Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) urged the Jewish community to create a stronger relationship with Latinos to forge a common bond in support of both Israel and Latin America.
“As the largest and fastest-growing minority in our country,” he said, referring to Latinos, “there is a lot of commonality in terms of our fundamental beliefs and a lot of opportunity in creating a strong relationship and helping build a stronger country in the days ahead.”
His plea came in answer to a question after a 20-minute address Nov. 8 at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills.
His talk was sponsored by a number of statewide and local organizations, including the State Association of Jewish Federations of New Jersey and the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
Menendez has been an fervent supporter of Israel during his 16 years in Congress and as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee since he was elected to the Senate in 2006.
The senator said he is often asked by Latino constituents why he supports “this incredibly large assistance to the Middle East, particularly to Israel, at a time when aid to Latin America and the Caribbean has been dramatically cut, yet there is such a great need.
“Those are moments I use to explain why Israel is an important strategic ally of the United States.”
He said, however, that there is a need for greater aid to Latin American lands, “where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, creating surges of immigrants entering the United States illegally.”
Even as he promised continued support for Israel, Menendez asked his audience to “join with us to be a voice for that kind of development in the Western Hemisphere in the national interest and security of the United States.”
‘Enjoy the freedoms’
Menendez is the son of Cuban immigrants whose parents fled to New York after the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
Considered a “hard-liner” in his steadfast opposition to ending economic sanctions against Cuba, the senator said, “Many in the Jewish community criticize me for my position, but I want for Cuba what you want for the State of Israel. I want it to live free and peacefully, to enjoy all the freedoms the people of Israel enjoy.”
As he has done several times since last summer, Menendez criticized “the subtle and not-so-subtle voices” questioning the legitimacy of Israel.
He called the UN’s Goldstone Report, which indicted both Israel and Hamas for alleged war crimes in Gaza, flawed from the beginning, saying it singled out Israel with only a passing mention of the terrorist actions of Hamas.
Asked whether the United States should take military action against Iran if diplomacy fails, Menendez said, “All options should be on the table.”
“We hope never to resort to that final option,” he continued, “and in the case of Iran’s nuclear program, it is not a simple proposition. It is not like taking out one site in order to get to the entirety of its program. That’s why we continue to march on the sanctions.”
When a nine-year-old audience member wanted to know whether “the president is doing enough about Iran,” Menendez spoke positively of the Obama administration.
“I do think the president is marching in the right direction,” he said. “I think he understands very clearly that Iran is a threat to the national security of the United States. We are trying to get the Russians and the Chinese to move in that direction. That is incredibly important.”
Questioned about American dependence on oil imported from despotic nations, the senator said, “We do so because we are totally addicted to the source of energy they have. I would prefer to create a new generation of jobs in the United States that cannot be exported abroad, an opportunity to stop sending a trillion dollars abroad to those despotic countries, have that money invested here in renewable energy opportunities — wind, solar, biomass, new fuel cells for our automobiles.”
That notion appealed to one prominent audience member — David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
“It is totally insane why our country would mortgage our national security, jeopardize our economy, and risk our environment because of our addiction to oil from countries that detest us,” Harris told NJ Jewish News.
Others were pleased at the notion of closer ties with Latinos.
“I think the Hispanic community is a very important community,” said Gordon Haas, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Central NJ. “They are people of faith and I can’t tell you how many Hispanic friends and acquaintances of mine tell me about their trips to Israel.
“A lot of them are supporters of Israel, and we have to find our support where we can get it. They have been good to us, and we should be good to them.”
“I think he is right to point that out to us,” said David Lentz, chair of the MetroWest CRC. Lentz suggested that synagogues and community leaders “could sensitize us to the fact there are issues of common concern and really replicate the same things we went through with Israel.”
MetroWest CRC associate director Melanie Roth Gorelick said she was “glad that we were able to have a forum where we could forge a strong relationship with Sen. Menendez. He is a strong ally for aiding Israel and stopping Iran.”