1 billion by 2018. The median household income is $63,000. Not all Asian American communities are highly educated and monetarily successful. There are actually 18 ethnic groups in the Pan-Asian community, including Chinese, Filipino and Indian, explained Moua. Among those, some are living at poverty level, others are hitting achievement levels lower than white benchmark groups while some are not hitting employment benchmarks. Speaking at AJC’s Summit on “The Changing Face of American Demographics,” she described the “Twin Pillars” that the Asian American ethnic groups form — perpetual foreigners versus model minorities.

“To lump and aggregate them into the broader achievement category is to not understand the reality of the Asian American Pacific Island population,” Moua warned.

In the last presidential election, Asian Americans represented 3 percent of all votes cast with 71 percent for Obama and 28 percent for Romney. Sixty-five percent of the community reported they received no contact from any political organization. “No one is fighting to keep or gain Asian American voters,” said Moua.

Issues on the agenda for the community include immigration, racial discrimination, health care and the environment.

But it is the anti-hate movement where the Jewish and Asian American communities collaborate. Getting to the root causes of hate and hate speech, the use of the immigration debate to propagate hate and the uses of anti-immigrant images in media are areas where Jews, Latinos and Asians come together.

According to Project Interchange’s Witkin, AJC hopes to do more in the Asian community — specifically the L.A office.

China is on the radar for Israel. Back in May, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to China for high level meetings, Moshe Arens, former Israeli defense minister and foreign minister, was reported by JNS as saying, “China’s importance in the world is growing from year to year. … there are two superpowers: the United States and China.”


To the list of Latino, African American and Asian American communities, Eizenstat would add women. “I think women are very important. Frankly, how Asian Americans, African Americans can see that Israel is the land of equality and opportunity for women — prime minister, head of Bank Leumi, women have strong leadership roles in the IDF. But this is where Women of the Wall is problematic.”

NCJW’s Kaufman brought a group of top-level feminist leaders to Israel this past spring to see Israel through a gender lens. Led by the Israel Action Network (a strategic initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America) and in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, NCJW showed the women Israel “warts and all.” Kaufman explained NJCW used its reputation and high regard in the progressive world to gather the group of non-Jewish women and introduce them to top-level women of all sectors, both Israeli and Palestinian, showing how Israel is “a place totally committed to democracy and gender rights.”

The women, she said, were amazed at how liberal Israel is when it comes to reproductive rights, insurance coverage for IVF and the LGBT community. “They came away with a rich appreciation and an understanding that Israel, similar to our democracy, struggles with issues, just like we do. They were surprised at the extent to which Israel works on its democracy and that good, bad, ugly, they saw that women were in the struggle — just like we are in America.”

She explained the reason that JFNA covered 75 percent of the mission’s funding as countering the deligitimization of Israel. Bringing opinion leaders in the progressive community arms them with truth, so that when confronted with BDS arguments, they respond, “Not so fast.” Said Kaufman, “The favorite term after the trip was ‘It’s complicated.’ ”

“I can’t tell you how important I think this is,” she said. “There is nothing like being on the ground in Israel with your colleagues. As long as you’re not trying to beat them over the head about this. When it comes to Israel, let the facts speak for themselves. When you bring people to Israel, they see the struggle they have every day just to be a democracy.”

The Jewish imperative

But for Nathaniel Berman, 33, attorney and  rabbi’s son, volunteering to do interfaith and intergroup work with AJC and the ADL is about more than Israel. He sees this work as the way he and others of his generation understand Judaism — to use Jewish values and text as a way to build bridges. He believes that groups that are self-contained, that are just about Israel, are not sustainable. Groups that work only on their own issues push other groups further to the fringes. Groups that work with other groups on common issues are stronger.

“We’re not in crisis mode,” he says of the Jewish community. “We’re now in a position to help others.”

Still being a numerical minority, “we can say we understand what it’s like and here’s how we channel our faith and pride. We’re Jews and therefore we care about your issues. To me, that’s a very powerful way to be connected to my faith.”

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