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Semana Latina: How Far Have Judeo-Latino Relations Progressed?

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Years ago, I was invited to a debate in Los Angeles about relations between Jews and Latinos. At the time, I lashed out at some of the participants who were idealizing the relationship between the two groups. For many, I said, the only time they talk to a Latino is when they're asking someone to mow their backyards, watch over their children, or clean their dirty clothes.

More than a decade later, the situation has improved. There seems to be a new - or additional - level of communication and understanding between both communities, fueled by a series of common initiatives.

For me, as a Jewish Latino, it mattered.

A recent survey by Latino Decisions shows that "positive views in the Latino community about Jews on a wide range of issues tend to correlate with frequency of personal contacts, and levels of education, income and acculturation."

The study examined "the extent to which Latinos subscribe to both positive and negative stereotypes about the Jewish community," according to a statement by the American Jewish Committee's Latino and Latin American Institute, the organization that commissioned it.

The institute was created in 2004 to develop mutual understanding between the communities, deter terrorism, and "ensure that democracy and pluralism remain strong," among other reasons.

"This comprehensive, insightful survey will inform and advance our ongoing efforts to engage Latino communities, form coalitions, and deepen understanding of American Jews and Israel," said Dina Siegel Vann, director of AJC's Latino and Latin American Institute, in a statement.

In recent years, national and local Jewish organizations increased their efforts to reach out to Latinos.

In Los Angeles, a group of civil rights activist founded in 1992 the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, an initiative of the local Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Other efforts were led by Local Jewish federations at the time.

In many cases, the efforts were fueled by the sense that the present-day Latino struggle for recognition, respect and rights corresponds to that of the Jewish community decades ago -- and that anti-Latino sentiment exacerbated by attacks on illegal immigration, is a type of xenophobia akin to the past waves of anti-semitism.

The major Jewish organizations in the U.S. repeatedly published statements of support for immigration reform and the DREAM Act.

Last Christmas day, the large Breed Street temple in East Los Angeles, built in 1915, reopened after many years as a community center to serve Latinos in the neighborhood, as a "center for art and culture exhibits and social activities."

The synagogue was one of 30 built in an area --where I live-- that decades ago was a hub for Jewish immigrants from the East. It is now almost entirely Latino.

The survey's findings are not all positive for Jewish people, however.

Only 18 percent of Latinos consider themselves "highly familiar" with Jews and 31 percent are "not familiar at all". And while Latinos from Puerto Rico (57 percent) and South America (53 percent) have a higher familiarity with Jews, among those who came from Mexico - the majority of the Latino community - 67 percent have had none or minimal contact.

"Most of the Mexican Jewish community is concentrated in Mexico City, but most Mexican immigrants to the U.S. come from other places in that country," explained to me Siegel Vann, a native of Mexico City, over the phone.

Latino opinions, concludes the study, "are hampered by limited contact and general unfamiliarity with Jews."

Not the biggest surprise -- the better the education level of Latinos and the higher their incomes, the more familiar they are with Jewish people.

"While 50 percent of those without a high-school education have zero familiarity with Jews, 38 percent of college graduates have the highest rate of familiarity."

And more than other forms of relations, the one created in the workplace is the most common, encompassing "45 percent of all Latino-Jewish interaction".

"Interpersonal connections are of the essence, particularly since Latino culture stresses trust and loyalty in the creation of substantive, long-term professional and political alliances," said Siegel Vann.

While the contacts and level of familiarity is the lowest among recent immigrants from Latin American countries, the picture changes for the second and third generation: "38 percent of first-generation immigrants have no contact", but the same is true for only 12 percent of the second generation and 10 percent of the third.

But, other than familiarity, contact and knowledge, what do Latinos think about Jews?

The survey focused on a belief that both communities share the same basic values, like commitment to "faith, family, and social change" and "a strong faith in God". A solid majority of Latinos finds and appreciates these values among Jews. And "61 percent believe Jews make positive cultural contributions to the U.S, 17 percent disagree and 22 percent did not know."

Personally, while working with the Latino community in a large Spanish language daily in Los Angeles for almost 15 years, I found mostly feelings of tolerance and appreciation toward Jews, but also bigotry and anti-Semitism in fringe, specific groups. One of them still has in its website a photo of mine with a yellow David Star, a badge forced on Jews by Nazi Germany, on a corner.

For us Latinos, the organized Jewish community has been an important ally in the quest for an immigration reform.

And for us Jews, the alliance with the Latino community and support of it's advancement keeps us in the right side of history.

But the survey doesn't shy from asking difficult questions that touch on stereotypes of Jews. Like the attachment of Jews to Israel that has been questioned, the same way as in the past Catholic Americans have been criticized for supposed allegience to the Vatican or that present-day Muslim Americans have been linked to an imaginary conspiracy to impose Sharia law in this country.

And still, 53 percent of Latinos think that the Jews are "certainly" or "probably" more loyal to Israel than to the U.S., a number that increases to 61 percent in New York and to 55 percent in Los Angeles. On the perception of an exaggerated Jewish influence in the U.S., 39 percent said it is "probably true" or "certainly true" (55 percent in New York), while 42 percent said it is "probably untrue" or "certainly untrue." And 44 percent agreed that "the movie and television industries are pretty much run by Jews" while 31 percent said it was false and 25 percent didn't know. Finally, 48 percent believed that "Jews have too much power on Wall Street." (56 percent in New York)

The findings are inconclusive about the attitudes toward Jews. Some were negative; most were not. While 30 percent said that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus (41 percent said no), "64 percent of all Latinos agree Jews are honest, 18 percent disagree and 18 percent don't know," according to the study.

The Latino Decisions survey of 2,000 was conducted by telephone from August 12 to Sept 16, 2011, in Chicago, New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Kansas City, Missouri.