Pedro G. Cavallero believes that Hispanics in the United States have shied away from engaging in foreign affairs. Even transnational issues that have a direct impact on their community seem to be beyond Latinos’ reach. U.S.-Israel relationships are not the exception, he states. Recently, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) –leading Hispanic and Jewish advocacy organizations in the U.S.– took a delegation of Hispanic leaders to Israel. Cavallero reports some of his experiences during the visit and how he realized that the Latino Phenomenon remains rather unknown for most Israelis, although some initiatives to bring Israel closer to the Hispanic community are on the way.
Pedro G. Cavallero is Director of International Projects at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and a policy analyst based in Washington DC. The views expressed in this article are exclusively his own.
WITH NOTABLE EXCEPTIONS, such as the long-standing Cuban Americans’ influence in American-Cuban relations, Hispanics in the United States have shied away from engaging in foreign affairs. Even transnational issues that have a direct impact on their community seem to be beyond Latinos’ reach. The historical absence of an Hispanic voice in the foreign policy debate has extended even to U.S.-Mexico relations (though Latinos weighed in to support NAFTA in the 1990s) and to the American engagement in Central America – both regions with particularly strong connections to the community.
AWAY FROM INTERNATIONAL ARENA
Various reasons (social and economic challenges, limited resources) have kept Latinos focused on the most pressing domestic challenges – and away from the international arena.
U.S.-Israel relations, a key tenet of American foreign policy, remain little understood among Latinos, despite that one of its most staunch supporters is an Hispanic member of Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.
Recently, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) (leading Hispanic and Jewish advocacy organizations in the U.S.) took a delegation of Hispanic leaders to Israel. The trip’s goal was for national Hispanic leadership to expand its understanding of the Middle East complexity, America’s long-term regional engagement, and the importance of U.S.-Israel relations.
ISSUES AFFECTING ISRAEL
Though focused on a wide spectrum of cultural, religious, and social aspects, the program touched upon some of the most delicate issues affecting today’s Israel: the security fence in the West Bank, Israeli Arabs’ grievances, the recent triumph of Hamas in Palestinian elections, and the integration of successive waves of Ethiopian Jews. What emerged from these exchanges was an understanding that Israel is a modern, diverse, and democratic Israel (though not a country exempt from its share of contradictions), which thrives while defying the combined challenges imposed by both geography and history.
Throughout the visit, it seemed as if the Israeli hosts pictured the Latino delegation as coming from the Spanish-speaking Americas (interlocutors kept referring to the “Latin American leaders”), instead of the United States. Curiously, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, some presentations were heavily focused on Israel relations vis-à-vis Mercosur, the Andean region, and the Caribbean, rather than on the American-Israeli bilateral agenda.
LATINO PHENOMENON UNKNOWN
On a separate visit to Tel Aviv University, Professor Raanan Rein confirmed that the “Latino phenomenon” remains rather unknown to most Israelis. Hispanics constitute America’s largest and fastest-growing ethnic group, which in 2004 reached 40 million, accounting for 14.2% of U.S the population. On the political front, in the past presidential election, 7.6 million Hispanic citizens reported voting, up from 5.9 million in the 2000 election. However, Israeli universities still have to develop specific programs on the subject, exposing the ramifications (cultural, social, and political) stemming from such exponential growth.
Interestingly, Israel’s Foreign Ministry incorporated Latino community outreach in some of its consulates in U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, Miami, and Houston, among others. Hopefully, this effort will add to other initiatives that bring Israel “closer” to the Hispanic community.
WASHINGTON´ S PREEMINENT ALLY
However, Israel’s embassy in Washington (where most Hispanic advocacy organizations are headquartered) has yet to implement an institutional outreach strategy that engages national Hispanic leadership. For this effort to be truly effective, Israeli representatives need to cultivate and incorporate national Hispanic voices into their wider institutional network. This will result in an enhancement of Latinos’ understanding of Israel as both a pillar of American engagement in the Middle East and Washington’s preeminent ally. Furthermore, it will deepen Israelis’ awareness of how rapidly America is changing and of the long-term political implications resulting from this change.
As this process unfolds, it will be imperative for Latinos to better understand and embrace this unique partnership linking America with Israel. At the same time, Israelis will have to develop a deeper awareness of the dramatic demographic transformation its American partner is undergoing, foreshadowing the larger role that Hispanics will play in policymaking. For it is only a matter of time before Latinos increase their engagement in foreign policy commensurate with both their overall presence and their contributions to America.