JINSA’s Latino-Jewish Alliance Holds First Conference and Meeting in Houston

[img_assist|nid=2358|title=|desc=(left to right) Former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, JINSA Executive Director and Alliance Co-Founder Tom Neumann, and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.

Well more than 100 Latino and Jewish community and business leaders were in attendance on June 21 in Houston for the inaugural conference and planning committee meeting of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs’ “Latino-Jewish Alliance for a Secure America.” Welcoming the crowd, JINSA Executive Director Tom Neumann said, “The Alliance builds upon the common interest of the Latino and Jewish communities in areas that are critical for the future of the United States. It is about engagement on a wide range of U.S. national security topics from the Middle East to our national borders.”

Rabbi Mark J. Miller of Congregation Beth Israel and Pastor Becky Keenan of the Gulf Meadows Church delivered benedictions.

Event Opening – Alliance Co-Founders Jacob Monty and Tom Neumann

Speaking as part of the event opening session, Alliance co-founder Jacob M. Monty, a Houston-based Latino civil rights leader and immigration attorney said, “The Latino community, through the Alliance, will engage in the most pressing national security issues of the day, including the global fight against terrorism, expansion of free trade, support for democracies around the world and American energy independence.” He was joined by JINSA Executive Director Tom Neumann, who discussed an affinity between the Latino and Jewish communities that arises out of their shared experience as immigrant communities that came to America seeking opportunities that would come from hard work and not hand outs.

Addressing the founding of the Alliance, Neumann pointed out that “JINSA chose to create an alliance with the Latino community and not a dialogue. Both communities have policy goals that their combined energies can achieve. That is what the Latino-Jewish Alliance for a Secure America is all about.”

Why would we create this, Neumann asked rhetorically. “A secure America means that all of us have a stake in making the U.S. the best democracy in the world, a place affording its people the best opportunities for success.”

Wrapping up, Neumann said, “there are a lot of challenges and opportunities for both of our communities but together we can find success for both. Together, we can prove to the world that America’s best years are ahead of us.”

Alliance Issues Going Forward – Jose Cuevas, Jr.

Jose Cuevas, Jr., an Alliance member and CEO of the Midland, Texas-based JumBurrito restaurant chain and currently the Presiding Officer of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission joined Jacob Monty. Cuevas said that his experience in Israel with JINSA was “eye opening because as Americans, much of the time our newspapers feed us what they want us to know and slant the news to achieve that.” On the visit to Israel, Cuevas noted that the meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres truly gave him the impression that “Israelis will defend their country at any cost, and that they know who their enemies are.”

A JINSA event was held recently in Midland, Texas to explore the formation of a group dedicated to strengthening national security through energy independence, Cuevas told the audience. “I don’t think that anyone believes that we can achieve complete energy independence in the United States but we can sure go a long way toward it. Events in the Middle East are changing so quickly that it makes it imperative to diversify our energy sources.”

Cuevas noted the difficulty in obtaining energy exploration permits off the shores of Texas and the federal government’s proposal to put the dunes sagebrush lizard on the endangered species list that would halt drilling in West Texas. Such an action “would threaten our national security as well as hurt Latinos who are working in the oil field business in increasing numbers and are beginning to own their own companies and are moving up the socio-economic ladder which we all strive for in our lives. That opportunity is what makes this country great.”

Cuevas noted the importance of comprehensive immigration reform, a theme echoed throughout the daylong event. He deplored discussion of immigration reform measures that are “not a comprehensive immigration reform bill, but a plan that is piecemeal-ed together, one that does not avoid the trap that my children and I would be asked to prove our citizenship to a higher degree because our skin is brown, our hair is brown, and our eyes are brown. Because we don’t have white skin, blond hair or blue eyes.”

He continued, “I think we have to move forward on comprehensive immigration reform in a civilized way … I will continue to work with JINSA because I can see that there is a national threat. We have a lot of experiences that are the same but also many that are different and I encourage everyone to get involved as a grassroots movement.” This, he said, is where the “rubber meets the road.” “The more of us that are out there talking about national security whether it be JINSA or us talking about the Hispanic experience it is time that our voices be heard.”

