By Nahal Toosi
July 2, 2016
Donald Trump and his racially charged rhetoric may be divisive on many levels. But the Republican presidential candidate has been a catalyst for uniting two seemingly disparate groups: Mexicans and Jews.
U.S. residents of Mexican descent, feeling besieged by Trump’s attacks on their culture and ancestral homeland, are ramping up ties to American Jewish networks and emulating Jewish models of political activism, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. And many Jewish activists are eager to help.
Trump on Saturday was widely criticized for tweeting an image of Hillary Clinton next to a pile of cash and a Star of David shape emblazoned with the words "Most corrupt candidate ever."
The growing bond comes as Mexico's government pursues a public relations campaign designed to update the image of Mexicans and convince Americans that Mexico is more than just a country that happens to share a border with the U.S.
“The same way that Israel is a very strategic partner of the United States, Mexico is, too — that is what we are emphasizing,” Mexico’s newly appointed ambassador to the United States, Carlos Sada, told POLITICO. “Of course, there is a kind of wake up call when somebody attacks you.”
The American Jewish Committee, a major advocacy organization, has been a key partner in the Mexican diaspora’s surging interest in political activism.
The AJC houses the Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs, which builds political alliances between Latinos and Jews. Although it has been around for more than a decade, the 2016 presidential campaign — in which Trump has called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists,” promised to build a massive border wall, and questioned the loyalties of a Mexican-American judge — has intensified interest in the institute’s work.
Dina Siegel Vann, the institute's director, said the Jewish community, although smaller in number than the Mexican-American community, offered a model that, among other things, emphasizes the importance of coalition building. (There are roughly 6 million Jews in the U.S., and at least 33 million people of Mexican heritage. There also are 40,000 Jews in Mexico, and between 100,000 to 200,000 Latino Jews in the U.S., according to various studies.)
The Mexican community needs to polish its image to the point that “there has to be some sort of cost if you attack Mexico or Mexican Americans,” added Siegel Vann, who is Mexican-American and Jewish. “The moment that there’s attacks, that Mexicans are called rapists, there has to be some sort of national outrage.”
The institute hosts workshops to train Mexican Americans and other Latinos in political advocacy work — there’s one scheduled for July 10 in Washington, followed by a reception featuring Sada. The sessions, which train 35 to 40 people at a time, include discussions of case studies, such as how the push for comprehensive immigration reform fell apart, and tips for how to engage members of Congress — including when you have only two minutes on an elevator.
Mexico’s foreign secretary, Claudia Ruiz Massieu, delivered a keynote address at the AJC’s Global Forum last month. Without mentioning Trump by name, she slammed the “stench of bigotry” and “climate of intolerance” in the U.S.
“Those who want to make a political profit stigmatizing these people, be [they] Mexican, Jews, Muslims, people of color, Asians are wrong for this country was founded on the very principle, the self-evident truth that all men and women are endowed with the same unalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she said.
Ruiz Massieu said that Mexico was ready to take its relationship with the AJC “to the next level.” As evidence, she pointed to the fact that also attending the forum were the leaders of all of Mexico’s 50 consulates in the United States as well as dozens of Mexican-American leaders eager to network with the Jewish group. The Mexican contingent attended seminars and other gatherings at the forum, including sessions on advocacy training.
In a response to the Trump phenomenon, the Mexican government earlier this year shook up its diplomatic corps in the U.S., including appointing Sada as ambassador. It also has reached out to business groups and expanded its cultural outreach in the U.S.
Mexican officials say the goal isn’t merely to shore up their country’s image — it’s to update it. Mexico is America’s third-largest trading partner, and millions of jobs in the U.S. rely on the relationship with the Latin American country, which has made many economic and educational advances in recent decades. But many Americans still see Mexico through the crude stereotypes of impoverished day laborers and drug gangs.
Private citizens in the U.S. Mexican diaspora, too, have upped their activism. In March, a group of business leaders set up the American Mexico Public Affairs Committee to lobby lawmakers and educate U.S. voters about the two countries’ relationship. The group is modeling itself after AIPAC — "That’s even the reason why we named it the way it’s named," said Antonio Maldonado, AMxPAC's president.
American Jews have a long history of political activism, especially on civil liberties, and Jewish organizations have been at the forefront of condemning Trump for his many comments about Mexicans, Muslims and other minorities.
The admonitions have had little effect.
On Thursday, Trump held an event at a shuttered light-bulb factory in New Hampshire, whose closing he blamed on trade deals with Mexico and other countries. He then joked that a plane buzzing overhead could be from Mexico and “getting ready to attack.” He also gave a backhanded compliment to Mexicans, saying: "I respect their leaders. What they’ve done to us is incredible. Their leaders are so much smarter, so much sharper.”
Some Trump supporters, especially those active on social media sites, also have developed a reputation for anti-Semitism. The candidate himself has pledged to stand by Israel and has a daughter who converted to Judaism. But he also drew criticism for using the foreign policy slogan “America First,” which, Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League pointed out, has some anti-Semitic underpinnings.
Some Jewish organizations have tried to walk a fine line when it comes to the likely GOP presidential nominee.
AIPAC, for instance, drew criticism for inviting Trump to speak at its annual conference, and found itself rebuking Trump afterward for his comments about Obama. The Republican Jewish Coalition congratulated Trump in May once it was clear he would be the GOP’s presidential nominee, but it hasn’t quite endorsed him.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, said that, roughly three years ago, he wrote a paper he shared Mexico-linked business leaders and Mexican lawmakers in which he argued that they should look to the Jewish community — and AIPAC in particular — for ways to improve their own lobbying efforts in the U.S.
Back then, however, the people he turned to dismissed the idea, Cuellar said. The congressman declined to share a copy of the paper with POLITICO, but said he planned to update it and give it to the Mexican ambassador.
“I always say that the Jewish community is probably the best community to follow,” Cuellar said, noting the strong congressional support for U.S. aid to Israel, which amounts to more than $3 billion a year.
Some members of Congress who hail from along the U.S.-Mexican border are hoping to bring people from their communities for a day or more of lobbying on Capitol Hill in the coming months.
The initiative was inspired in part by what AIPAC does with its activists, said Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), one of the lawmakers behind the project, which is still in early stages.
“It became apparent to me that those of us who represent regions along the border could benefit our districts by having our constituency begin to organize and initiate that same sort of organizational effort on the Hill,” Vela said.
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