How the Israel lobby is courting US Latinos

27 February 2014

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Palestinian protest near the illegal Israeli settlement of Efrat. Pro-Israel propaganda delegations such as those of Project Interchange are carefully shielded from such sights.

(Najeh Hashlamoun / APA images)

This special report for The Electronic Intifada is the first of two on the Israel lobby’s aggressive outreach campaign in the growing Latino American community.

The top issues for Latino voters in the United States are immigration, the economy, health care and education. Rarely do issues pertaining to the Middle East register a blip in the polling of Latino voters, except for when it comes to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So why are pro-Israel groups spending more and more resources courting Latino elected officials, community leaders and students?

In the US, a Latino, often equated with Hispanic, refers to a person who can trace his or her origin to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central or South America. Mexican-Americans are the largest Latino group in the US and sometimes refer to themselves as Chicanos.

As the Latino population and electorate continue to grow, along with this population’s impact on national elections, an aggressive lobby is working to ensure that Latinos view and adopt a clearly pro-Israel stance on the question of Palestine despite strong grassroots sympathy with the plight of Palestinians.

Neutralizing the brown electorate

Speaking to Washington Jewish Week last year, Stuart Eizenstat, the former US ambassador to the European Union, warned that people of color in the United States might see the oppression of Palestinians as similar to their own.

“The problem is, and this is for Hispanic and Asian Americans and African Americans, they see themselves as minorities,” said Eizenstat (“Courting majority minority,” 24 July 2013).

To combat this natural alliance, Eizenstat implored pro-Israel groups to “make it clear” that the struggle for justice in Palestine “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’s sentiments came on the heels of more than a decade of questionable research accusing Latinos of exhibiting an alarming hostility toward Jews, prompted by the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) 2002 annual survey.

The survey measured “anti-Semitism” based on how strongly respondents agreed with statements like “Jews stick together more than other Americans” and “Jews are more loyal to Israel than America,” which are hardly precise measures, and are open to broad interpretation.

“Negative attitudes toward Israel and concerns that American Jews have too much influence over US Middle East policy are emerging as factors responsible for fostering anti-Semitic beliefs,” warned the ADL, which blamed “lower levels of education among African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans in comparison to white Americans in particular,” for the alleged high rates of anti-Semitism in those communities.

Not supportive enough of Israel

And the accusations have not subsided.

A 2011 survey conducted by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding found that almost half of American Latinos feel US foreign policy is too supportive of Israel (“Latinos believe US too supportive of Israel,” 28 March 2011 [PDF]).

Equating lackluster support for Israel with anti-Semitism, the foundation’s president Rabbi Marc Schneier told Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “We need to understand how real anti-Semitism is within the Latino community and how we can counter it … to bolster Latino empathy for the Jewish state” (“Poll: Nearly 50% of Hispanic Americans believe US too supportive of Israel,” 28 March 2011).

Fringe elements in the pro-Israel community have responded by lashing out at immigrants. Stephen Steinlight, senior political analyst at the anti-immigrant and white nationalist linked Center for Immigration Studies distilled this sentiment, warning that Muslim and Latino immigration “will erode Jewish political clout.” (“Activist blasts Jewish groups on immigration,” New Jersey Jewish News, 28 March 2011).

Meanwhile, mainstream Zionist organizations have adopted Schneier’s recommendations by creating avenues for Israel advocacy specifically designed for the Latino community under the guise of Jewish-Latino coalition building.

Project Interchange

In 2005, the American Jewish Committee launched the Latino and Latin American Institute.

Working in collaboration with the AJC’s Project Interchange, which organizes “educational” trips to Israel for influential leaders from around the world, the institute has helped coordinate over 20 delegations made up of American Latino leaders, including journalists, corporate and media executives, elected officials and prominent Latinas.

“The purpose of these trips, like all Project Interchange seminars, is to provide an opportunity to learn about Israel through first-hand experience,” the organization’s spokesperson Myra Clark-Siegel told The Electronic Intifada in an email.

Asked whether participants meet with Palestinians, Clark-Siegel replied, “Project Interchange participants meet with leaders across the social and political spectrum, and yes, they of course meet with Israeli Arabs as well as Palestinian leaders,” ranging from “the Palestinian Prime Minister to senior officials of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization].”

One “Israeli Arab” who speaks regularly at Project Interchange seminars is Khaled Abu Toameh, a journalist with the right-wing Jerusalem Post and senior fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.

