When Moshe Livne came to New York earlier this year, Israel’s new deputy consul general here set an unusual mission as one of his top priorities.
“I want to work on relations with Latinos,” said the former ambassador to El Salvador, who is fluent in Spanish.
Latinos, the fastest-growing ethnic segment in New York, are as disparate in location throughout the five boroughs as in their cultures, economic class and lands of origin.
“They are an important segment of the human mosaic that is New York, growing not only in numbers but in importance in the life of New York,” Livne said.
And so the Latino explosion is becoming a fact not only in pop music and baseball, but in Israeli and Jewish affairs as well.
According to a New York University study, Hispanics have replaced blacks as the second largest racial/ethnic group (after whites) in the five boroughs, mirroring the national trend in a country where salsa now outsells ketchup. (The term Hispanic generally refers to people from Spanish-speaking countries, while Latino includes natives of non-Spanish-speaking Latin and Central American nations and the Caribbean.)
Between 1990 and 1996, the number of Hispanics in New York rose to 1.9 million, an increase of more than 143,000, and the upcoming 2000 census will likely illustrate more growth. And in the last mayoral election, in 1997, Hispanics comprised 20 percent of the vote, 7 percent more than in 1993.
Asians are also a fast-growing segment: More than one out of every 10 New Yorkers is now from Asia, according to the study. By comparison, the African-American population grew by only 50,000 during the same period while whites, including Jews, declined by nearly 385,000.
Approximately 37 percent of the city’s population is expected to be foreign born in the year 2000, rivaling the high point of immigration in 1910 and making for a drastically different ethnic landscape from the one most adults today grew up with.
It would be foolhardy and arrogant for the organized Jewish community to ignore the Latino and Asian explosion, and it has not done so. The numbers have shaken the fascination with black-Jewish relations that has taken hold over the past several decades. While programs between the groups continue, there is a realization that forging ties with Latinos and Asians is not only a feel-good endeavor but a political, social and economic necessity.
“Jews already have a variety of linkages with the black community,” said sociologist Mitchell Moss of NYU. “But it is just as important to be concerned about the Latino community. They are becoming more politically active and organized. They have twice as much capital invested in small businesses than other groups. You go down to the Lower East Side and many of the old Jewish shops have given way to Latino operations.”
Moss cautioned that understanding and navigating the Latino community can be tough. “They are more complex to relate to,” he said. “They are geographically dispersed throughout the city and from different kinds of nations.”
While the Latino community is eclectic, it is linked by outsiders’ perceptions — much the way the diverse Jewish community is bound largely by issues that oppose its interests. But also like the Jewish community, outsiders are no longer able to engage a centralized leadership but must approach myriad subgroups. Thus, forging Latino ties is being done painstakingly, on a neighborhood-to-neighborhood level.
“We tend to lump everyone together, but there are over 20 different nations with distinct histories, cultures and aspirations,” said Robert Kaplan, director of intergroup relations and community concerns for the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the umbrella for most of the city’s Jewish agencies.
The JCRC has tackled this challenge by bringing together neighborhood groups to identify cross-cutting issues such as health care, education and housing concerns. “We are trying to be especially careful in terms of reaching out to Latino populations to ensure that they are all included in the coalitions we are building,” Kaplan said.
Those coalitions, which are sprouting into independent, nonprofit organizations, include the Northeast Queens Health Coalition, the Lower Manhattan Health Care Coalition and the Greater Southern Brooklyn Coalition. Bringing Jewish communities in close working contact with both Asian and Latino counterparts, the coalitions are intended to improve health care delivery in their areas and improve communication between service providers and community leaders. But above all they are vehicles for intergroup dialogue and communication.
“I believe it has had a certain positive impact,” said Giho Kim, president of the Korean American Senior Citizens Council and a former vice president of the Northern Queens Health Coalition. “It has changed the perception of some people that Jews are money-grabbing. We see that [Jews are] sojourners and helping other people is part of the religion. Jews know how to build a community and are willing to share that know-how.”
Alina Commacho-Gingerich, a Cuban native who chairs the Committee on Latin American Studies at St. John’s University in Queens, says her involvement in the health coalition has deepened her appreciation of Jews. “It is an intellectual community that is for fairness and equality among all ethnic groups. In collaboration, we have been very effective citywide and also nationally,” she said.
But just as unifying issues are easy to come by, so are flash points. Chasidim and Latinos in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn have clashed for years over limited public housing in the overcrowded neighborhood, although tensions have recently eased somewhat, largely through the cooperation of a Puerto Rican former chairman of the city Housing Authority, Ruben Franco, and an Orthodox Jewish board member, Kalman Finkel.
Other potential areas of conflict concern the efforts of the city and state to enroll children in the government-subsidized Child Health Care Plus program, which provides free insurance for needy kids, and the placement of employment training centers. “If one ethnic group derives more advantage from these programs than another, the other groups would be right to protest,” said one Jewish communal source.
But the wide range of nonsectarian programs under Jewish auspices, many serving overwhelmingly non-Jewish areas, are offsetting any impressions of parochialism.
The Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, for example, recently took over Hillside House, a shelter for homeless women in Jamaica, Queens. “Many of these women and children are Hispanic, and they have a new lease on life compared to before we took over,” said the Met Council director, William Rapfogel. “That residence becomes a kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God].”
Another potential area of conflict, however, is the upcoming municipal elections in 2001, in which the vast majority of City Council members, four borough presidents and the top three office holders will be forced out by term limits. There are bound to be races pitting up-and-coming Latinos against Jews, who made their mark on New York politics decades ago. And Asians are notoriously underrepresented in public office.
Relations between Latino office holders and their constituents, as well as between Jewish colleagues on the Council, are fine today. In Washington Heights, Council members Guillermo Linares, a Dominican native, and Stanley Michels, who is Jewish, work amicably in the mixed Latino Jewish neighborhood. “Sometimes I’m the Jewish representative and sometimes Stanley is,” Linares joked at a recent public event.
But recent events in Los Angeles offer a cautionary tale as to what can happen if a Jewish official is seen as working against the interests of a Latino constituency. Zev Yoraslavsky, an Orthodox Jew who serves on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, fell under sharp attack for opposing a plan to extend the city’s fledgling subway system into a Latino neighborhood.
Yoraslavsky favored an above-ground rail system that was cheaper to build than the $250 million per mile subway. Detractors interpreted his stance as depriving the lower-income minority area of a commuter luxury already afforded Yoraslavsky’s middle-class, heavily Jewish district.
“Some Latino officials chose to interpret this as some kind of attack by the Jewish community,” said Yoraslavsky spokesman Joel Zelman. When the Jewish pol later objected to the size of a new hospital to be built in the Latino area, things really hit the fan. “The debate got very polarized because he is Jewish,” said Zelman.
But as the milestone 2001 election shapes up here, already there are signs of the kind of political coalition-building that a politician will need to win a mandate from an increasingly polyglot electorate. Puerto Rico-born Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, a likely candidate for mayor, was backed recently by the Crown Heights Jewish political action committee in one of the first ethnic endorsements of the race, still almost two years off. The early nod is all the more interesting considering that at least three of the other candidates are likely to be Jewish.
“We share many common issues and problems,” said Ferrer of Jews and Latinos. “The extent to which we can make common cause between those who generate jobs and those who need jobs, and those who want to live in better housing, will be the real index of success in this city going forward.”