“By us not speaking out, we are condoning the actions of our representatives who are playing to an intolerant community. It is time to talk to our elected officials who we support, and make them understand that we are not just anybody’s lap dog,” Cuevas declared. “We have a responsibility to speak out about what we think is not right and just in this country.”

Cuevas concluded his remarks by noting the indispensable nature of the JINSA partnership. “The energy issue hangs in the balance and we have to move it to Washington quickly. And that is what is so important about JINSA. JINSA realizes the need and they have the expertise gained from decades of facilitating information sharing between the U.S. and Israeli militaries…I will continue to work with JINSA because there is a natural fit.”

“We have to keep looking for the better of what America is all about and making sure that everyone has an opportunity to achieve that dream. And look for good ways to make sure our country continues to be strong and not second-rate to any other that would do us harm.”

Alliance Trip to Israel: Participant Perspectives

An analysis of the effects of the first Alliance program, a weeklong JINSA trip to Israel for 16 Latino leaders from across the country that took place in January was the first discussion of the day. Speaking were trip participants Hector Uribe, an attorney and a former Texas state senator, and Roman Martinez, President & CEO of Texas Taxi, Inc. and former Texas state representative. Uribe and Martinez passionately discussed the ongoing efforts by trip participants to share as widely as possible the information they acquired during the trip.

In his remarks, Martinez noted the wide diversity of the Latino participants on the trip to Israel and that the speakers and activities in Israel contributed to an incredibly educational and emotional experience. “From Knesset members and the most senior police and intelligence officials to academic scholars and historians, to army officers and journalists to a personal meeting with Shimon Peres, the president of Israel.”

“The draw to Israel for me,” he continued, “was that it was like going back to your birthplace. Going to Jerusalem was going to the birthplace of my soul. I learned so much on the trip including the heritage of the Jewish community of Spain and Portugal and how it found its way into the American southwest, our own heritage.”

“JINSA was able to meld the educational parts where we were able to learn about how they live and the threats they face from the cutting edge developments in agriculture, in water and energy conservation, in high tech and defense industries to observing border crossings and even Hezbollah outposts in Lebanon. At the same time, we were able to experience the Christian holy sites in Jerusalem and on the Sea of Galilee which was incredibly powerful as was the Western Wall and the tunnel that runs alongside of it.”

“After all these incredible experiences, we get a send off by representatives of Israel’s Sephardic community. They threw a dinner party for us and there was lot of Ladino spoken that night which is the old language that blended Hebrew and Spanish. And we could understand much of it. It was very moving.”

Hector Uribe commented on the diversity of the group in Israel. He congratulated JINSA for bringing Latinos from across the country, whose ancestors came from different countries, and who today are representative of a range of political affiliations. “We formed our own alliance and JINSA is about forming the right alliances because our community is growing, demographically speaking. Not just in Texas but throughout the United States.”

“From an infrastructure perspective, the strides made by Israel were noticeable since my previous visit 22 years ago,” he said. Uribe also commented on the implications for Israel’s future owing to the discovery of giant offshore gas fields and political changes stemming from the collapse of the once-dominant Labor Party.

“For me,” Uribe said, “the visit with Shimon Peres was the highlight of the trip but one of the most significant conversations that we had was with the Palestinian Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh. We talked about the conflict between Fatah and Hamas among many subjects and he concluded by saying that the status quo, although not entirely stable, was preferable to the proposed two-state solution.” Later, after Uribe had thought about the implications of everything Abu Toameh said, he told the Houston crowd that, “I came away more resolved than ever that our alliance between the Latino community and the Jewish community in this country must get even stronger – much, much stronger.”

Concluding his remarks, Uribe said that “I know that every single one of us that participated in this great trip to Israel came back with a rededication to continue to support this alliance between Israel and the Latino community and to learn more about what is happening in Israel today. To communicate to our own respective communities about the need to support Israel and, at the national level, to continue to support our only true ally in the Middle East – Israel.”

Full coverage of the trip can be found here.

