Acceptance and Latino-Jewish relations in Arizona
Last March, Latinos and Jews gathered to celebrate freedom at the annual Latino-Jewish Seder. These two groups came together in a spirit of acceptance and in a setting of goodwill. Just like a Seder at one’s home, guests heard and participated in the telling of the Passover story and shared matzah and wine.
For six years, local Jewish and Latino leaders have joined together to commemorate the exodus from slavery to liberty as a means to elevate the dreams and hopes of both communities for a better and a more compassionate world. Both communities share a history of struggle and of aspirations for equality, justice and peace. The annual Latino-Jewish Seder captures these values and feelings with gusto and good food.
To be sure, there’s more to this gathering – a belief that both communities see meaning in building a strong and enduring relationship. Now, if only some of our state officials could appreciate this same concept.
Take for example Tom Horne, Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction. Until recently, he was a board member of the local Anti-Defamation League. As LPM and other media outlets have reported, Horne called for the abolishment of ethnic studies in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). The TUSD Mexican-American Studies Department teaches students the roles in history of Latino Americans, Native Americans and African Americans. In May, Horne succeeded with the passage of H.B. 2281 and easily obtained Gov. Brewer’s signature.
Before H.B. 2281’s passage, the issue had caught the attention of the local ADL civil rights and education committees. Horne and Augustine Romero, the director of Student Equity for TUSD, were interviewed by the ADL committees to get the facts on the TUSD ethnic studies program.
ADL regional director Bill Straus concluded, “Exploring one’s culture and roots is important to the overall identity that we all carry. We found there were baseless charges made about the program and that it’s not anti-American.” Straus added, “We also found that it turned dropouts into students and then into high school graduates.” Committee members also found the ethnic studies program promoted pride and a sense of belonging, impelling Latino youth and attracting them to the classroom.
Turns out, much to his surprise, Horne was out of step with his then fellow ADL members, who took the organization’s mission of fighting hate and bigotry seriously, as evidenced by the length and level of dignity in studying the matter. The board was unanimous in its support for the ethnic studies program. Horne resigned from the ADL shortly after the ADL board’s decision to publicly oppose the ban on ethnic studies.
Days after H.B. 2281 was signed into law, Horne acknowledged that he was unaware the Mexican-American studies department was part of the TUSD’s settlement in a race discrimination lawsuit that originally began in 1974, when an African-American couple and the NAACP sued the district on allegations of racial bias. On top of it all, the court had monitored compliance with the settlement for three decades.
Horne’s three-year campaign for the ban along with passage of H.B. 2281 on the heels of S.B. 1070 gives weight to the point made in a recent Los Angeles Times editorial: “It is now clear that Arizona’s problem isn’t only immigration — legal or otherwise. Its problem is Latinos. What else are we to conclude from Arizona’s decision last week to ban ethnic studies from its schools?”
Many Jewish organizations, locally and nationally, have made Latino-Jewish relations an important outreach undertaking. In Arizona, the relationship between Latinos and Jews has developed into a valued partnership. Horne’s long record of unfriendliness toward the Latino community endangers opportunities for goodwill between Jews and Latinos, especially when you consider he’s seeking the attorney general post in November.
Fortunately, Arizona has leaders in both communities who work to advance Latino-Jewish relations. Two in particular come to mind who have a passionate determination to advocate for civil rights and the common good: David Bodney, an attorney who serves on both the local Anti-Defamation League’s board and AJC board; and Danny Ortega, also an attorney, currently the board chairman for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).
David, a Jew, and Danny, a Latino, are two men who are the embodiment and personification of the biblical writing in Isaiah: “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged.” Each man does his part to stand up for the rights of individuals who are marginalized and maligned. Each man believes there is value in nurturing a bond between the Latino and Jewish communities.
“We have a historical connection with a shared similarity of facing negativity and hatred,” says Ortega. “[It] makes us natural brothers.”
For his part, Bodney believes “there’s been too much distance and not enough shared identities and values between both communities.” Bodney says, “We are brothers and sisters in a web of life together.”
Each man, in his own way, makes the case for fostering interaction between Latinos and Jews. An active and ongoing partnership of both communities would represent a unique strength of wisdom and an affirmation of hope. The exchange of ideas, as well as the many lessons learned from both sides, would significantly broaden the scope of leadership for both communities.
During the Passover holiday, we are called to remember – actually, we are commanded – not to oppress the stranger. Let’s find the way forward to keep this commandment alive by reaching out, across both communities, and making a commitment for the cause of human rights. I recall the recent words forthrightly written by Rabbi Andrew Straus of Temple Emanuel of Tempe, “We must remember we were all strangers; we have all been immigrants; we must not oppress the stranger.”
Horne would do well to recall the words of Hillel in Tractate Shabbat, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
Carlos Galindo-Elvira is a former mayor of Hayden, Arizona, and currently serves on the American Jewish Committee’s board of directors.