How Latino activists are standing up to the Israel lobby

6 March 2014

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Wall along the border between the US city of Nogales, Arizona, and the Mexican city of Nogales, Sonora. Graffiti says “The border is big because we are on our knees” and “No wall!” (Steev Hise/Flickr)

This special report for The Electronic Intifada is the second of two. The first looked at the Israel lobby’s outreach campaign to the Latino American community.

As the pro-Israel lobby’s aggressive recruitment of Latino Americans intensifies, a number of Latino and Chicano groups are pushing back by aligning themselves with the Palestinian struggle.

At its March 2012 annual conference, chapter leaders of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), a Chicano (Mexican-American) student group with a four-decade history of activism and a presence throughout the US, endorsed the call to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel for its occupation and settlement in Palestine.

Drawing on the parallels of the Chicano struggle for justice in the US, the endorsement of the boycott was announced on National Cesar Chavez Day, which also happened to fall on Palestinian Land Day.

Chavez famously led strikes and boycotts in the struggle for justice for farmworkers and is widely considered one of the most important Latino leaders in American history.

In a joint press release, Students for Justice in Palestine at Arizona State University and National MEChA highlighted the growing trend of building “cross-movement relationships” between Latino groups and Palestine solidarity organizations at universities across the country.

A Tale of two checkpoints

Gabriel Camacho, a Boston-based immigrant rights advocate and coordinator for immigration programs with the American Friends Service Committee, has been involved in countering the efforts of Zionists who invite Latino leaders on all-expenses-paid trips to Israel.

The AFSC has a history of supporting Palestinian refugees since 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from what would become Israel.

Beyond his professional work in immigration, Camacho became more involved in the Palestine solidarity movement after he noticed that Latino leaders in the Boston metropolitan area were being invited on all-expenses-paid trips to Israel sponsored by groups including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee.

To offer an alternative perspective, Camacho organized a delegation to Palestine in 2010 for people of color.

“There were Chicanos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans,” said Camacho. “We were mostly in the West Bank – we weren’t able to go to the Gaza strip.”

Many of the participants recognized parallels between the oppression of Palestinians and their own oppression as colonized and marginalized people.

“A young Chicano from San Diego who was part of the delegation said, ‘Wow, this was just like home,’ and then he went on to describe how the border patrol asks for your ID and can stop you when you take a trolley to San Ysidro,” explained Camacho.

San Diego’s trolley system provides service to the San Ysidro point of entry, which is one of the busiest land border crossings in the world adjacent to Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. Back in 2002, Latino rights organizations criticized the Border Patrol for targeting Latinos who were riding the San Diego trolley in its pursuit of undocumented immigrants.

“Two Walls, One Struggle”

When he returned from Palestine, Camacho immediately got working on a PowerPoint presentation titled, “Two Walls, One Struggle: a structural comparison of colonialization, territorial loss, and racist aggression in Mexico and Palestine” to present to Latinos who are invited on trips to Israel by some of the Israel advocacy organizations.

The presentation noted striking similarities between the US colonization of Mexico and Zionist colonization of Palestine.

At the end of the US-Mexican war in 1848, Mexico lost nearly half of its territory to the US, which annexed the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.

In his book, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, scholar Rudolfo Acuña argues that people of Mexican descent in the US southwest live under the domination of Anglo-American invaders.

Building on this connection, the presentation noted that Elbit Systems, the Israeli company that helps operate the illegal separation wall in the West Bank, also has a contract with the US Department of Homeland Security to build high tech portions of the border wall between the US and Mexico.

Camacho has managed to connect some Latinos with organizations in Palestine during their Israel hasbara — propaganda — trips so that they can stay a few more days and get an unfiltered view of places in the West Bank, like Hebron.

Still, Camacho said, it is rare for a Latino leader who is disturbed by what they have witnessed in Palestine to speak out due to backlash from the pro-Israel groups.

From Puerto Rico to Palestine

Puerto Rico has been a colony since 1493, but the island was not formally ceded to the United States until 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War.

Sometimes referred to as “the oldest colony in the world,” some Puerto Ricans have compared their political situation to that of the Palestinians.

René Pérez, of the hip-hop group Calle 13, shot a music video in Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank in December 2013.

Pérez told the Associated Press during that trip that Puerto Ricans are connected to Palestinians “because we are a colony of the United States. Here you have the situation with Israel.”

He added, “It would be good to start building bridges between Palestine and Puerto Rico.”

Building bridges is something that Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan is doing as well.

The Puerto Rican attorney who serves as the executive vice president of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) told The Electronic Intifada about her efforts to expose Puerto Ricans to the situation in Palestine with an upcoming trip she is leading with the NLG.

“The National Lawyers Guild is a progressive legal organization of lawyers, law students and legal workers who work to ensure that human rights shall be regarded as more sacred than property interests,” Bannan explained in a written statement.

“NLG has long supported Palestine’s right to self-determination and has sent previous delegations to the occupied territories in Gaza and the West Bank before to observe, investigate and document the numerous human rights abuses being committed against Palestinians by the Israeli government.”

Bannan continued: “Our delegations are open to all NLG members and we will likely have the participation of some of our colleagues from Puerto Rico join us this year.”

Bannan noted that there would be a “focus on the conditions of detention for Palestinian political prisoners, an issue that has long affected Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico and Palestine have a shared history of fighting for their independence and sovereignty, leading to the imprisonment of many political prisoners.”

Ironically, thousands of Palestinians who have fled their land have moved to Puerto Rico.

Israel’s trail of blood in Latin America

“You cannot talk about the Israel lobby and Latinos without mentioning the long history of Israeli intervention in Latin America,” says Ron Gochez, a member of the California community-based group Union del Barrio.

Union del Barrio has taken a clear stand in supporting Palestinian self-determination.