The Gatestone Institute is an offshoot of the Washington-based neoconservative Hudson Institute — founded by Sears Roebuck heiress Nina Rosenwald, a hardcore Zionist who has funneled millions to Islamophobes on the far right to increase support for Israel.

As the Arab darling of US neoconservatives, Toameh rejects the characterization of Israel as an apartheid state, arguing that Israel treats Arabs and Palestinians better than any other country in the Middle East.

Toameh’s views are fringe, rather than representative, among Palestinians who directly experience life under Israeli rule, and his positions are flatly contradicted by mountains of evidence from Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights and equality-monitoring organizations.

Touring settlements

Clark-Siegel, the Project Interchange spokesperson (who is married to the Israeli consul-general in Los Angeles) added that delegations usually visit an Israeli settlement as well. “[W]e see great value in learning, seeing, and understanding these complex issues through first-hand experience and conversations with the leaders themselves, rather than from a distance,” she explained.

In her reply to a follow-up email asking if participants are informed of the illegality of settlements under international law, Clark-Siegel refused to elaborate, saying, “I answered your questions through my response yesterday.”

But a blog post written by Duke University student Sabrina Rubakovic in The Chronicle, an independent student newspaper, about her 2010 Project Interchange experience visiting Efrat, an illegal Israeli colony in the West Bank, demonstrates that touring settlements serves to legitimize Israel’s settlement enterprise (“Project Interchange Israel- Day 5,” 11 January 2010).

“I was sitting in the home of Bob Lang, the head of the religious council of Efrat, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank,” wrote Rubakovic.

“Out the window and across the street I had a clear view of a nearby Arab town. And there it was, laid out before me: an age-old territorial dispute between Israel and Palestine over Jewish settlements in the West Bank.”

While it is unclear whether Rubakovic was given an opportunity to speak with Palestinians about the devastating impact of Israeli home demolitions, land confiscations, settler-only roads and other abuses against Palestinian daily life, she left believing that Project Interchange had exposed her to both sides of the conflict.

“Congratulations, you’ve been invited to go to Israel”

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A 2013 ADL delegation of New England Latino leaders.

(Anti-Defamation League)

The Anti-Defamation League has led several free trips to Israel for Latino leaders as well, again ranging from Latino media executives and journalists, to elected officials.

We contacted several people who participated in the ADL’s December 2013 junket, comprised of Latino leaders from the Boston area, but only one responded.

Dario Collado, a 34-year-old Dominican-American who works as a corporate development officer at Boston Children’s Hospital Trust, traveled to Israel with the ADL knowing very little about the region or the conflict.

Collado, who was still running Harvard’s Latino Leadership Initiative at the time, was approached by Jerry Villacres, co-chair of the ADL’s Latino-Jewish Roundtable, asking if he could provide names of Latino leaders to nominate for the ADL’s upcoming trip.

“Two or three weeks later, I get a big envelope in the mail saying, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been invited to go to Israel,’” explained Collado. Thrilled at the opportunity to visit another country for free, he did not hesitate.

“I faxed back that form in seconds before they changed their minds,” he said.

Collado was impressed with the ADL’s apparent neutrality on the conflict.

“I think the ADL did a great job showing both sides of the story,” he remarked. “It was really an opportunity to form your own independent viewpoint on the entire region.”

But judging by Collado’s understanding of the realities since returning, it’s clear that the the ADL was anything but unbiased.

For a start, Alan Dershowitz, who recently ended his half-century long career as a Harvard law professor to propagandize for Israel full time, was presented as a man of peace.

“It’s complicated”

When asked if participants were informed of the rounding up and imprisonment without charge of non-Jewish African asylum seekers in Israel, Collado responded, “We had a frank conversation with Alan Dershowitz,” who he described as “the leading figure trying to bring peace accords for a two-state solution. It’s complicated.”

Collado came away believing that the conflict is rooted in “religion and centuries of mistrust between both sides.”

This is a typical line in pro-Israel propaganda that erases almost seven decades of Israel’s forced dispossession and displacement of Palestinians.

As for a solution, Collado blamed Palestinian aggression for stalled progress.

“Unfortunately, what happens is that when progress is made there’s a suicide bomb,” said Collado. “Time is of the essence because after [Palestinian Authority leader] Mahmoud Abbas passes away or retires, Hamas could come in and take over Palestine.”

