Jews, Latinos Need to Forge Coalition, Not Engage in Conflict

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum is the Western regional director of the American Jewish Committee. Arturo Vargas is executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials

No one can fail to sense the changes that are rapidly recasting the political and economic faces of Los Angeles. Just a generation ago, our city was one of the whitest cities in the nation, both demographically and politically. Today, our political leadership more closely reflects Los Angeles’ incredibly complex mix of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, a conjunction of cultures and peoples unprecedented in history. We are forging a new way, and the world is watching to see if we can bridge our differences and forge a common sense of identity and purpose.

Now that Jews and Latinos play major roles in the power structure in this city, we face a choice: Do we struggle in competition for power and influence, or do we find a way to work in coalition for the common good?

Over the past year, our organizations, the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and the American Jewish Committee, have sponsored an intensive series of discussions between Jews and Latinos to help answer this question.

And frankly, the jury is still out.


One obstacle to a Latino-Jewish coalition is the lack of historical memory in our two communities. Few young Latinos and Jews understand the bonds of our heritages or recognize that Boyle Heights was the center of Jewish life through the 1950s, just as it is a center of Latino life in the ‘90s.

Too few remember the Jewish-Latino coalition that in 1949 elected Ed Roybal as the first Latino on the City Council and later as a Latino pioneer in Congress. Few remember that it was the support of four of the five Jews on the City Council that helped pass the resolution by then-Councilman Mike Woo declaring Los Angeles a sanctuary for Salvadoran political refugees.

How many Latinos know about the strength of Jewish opposition to Proposition 187 and the trailblazing role of Jews in the civil rights, labor and environmental movements and every other aspect of progressive politics? For that matter, how many Jews understand the growing strength and diversity of Latino culture in L.A. and that there are literally millions of Latinos living the American dream--virtually indistinguishable from their Jewish peers--throughout this region?

The fact is, we barely know each other as people, much less as communities. We are circling each other warily, but we barely recognize what we see.


It is little wonder, then, that political competition, such as the recent contest between Richard Katz and Richard Alarcon in the San Fernando Valley, can flare up overnight into ethnic conflict, with legitimate hurt feelings on both sides, finger-pointing and even threats continuing to escalate.

The stakes are too high to let such conflict fester, and the potential we are wasting is too important. Our communities need each other.

With the Latino share of the electorate still far below their representation in the population and the Jewish proportion of the electorate still far higher than their representation in the population, Latinos need Jewish support in achieving their policy objectives. Jews are solid allies of Latinos on issues of social justice and rights for immigrants.

And Jews need Latino support as well. Because Jews will remain an important but small minority, they must build coalitions to survive, as they have had to do for 2,000 years. A pluralistic city in which diversity is encouraged is a city in which Latino political and economic strength can grow and Jews will continue to thrive.


We must recognize that political competition between our communities may be inevitable, but ethnic conflict must not be. We must take a stand against race-baiting and hold leaders in all communities to the highest standards.

Also, we can recognize that not every disagreement between a Latino and Jewish leader is about ethnicity. If we share a common dream for a better city, then we can view policy debates as disagreements between individuals seeking the best for us all and not as ethnic conflicts over how to defend one’s own turf.

Our AJC-NALEO dialogues left many hungry for more action. Jews and Latinos together called for joint efforts to improve schools, increase corporate fairness when it comes to labor conditions for and promotions of Latinos, protect the environment and press for a fair census to ensure representation of the urban areas that both communities call home. Indeed, there are many more issues over which our communities can and will come together. The Latino and Jewish communities are natural political and economic partners and allies. Together, we can make significant and positive strides that will help move this great city into the 21st century.