CHICAGO — Let's get something straight: Latinos are not anti-Israel, despite what you may have heard on the Internet or in emailed newsletters.The ugly accusation that Latinos are anti-Israel originated in a Feb. 12 news story in Haaretz, Israel's oldest daily newspaper. A reporter covering the resignation of Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder of The Israel Project (TIP), a nonpartisan educational organization, wrote a story titled " The Israel Project: 'American Hispanics are the most hostile toward Israel.'"
The lead paragraph said that, according to TIP, "Americans of Hispanic origin, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, are relatively hostile towards Israel because they are ignorant about Middle East affairs and are influenced by traditional anti-Israeli Catholic views."
That story was reposted in various Jewish publications and cited in an al-Jazeera opinion column, in addition to being e-blasted far and wide -- I just got it last weekend -- and you can imagine the potential to make both the Jewish and Hispanic communities' blood boil.
TIP rushed to set the record straight by releasing a statement that unambiguously spelled out that "Latinos clearly support Israel," citing 2011 research finding that personal support for the Jewish state reached 48 percent (with only 9 percent pro-Palestinian), and that Latinos have "warm feelings" toward Israel by a three-to-one margin.
Coincidentally, as that debacle was playing itself out, some Latino journalists and legislators who had taken a trip to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League were giving presentations in their respective cities about their newfound impressions of Israel after having had an opportunity to interact with stakeholders on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That trip had been described this way, on TheRoot.com, last November: "Seventeen Latino journalists from the United States and Latin America returned this week from an eight-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, which is concerned about what it considers an unacceptable level of anti-Semitism among Latinos, particularly new arrivals."
I spoke to both Alan Elsner, TIP's executive director for the Americas, and Michael A. Salberg, the ADL's director of international affairs, to clarify the situation between Latinos and Jews -- whom I had always known to have positive relations. Not only have Hispanic leaders looked to the Jewish community as a perfect example of a group that has been successful in the areas of political influence and building good will, but Jewish organizations have strongly supported Latinos' efforts at immigration law reform.
"In our poll last June we found that, although Hispanics were supportive of Israel in general, Hispanic support was lower than it was among whites," Elsner said. "Forty-eight percent of Hispanics -- about the same as African-Americans -- said the U.S. should support Israel -- a pretty healthy margin but not as high as the population as a whole, nearly 60 percent of which support Israel."
The ADL has been researching Latino attitudes since 2002 and its 2011 "Survey of American Attitudes Toward Jews in America" noted Hispanic support for Israel similar to TIP's findings. But also assessed were levels of anti-Semitism propensities among U.S.-born and foreign-born Latinos (about one-third of U.S. Hispanics are foreign born). The numbers show that 42 percent of foreign-born Hispanics hold negative views toward Jews, as opposed to 20 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics -- who are closer to the 15 percent of the average American population. The context, as Salberg said, is that "any level of anti-Semitism is unacceptable."
"The 'Latinos are more hostile to Israel' overstatement was a blip. Clearly it was not accurate," said Salberg, "but there is an information vacuum between communities."
According to Elsner and Salberg, both their organizations are addressing this information vacuum -- specifically among those solely reliant on Spanish-language media for their news -- through education campaigns, by providing experts and information in Spanish, the trips to Israel, and generally working more closely with Latino organizations.
So let's be clear: Within a diverse Latino community where a great portion of both the native and foreign-born population are primarily focused on day-to-day economic challenges with their jobs, housing and children's education -- not to mention the great immigration debate -- there are gains to be made in understanding the complex, and often emotional, conflict in the Middle East. But let's not paint the situation with too broad a brush: Latinos are not anti-Israel.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at email@example.com.