(L.A. JEWISH JOURNAL) — Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto praised the Jewish community of the United States for supporting the rights of Hispanic immigrants.
“You have raised the banner of this cause,” he said.
The president addressed 150 Jews from North and South America at a gala dinner Tuesday night at Mexico City’s Centro Deportivo Israelita. The event marked the culmination of a three-day conference hosted by the American Jewish Committee to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs.
Guests in sharp evening attire stood as the handsome, young president entered along with three top-level cabinet members.
AJC Executive Director David Harris welcomed Pena Nieto, affirming the Jewish community’s support for his efforts to bring economic reform and equality to the country. Conference co-chairman Bruce Ramer introduced the president by stressing the value of “the trilateral relationship” of the United States, Israel and Mexico.
In his extended remarks, Pena Nieto did not mention Israel. He did stress the Mexican-Jewish contribution to the country’s development, then returned to the plight of the Mexican-American community.
“Your loud voice protects the rights of the immigrant community in the United states,” Pena Nieto said. “You are great partners.”
Pena Nieto also thanked the American and Mexican Jewish communities for supporting his efforts at developing Mexico’s economy and reducing inequality.
“The cause we share is development of Mexico. You have been part of this,” he said.
Guests included Israeli Ambassador to Mexico Jonathan Peled as well as ambassadors from Azerbaijan, Armenia Turkey, and several other countries.
After the president spoke, he remained for dinner, dessert and a performance by the Centro Deportivo Israelita dance troupe, who performed traditional Mexican dances to Jewish music. The president stayed to the end.
“He brought the government with him, and he stayed,” one impressed Mexican Jewish businessman said. “He’s saluting our people.”
The conference began Nov. 9 with a rare ceremony inside the Metropolitan Cathedral. Mexican television and press turned out in force as the AJC audience gathered in front of the massive gold-leaf main altar to hear a panel of Catholic and Jewish leaders mark the 50 year anniversary of Nostra Aetate.
Billed as a “dialogue,” the event unfolded more as a series of brief speeches lauding Pope Paul VI’s Oct. 28, 1965 declaration that reversed centuries of official Catholic anti-Semitism.
“The Second Vatican Council,” said Cardinal Norberto Rivera, archbishop of Mexico City, “was one of the most important events of the 20th century.”
Rivera, who is Mexico’s highest-ranking priest, said that Pope Francis would be very happy to see Jews and Catholics gathered together in Mexico’s central cathedral.
“We have to learn to walk together,” said Rivera.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to Mexico, declared that Nostra Aetate means, “fighting any form of anti-Semitism, insults, discrimination, or persecution.”
Both priests emphasized that Jews and Catholics can be partners in responding to the pope’s call to address climate change and environmental degradation.
Nostra Aetate, said Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s director of interreligious affairs, established that, “it is wrong to present Jews as rejected and condemned.”
Rosen recounted several meetings between the American Jewish Committee and the current pope, and praised his deep connection to the Jews.
“Not since St. Peter has a pope known the Jewish community as well as Pope Francis does,” Rosen said.
While the church officials emphasized that Nostra Aetate was a way for “enemies” to reconcile, the Jewish speakers saw the landmark statement as the church finally coming to terms with its anti-Semitic teachings.
“What we are celebrating is true teshuva,” Rosen said, using the Hebrew term for repentance. “The church is returning to its origins.”
The AJC promotes partnerships among Jewish communities and between Jews and the wider society. While much of its most important work is behind the scenes and off the record, this conference focused on very public displays of cooperation between Latin and North American Jewry and Jews and Latin America.
Salomón Chertorivski, secretary of economic development of Mexico City, drove that theme home with a keynote speech during a dinner hosted by the Mexican Jewish community at the Gran Hotel, a Jewish-owned establishment and the location of the opening scene in the new James Bond movie.
The up-and-coming young Mexican Jewish politician praised the great strides in Mexican development but urged the well-heeled audience to work with Mexico to help close the country’s gaping divide between rich and poor.
The greatest risk to the Jewish community, he said, is a Mexico “fragmented” along class lines.
During the day, panel presentations on issues pertaining to Jews, Israel and Latin America took center stage. Israel’s ambassador to Uruguay, Nina Ben Ami, and Israel’s ambassador to Mexico, Jonathan Peled, discussed the challenges of representing Israel during the Gaza War, and cooperation between Israel and Mexico through the Mashav program.
At a state-of-the-Jews session one afternoon, Jewish community leaders from Chile, Argentina, Colombia and Brazil presented the situation of their communities.
The situation ranged from positive if not problem-free to dire, with the majority at the positive end of the scale. The Colombian government, for instance, is deeply pro-Israel and the only Latin American country that has refused to recognize a Palestinian state.
That philo-Semitism extends to its people. Some 6,000 Colombian Christians have converted to Judaism, and rabbinical officials worry about the increasing demand.
Generally, the problems the Jewish leaders face tends to be problems shared by their wider societies.
There were, however, deep concerns voiced by experts about the situation of Jews in Venezuela, whose ruling party has aligned itself closely with Iran and Hezbollah. AJC officials said they continue to monitor the situation there with concern.
But at the gala dinner for Mexico’s president, the focus was on partnerships that are working.
AJC Executive Director David Harris addressed the president of Mexico directly, thanking him for deepening Mexico’s relationship with Israel and declaring, “Mr. President, know that day and night, 24/7 you have friends in the U.S. We at AJC have stood with you and we stand proudly with you tonight.”