A Perspective on U.S.-Israel Relations: Former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado

Ambassador Meir Shlomo, Consul General of Israel for the Southwest United States, opened the third discussion of the day on U.S.-Israel relations and introduced Abel Maldonado, most recently Lieutenant Governor of California and a former California state senator. Lt. Gov. Maldonado participated in the January 2011 JINSA trip to Israel.

Lt. Gov. Maldonado noted, “The whole process of the JINSA trip was one that was very open, it was very sincere and it was very clear that [the participants] would form their own opinion of what you think about Israel today.”

Regarding the situation today in the Middle East, Lt. Gov. Maldonado, who recently announced his intention to run for a seat in Congress, discussed his frustration with U.S. policy in the region, asking rhetorically, “Why aren’t we working to get Assad out of Syria? … [Assad] is killing his people with his army. I don’t get that. And [the Obama Administration’s priority is Israel accepting] boundaries from 1967?”

“Today,” he continued, “we ask Israel to negotiate with Hamas. Seven years ago, I didn’t know anything about Hamas, to be honest with you. But when I went to the Israeli town of Sderot, I could see Hamas buildings across the way in the Gaza Strip. And we are asking our friends to negotiate with [Hamas], a group who has it in their platform the destruction of their country? … My perspective has never been clearer on the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. Israel has the right to live in peace … All I can say is, God forbid one Qassam would land in our country. Just one. Not 428. Just one. I wonder what our reaction would be.”

Those are the challenges this Alliance has to bring forward and move our relationships [with Israel] forward,” Lt. Gov. Maldonado told his audience.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro: JINSA-Latino Partnership to be Commended

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro delivered a luncheon address to the conference participants. He noted that the recent “Bridges and Pathways” event hosted by former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros that brought together Jewish and Latino community leaders was, “a groundbreaking conference and one in keeping with the work that JINSA has been doing. To bring together two communities that, I believe, share a lot in terms of a deep, fundamental respect for others, strong faith, great character, and an important future in the United States and throughout the world.”

Mayor Castro told his audience to “count me as one who has a very deep respect for Israel and a strong supporter of its sovereignty as one who wants to ensure that Israel is secure and that its relationship with the United States remains strong well into the future.”

Concluding his speech, Mayor Castro said, “At the end of the day, I hope that more and more folks in the Latino community will have the opportunity to go to Israel because I think that it is not something that … is normally is within the orbit of either our experience or aspiration. But, as a community here in the United States, as the Latino community grows and there are more elected officials, more superintendents, more policy makers, more business leaders, we need to have a world view that is expanded throughout. I want to commend and congratulate [JINSA] for helping to create that in the Latino community.”

Panel – Historical Connection of Sephardic Jews and Latinos

The afternoon featured a panel discussion on “Sephardic Jews and Latinos – The Historical Connection.” Speaking were Dr. Nicolas Kanellos, the Brown Foundation Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston; Professor and Historian Elias Barrocas of Miami, and; Sephardic Jewry expert and Houston attorney Nathaniel Tarlow.

Each of these distinguished authorities addressed different aspects of the history, culture and present day activities of the community descended from the Jews of Spain and Portugal before their expulsion in the late 15th century.

It was discussed that the most prominent sub-group consists of the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, who settled in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, especially Istanbul. Their traditional language is Judaeo-Spanish, also known as Ladino. Leaders of this group, the Turkish Jewish community, hosted the trip participants on their last night in Israel.

Other branches of expelled Sephardim settled in Northern Morocco and Algeria and a third group consists of Jews whose families remained in Spain and Portugal as Christians, but later reverted to Judaism after migrating to other European countries and the United States.

Of great interest to the conference attendees was discussion of so-called Crypto-Jews who chose to keep their Jewish identities hidden since the Spanish and Mexican Inquisitions, but practice Jewish religious rites in private. Descendents of these “Safarditas” are found in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo León, throughout New Mexico, Arizona, and south Texas. Many were among the first Europeans to set foot in the “New World” as part of the crews of explorer’s fleets since cartography was known as a Jewish profession.

The three authorities spent a considerable time in a Q & A session with many enthusiastic audience members eager to learn more about the historical connections between Latinos and Jews.