“We are a political organization, not a non-profit. We are clear on the issue — we are not anti-Semitic. We are anti-imperialist. A lot of people are afraid to speak on this topic,” explained Gochez, underscoring Israel’s sordid history in Latin America.

“In almost every country in the region that has had a repressive government, Israel has had a hand in it in recent history.”

Indeed, Israel has been a source of weapons and military and security training for some of the most despotic regimes in Latin America.

Efraín Ríos Montt, the former de facto president of Guatemala who was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity last May for his role in the Guatemalan civil war, received support from Israel (Ríos Montt’s conviction was overturned after a spat between judges over technicalities).

In addition, Israel has armed and trained right-wing groups and regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela according to investigative journalist Jeremy Bigwood (“Israel’s Latin American trail of terror,” Al Jazeera English, 5 June 2003).

Mexico also has a history of purchasing weapons from Israel and utilizing Israeli military personnel against the Zapatista uprising twenty years ago.

In recent years, Mexico has purchased drones to spy on drug cartels in its bloody and ongoing drug war.

Israel’s cozy relationship with Latin America’s military juntas extended to the Israel lobby as well.

As writer and activist Roberto Lovato told The Electronic Intifada, “When I was in LA in the early ’90s, and we were opposed to the death-squad government of Armando Calderon Sol of El Salvador, I remember seeing the ADL award Calderon Sol with a human rights award. We staged some protests – we were asking ‘what is this?’ He was presented with a Humanitas award in Century City in Los Angeles.”

Chilling silence

In 2010, Janet Murguia, the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Latino civil rights organization in the US, went on a trip to Israel with Project Interchange with several other Latina leaders.

When contacted for comment regarding this piece in early February, the communications director for the council responded via e-mail, “I’m sorry, we cannot speak about this. We don’t have an expert that can comment.”

Pro-Israel organizations also heavily donate to Latino elected officials.

According to Open Secrets in the current election cycle, Florida congressional representatives Joe Garcia (Democrat) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican) have received over $20,000 from the pro-Israel lobby.

Additionally, representatives Linda Sanchez (D-California), Albio Sires (D-New Jersey), Loretta Sanchez (D-Califorinia), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Florida), and Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) have all received at least $1,000 from pro-Israel groups in the current election cycle.

We contacted these Latino congressional representatives, all of whom support a path to immigration for the undocumented, asking if they supported the apartheid conditions in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and the treatment of African migrants by the Israeli government, but not a single one responded.

All of them have been supportive of an immigration overhaul in the US, with Representative Garcia being a chief sponsor of H.R. 15, a comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced in the House of Representatives last fall.

Carlos Montes, a long-time Chicano activist based in Los Angeles, with a history of anti-war advocacy, believes Latino elected officials and leaders are reluctant to speak out against Israel’s human rights abuses due to the lobby.

“They see that the Israel lobby is strong, and they are politicians,” said Montes. “If they take a position that is against Israel, they will get snapped. They are looking to get support locally for any of their campaigns.”

“They [Latino leaders] go, they get a trip, but they ought to be smart enough to know that the lobby will want them to be neutral or to say nothing.”

Gabriel Camacho added that fear of upsetting pro-Israel groups has Latino activists scared silent as well.

“These organizations, like the ADL and the JCRC [Jewish Community Relations Council] silence dissent and the Palestinian narrative. They also have a huge influence on the Congress and the Senate. And that influence is trickling down to community activists,” Camacho said.

“It’s difficult if your primary responsibility is to keep a small organization afloat. You don’t want to be blacklisted by very influential organizations.”

Pro-Israel efforts: destined to fail?

Some Latinos feel that despite the efforts of pro-Israel organizations to gain support of the broader Latino community, these vigorous outreach and propaganda endeavors will ultimately fail.

Curtis Marez, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego and president of the American Studies Association, which has called for an academic boycott of Israeli universities, expressed doubts about the Israeli strategy to gain Latino political support.

“Focused on relatively elite Latinos such as politicians and Hollywood celebrities, I don’t anticipate that Israel’s marketing campaign will take hold among the vast majority of US Latinos,” Marez told The Electronic Intifada.

“The national Chicano student group MEChA has issued a ‘Statement of Solidarity Toward the Palestinian People,’ while its members have been central to divestment movements on college campuses.”

“Largely Latino civil rights groups like the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union have made similar statements. Scholars of Chicano studies have further studied the similarities and differences between the US/Mexico border and the Israeli-occupied territories, while activist entertainers such as the Chicano band Quetzal have boycotted Latino-focused events sponsored by the Israeli Consulate,” added Marez.

Similarly, Roberto Lovato shared that he has seen more Latinos joining the BDS movement and condemning the actions of Hollywood actor Scarlett Johansson who has endorsed a soda product that is manufactured in a West Bank settlement.

“How can the pro-Israel groups cover the eyes, ears and noses of Latinos in an increasingly interconnected world?” asked Lovato.

“Multimillion-dollar efforts by organizations like AIPAC [American-Israel Public Affairs Committee] and the ADL are destined to fail,” he argued.

“Sure, some Latinos will be influenced by the lobbying efforts, but as we say in Spanish, ‘no puedes tapar el sol con un dedo’ — you cannot cover up the sun with one finger, even if that finger is a multimillion-dollar operation recruiting leaders who are questionable at best. I suspect that a lot of Latino leaders who go on these trips will remain silent when asked about it.”

Solidarity is unstoppable

As long as Latinos in the US are subjected to racial profiling, the deportation of undocumented loved ones, and the effects of colonialism in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and in the southwest states, comparisons will be made between Latinos and Palestinians.

When those comparisons are openly discussed and shared in the Latino community, it may be more difficult for pro-Israel groups to gain the support of the nation’s largest minority group.

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

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