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Compadres: Latino-Jewish ties run deep

Israel can and should beef up outreach among Hispanic Americans, who could decide the next US president

In the run up to the U.S. elections in 2016, the Latino community could play a greater role than ever before and both party campaigns are already raising large amounts to attract the Hispanic vote.

While there have been Latino candidates before, these elections are placing their potential support front and center. Democratic Presidential Candidate Hilary Clinton, who made little attempt to specifically attract Latino voters during her ill-fated 2008 run, has already placed this demographic high on the list for outreach.

On the Republican side, two of the declared candidates, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are of Latino origin and Jeb Bush, a likely candidate, speaks fluent Spanish and his wife Columba was born in Mexico.

As this sector becomes even more politically assertive and is expected to double by 2030, it is vital that the Jewish community and Israel rethink outreach to this community, which has not been overly successful thus far.

Perhaps it is time to encourage greater knowledge of the bonds that we share.

Unrecognized by most, the Latino community in the United States shares much in common with Israel and the Jewish community.

It is little known that during the first centuries of the last millennium, 90 percent of the Jewish People spoke Spanish as their first language when they lived in the Iberian Peninsula

Although today only a few thousand Jews speak Judeo-Spanish or Ladino, there are millions of Jews whose culture is still rooted in a Hispanic tradition and culture; in Hebrew they are called ‘Sepharadim’.

Unfortunately, around 90 percent of all Ladino-speakers were wiped out during the Holocaust. However, there is a current renaissance in Ladino and Judeo-Spanish culture in Israel, where it has been given a special status and new cultural events, centers and institutions have been created in recent years.

We, members of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community, sometimes known simply as the Nacio, still move to the Latin beat, sometimes literally.

Our music and liturgy strongly resembles the musical tradition which forms much of the basis of modern Latin-American music. There are songs like Bendigamos Al Altisimo, which is traditionally sung after Grace After Meals, love songs like Adio Qerida and Ocho Kandelikas, a Hanukkah song that has even been given a hip-hop makeover.

Our traditional food and culture would be instantly recognizable to many Spanish-speakers around the world.

Nevertheless, perhaps even more than the Jews who have Spanish and Latino roots are the numbers of Latinos who have Jewish roots.

It has been suggested that a high proportion of all the Spanish and Portuguese alive today have Jewish ancestry so it stands to reason that many of those who left the Iberian Peninsula, especially those fleeing persecution, for South and then Central America must also have significant Jewish roots.

Recent genealogical and DNA advances have certainly attested to this.

Perhaps a small example is the names Franco, Perez, Lopez, Garcia, Cardozo, Henriquez and many others so prolific in the Spanish-speaking world are of Jewish origin. (For a full list and research go to Name Your Roots).

There are tens, if not hundreds, of customs, which some Latinos still retain unbeknown that they are Jewish in origin and indicative of their Jewish ties.

I regularly meet with Latino groups or individuals in Israel and I tell them about our shared history and culture and the fact that they have a strong statistical chance of having Jewish ancestry, especially if they have one of the thousands of names which indicate Jewish origins.

They subsequently see a different Israel and Jewish People, one that they can identify and sympathize with, even sometimes discovering a piece of their familial history in our great story.

I have personally witnessed a sea change in opinion by people who were only previously aware of Jews of Eastern and Central European origin, whose culture, language and history they could not identify with.

Many major Jewish organizations and the Israeli Government have spent a lot of time, money and resources trying to ascertain the best way to reach out to the Latino community in the U.S., which is considered the fastest growing and one of the most politically active.

However, few use our shared history and culture as a basis for closer ties and greater understanding. In my personal experience this has proven to be extremely effective and engages members of the Latino community in a way that more traditional forms of outreach have simply been unable.

Furthermore, beyond our shared history, language and customs, our two cultures also share a similar pattern of community building, with a special focus on family, establishing mutual aid societies, and transnational linkages to their ‘motherlands.’

This notion of a cultural and historic connection should certainly provide a shared agenda and bond for unprecedented Latino-Jewish cooperation and partnerships in the future, especially as the Hispanic community grows exponentially and becomes even more emboldened on the American political landscape.

About the Author
Ashley Perry (Perez) is President of Reconectar and Director General of the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Communities. He was adviser to Israel's Minister of Foreign Affairs from April 2009 to January 2015. He has also worked with several other government ministers, Members of Knesset and many of the leading international Jewish, Zionist and Hasbara organizations.