Despite the recent Gaza conflict and the subsequent media backlash against Israel, the land of milk and honey has found an unlikely cultural and socio-political marriage with Latin America. Don’t call it the Latin Invasion, but it is a unique relationship that has become increasingly important in recent years.
It started with an influx of Latino culture, highlighted by the booming popularity of and bizarre fascination with the ultra-dramatictelenovela soap operas. Israel has become such a boom market for telenovelas that series stars began doing press tours of the country outfitted with no more than a few words of Hebrew and English. Then the 2007 inauguration of the Israel Baseball League brought a contingent of Latino ballplayers to the country, and Israeli-Latino ties were forever sealed.
While the Israel Baseball League was launching, Project Interchange, a non-profit organization that sends academics and intellectuals from around the world to Israel, was making a push to send Latino-American officials on more goodwill trips. This included the president of the Hispanic National Bar Association. In an effort to further relations, the American Jewish Committee organized exchanges to Israel last summer for a group of Hispanic Pentecostal pastors, even prepping them with a class at a Southern California seminary on the essence of Judaism.
Israel has also seen a new wave of South American immigrants seeking work in the country. The number of immigrants is uncertain, but it’s been at least enough to warrant the launch of LatinosinIsrael.com, a help site for Latinos expats in Israel to adjust to the culture and learn Hebrew.
In the United States, efforts to connect Israel with Latinos was born primarily out of a troubling 2007 Anti-Defamation League survey that found 29 percent of foreign-born Latinos harbored antisemitic views, compared to 15 percent of American-born Latinos.
Israel’s place in the Latino imagination should not be too surprising. For Catholic populations, Israel remains the center of the religious universe. And Pentecostals, who make up a large portion of Latin churchgoers, believe God promised the Jews Israel as a precondition for the return of Christ.
Demographically, Israel has been seeing an influx of Latin American migrants for over a decade. The migration has established sizeable Latino populations in large urban areas, particularly Tel Aviv. It has even spawned a tight Latino social network that welcomes further migrants and eases their acculturation.
Israel is a prominent trading partner with Latin America. Last year saw an amendment to strengthen Israel and Mexico’s 2000 free trade agreement, a deal that made Israel the first country to have free trade agreements with every NAFTA country. Last year also saw the signing of a historic free trade pact between Israel and MERCOSUR, the powerful trading bloc comprising Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
Politically, Israel enjoys friendly relations with all of Latin America although controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently made an unfavorable comparison between the Colombian and Israeli governments.
Altogether it makes for an unlikely partnership between two cultures with little common history or culture, and aside from the recent Chavez comments, the only downside to relations has been the financial problems of the Israel Baseball League which forced the cancellation its 2008 season.