Collado’s favorite part of the trip was visiting the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, where the children of undocumented immigrants — or as Israeli leaders call them, “infiltrators” — learn alongside Israeli children. Collado was especially delighted to meet a Dominican-Israeli seventh grader.

Bialik-Rogozin certainly is an unusual school considering that it is located in a country where segregation is often state policy and where the children of non-Jewish migrants cannot become citizens or receive asylum status simply because they are the wrong ethnicity.

Of course, the participants don’t seem to have been informed of this or of the fact that Israel’s very own education ministry has denounced Bialik-Rogozin for its integration, arguing that it “harms” Israeli children (“Integration of migrants’ children into schools harms Israeli students, state says, Haaretz, 23 August 2012).

Israel “en Español”

After Latino voters propelled President Barack Obama to re-election victory in 2012, Michael Freund, the former deputy communications director for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, took to the pages of The Jerusalem Post to demand that Israel “launch a comprehensive and coordinated hasbara, or public diplomacy, campaign that makes Israel’s case to Hispanics directly and ‘en Espanol’” (“Fundamentally Freund: Time for Hispanic ‘hasbara,’” 14 November 2012).

Citing America’s rapidly growing Latino electorate, Freund explained rather candidly, “the face of America is rapidly changing, and so too should Israel’s hasbara.” Israel, he said, must follow the example of Project Interchange.

Unbeknownst to Freund, Israel was already on it.

“The best public relations”

As Israeli bombs pulverized Gaza’s defenseless population in November 2012, a group of Latino journalists were touring Israel at the invitation of the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, which is tasked with deploying hasbara, or propaganda, abroad to counter the country’s increasingly negative image as a violent colonizer that subjects Palestinians to shocking levels of brutality.

While Gaza’s besieged and immiserated population was dodging ruthless Israeli weaponry, a writer in Israel Hayom, one of Israel’s most popular newspapers, openly celebrated rocket blowback as an opportunity to propagandize the journalists.

“An air-raid siren that sounded in Jerusalem this week startled … a group of Hispanic journalists from the United States,” the article stated with delight (“The blog is mightier than the sword,” 23 November 2012).

“Fear, terror and helplessness washed over the group. But some good came of the incident, at least from the Israeli perspective. The foreign journalists got a taste of the war situation in Israel and felt the rocket threat firsthand.

“Back at the hotel that evening, they translated their experience into articles, radio broadcasts and blog posts that were seen and heard all over the world.”

Yuli Edelstein, the minister of public diplomacy at the time, remarked that such incidents are “the best public relations for the State of Israel.”

Hispanic Evangelicals

Reverend Luis Cortés — president of Esperanza, a Philadelphia-based Hispanic evangelical network — is launching Esperanza Para Israel, an initiative supported by the Israeli government and the Jewish National Fund dedicated to promoting Israel to America’s 15 million Hispanic evangelicals.

Its advocacy efforts will include producing pro-Israel television programs to air on the Spanish-language Christian TV network, Enlace, and coordinating trips to Israel.

“The Israeli government has been courting him for some time,” Burt Siegel, former director of Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council and a close friend to Cortés, told Jewish Exponent. (“Philadelphia Pastor Brings Hope to Hispanic-Israeli Ties,” 24 December 2013).

Cortés , who in 2005 was hailed by TIME as one of the 25 most influential evangelical leaders in America, is a staunch advocate for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the US, making his pro-Israel stance all the more jarring given that country’s horrific abuse of African asylum seekers as well as Palestinians.

Cortés insists his love for Israel is based purely in theology, but he’s long been involved in the national political scene as an organizer of the yearly National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, an event attended by the nation’s top power players including President Obama.

Pushing back

Almost every pro-Israel organization today, from the most powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs — JINSA — is involved in efforts to court Latinos, including at the collegiate level.

Despite this aggressive campaign, some activists and leaders are pushing back.

In our next article, we explore the reactions of activists to the overtures of the pro-Israel groups along with some of the work that is being done by Latinos to increase awareness of the Palestinian struggle.

Rania Khalek is an independent journalist reporting on the underclass and marginalized. You can follow her on Twitter @RaniaKhalek.

Adriana Maestas is a Southern California based writer who covers Latino political affairs. You can follow her on Twitter @LatinoPolitics.