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Jews and Latinos: The Political Future

Jewish Journal, Commentary , Raphael J. Sonenshein Posted: May 18, 2009

Traduccin al espaol

Many years ago, a conservative commentator, frustrated that Jews continued to vote largely for Democrats, said it best: Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans. That sentence nicely captures the odd fact that Jews and Latinos, often quite different in their socioeconomic positions, have much in common politically.

Jews are among the most affluent and best educated Americans. Even though there are many working-class Jews, the bulk of the community is middle class, and Jews are disproportionately represented in professional occupations, including law, media, medicine and teaching.

Latinos are a vast community, growing in numbers and influence. While Latinos are making impressive educational strides in each generation, they continue to have a large working class, with great aspirations for upward mobility. In their daily lives, Latinos and Jews live in somewhat different worlds, and opportunities for interaction on an equal basis are not widespread.

And yet the evidence of political affinity is very strong. Both groups have been loyal Democrats. Jews have maintained their Democratic identification, while, if anything, Latinos have become increasingly Democratic as more and more of their community register to vote. Most recently, despite predictions that they would not vote for an African American candidate for president, both groups gave overwhelming support to Barack Obama, Jews by 78 percent and Latinos by 67 percent. With their help, Obama carried the state of Florida for the Democratic ticket.

Perhaps this political affinity stems from the fact that Jews, like Latinos, share roots as immigrant communities that, at times, faced discrimination for being in the minority. Latinos and Jews have traditionally supported ballot measures that protect public services and oppose measures that discriminate against racial and ethnic minorities. Among whites, Jews were the only group to oppose Proposition 187 by a majority vote. In 1997, when Los Angeles voters passed the largest school funding measure in history, the two main blocs of support were Latinos and Jews.

But Latinos and Jews are not identical on all political issues. Jews are one of the most liberal groups in the nation on such social issues as abortion, gay rights, and stem cell research. Latinos tend to be more conservative on these issues, as shown by the divergence between the two groups on Proposition 8 concerning gay marriage this past fall. Latinos are extremely strong on economic issues affecting working class communities and represent a pillar of progressive politics on minimum wage and other such issues. Jews, too, are certainly liberal on these issues, but perhaps not as strongly committed to them as Latinos. So while the groups overlap, they will not always have the same priorities.

What is striking today is that despite their political affinity, the two groups are not very familiar with one another. Most likely, to many Latinos, Jews seem no different from other whites, and the wide differences between Jews and non-Jewish whites on political issues may not be recognized. Jews may not have a full understanding of the growing impact of the Latino community in politics, nor an understanding of how socioeconomic differences may obstruct getting to know each other.

When relationships are forged among equals, great coalitions are possible. This is how Jews and African Americans forged their historic coalition behind Tom Bradley. As Jews and Latinos observe and learn about one another, perhaps a new sort of relationship can be built between one established but progressive group, and another dynamic, diverse and emerging political community.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at Cal State Fullerton.

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