In kosher stores, synagogues and intellectual circles, Mexico’s small Jewish community condemned the Israeli prime minister’s support for US President Donald Trump’s border wall as disappointing and shameful.
“As Mexicans, as Jews, we oppose the construction of a wall, but we support cooperation between the two countries [Mexico and the US],” said Rabbi Marcelo Rittner of Comunidad Bet El in Mexico City, in a January 30 statement in Spanish.
The statement was addressed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and published on the Enlace Judio (Jewish Network) website.
Mexico demanded an apology after Netanyahu tweeted on Saturday night in support of Trump’s proposed wall spanning the Mexican border, saying a similar plan along Israel’s southern frontier had been a success.
Netanyahu did not apologize, saying he had not been commenting on US-Mexico relations in the tweet. He added he had a “long, fruitful and very friendly relationship” with Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu continued to downplay the spat with Mexico, saying the countries’ relations were stronger than a “passing” quarrel. Netanyahu wrote on Twitter that Israel “will continue to have good relations” with Mexico.
“I believe our ties are stronger than any passing disagreement or misunderstanding,” he added.
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin will speak with Pena Nieto on Tuesday, a source close to him said, as the two countries seek to calm the row.
Rivlin, who comes from Netanyahu’s Likud party, is expected to stress the importance of the relationship between the two countries, the source said on condition of anonymity.
However, many Mexican Jews feel the prime minister has not gone far enough in smoothing out the Mexican-Israeli relationship.
“Netanyahu must apologize to the Mexican people for his disgusting statement,” the prominent historian Enrique Krauze wrote on Twitter.
Calling Netanyahu a “lackey of Trump,” Krauze said he “condemned, deplored and rejected” the prime minister’s tweet.
Israel episode just another brick in the wall
The wall planned for the 1,900-mile US-Mexico border is arguably the centerpiece of Trump’s policy on Mexico.
Last summer, in a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, candidate Trump said that if elected, “On day one, we will begin working on an impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall.”
He promised that Mexico would pay for the wall “100 percent. They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for it.”
Trump had made controversial comments about Mexico and Mexicans before.
In the summer of 2015, he said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”
In Phoenix last summer, Trump presented the wall as a way to combat illegal immigration, appearing with members of the “Angel Moms” who have lost loved ones to crimes committed by illegal immigrants.
As president, Trump followed up on his Phoenix speech when he tweeted, on January 24, “Big day planned on NATIONAL SECURITY tomorrow. Among many other things, we will build the wall!”
Two days after Trump’s tweet, Pena Nieto tweeted that he had canceled a planned meeting with the president.
President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel's southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea ????????????????
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) January 28, 2017
On January 28, Netanyahu entered the discussion when he tweeted, “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.”
Netanyahu added the Israeli and US flags to his tweet.
Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said the Israeli government should apologize and “correct” its position, adding that his government has supported Israel in the international arena.
Rittner, the Mexican rabbi, said in his statement that the prime minister’s support for a wall stood in contradiction of “the Jewish principles of brotherhood and justice, and on the other hand showed an unawareness respecting the situation between the two countries.
“Mexico is not at war with its neighbor. On the contrary, until a few days ago, we were working on issues to draw us together, improve living conditions and build a better future for our countries.”
The Central Committee of the Jewish Community of Mexico said in a weekend statement: “We strongly reject (Netanyahu’s) position.”
On the same day as Netanyahu’s tweet, four leaders of the Mexican Jewish community issued a statement of disapproval.
“As Mexicans and as Jews, we support the actions taken by our government headed by [President] Enrique Pena Nieto in its negotiations with the United States,” the statement read. “We support our fellow citizens who live in, work in and contribute to our neighboring country, whose human rights must be respected at all times and who must be treated with dignity.”
The statement was issued by Moises Romano, president of the Comite Central de la Comunidad Judia de Mexico; Mauricio Lulka, director general of the Comite Central; Elias Achar, president of Tribuna Israelita; and Renee Dayan-Shabot, director of Tribuna Israelita.
In an email to The Times of Israel, Dayan-Shabot said that the Mexican Jewish community was not making any additional statements at this time.
Netanyahu’s tweet was also met with disapproval in the streets of Mexico City’s wealthy Polanco district, home to a vibrant Jewish community, synagogues and kosher shops.
One shop manager, who, like many in the Jewish community refused to give his name, said Mexican Jews “have nothing to do with the opinion of this man [Netanyahu].”
A 53-year-old Jewish man who was heading to a synagogue said: “What Netanyahu said was not very sensitive. It was very unfortunate given what is going on in the world. He lost a great opportunity to stay silent.”
Some in the Mexican Jewish community looked for a silver lining in the planned border wall.
Commentator Leo Zuckermann wondered “If there is something positive for Mexico in the rise of Trump” in a January 26 article on the Diario Judio website.
“There exists a positive aspect for Mexico in the rise of Donald Trump to the US presidency and his threat to close the doors to exports and Mexican migrants,” Zuckermann wrote. “It will force us to look at ourselves in the mirror, examine our problems and find solutions to have a better economic development.”
A community of immigrants
More than 67,000 people practiced Judaism in Mexico during the last national census in 2010, compared to 92 million Roman Catholics, the country’s main religion.
Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the inquisition arrived in Mexico with the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, but many continued to suffer persecution in their new homeland.
Jews from other parts of Europe migrated to Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th century. Others came from the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus.
Mexico City’s economic development secretary, Salomon Chertorivsky, a descendent of Ukrainian and Polish Jewish immigrants, recalled that the Latin American nation embraced his ancestors by giving their new opportunities.
“For the thousands of stories like [my] family’s story … the prime minister’s tweet is condemnable to me,” Chertorivsky wrote on Twitter.
“I don’t understand how somehow who today governs people who suffered the worst persecution can celebrate the persecution of another population, ours, the Mexicans,” he said.
Another city official, Simon Levy, directed a tweet at Netanyahu, saying “Mexicans seek peace and prosperity. As a Mexican Jew I regret your position. It doesn’t bring peace.”
Good fences make good neighbors?
Israel built a more than 150-mile (240-kilometer) barrier along its border with Egypt, blocking a route previously taken by many African illegal migrants and traffickers. Trump hailed the Israeli wall as an example last week, prompting Netanyahu to apparently express his support for the new US president’s plan, though two days later the Israeli leader denied he was referring to Mexico and accused “the left-wing media” of attacking him.
US-Mexican relations plunged into the worst crisis in decades last week after Trump ordered the construction of the wall to stop illegal immigration and insisted that Mexico will pay for it. Known for his condemnations, Trump has also found occasion to praise Mexico.
In his Phoenix speech, he said: “I’ve just landed having returned from a very important and special meeting with the president of Mexico, a man I like and respect very much. And a man who truly loves his country, Mexico.”
Trump said he and Pena Nieto “agree on the importance of ending the illegal flow of drugs, cash, guns, and people across our border, and to put the cartels out of business.”
And, he said, “We also discussed the great contributions of Mexican-American citizens to our two countries, my love for the people of Mexico, and the leadership and friendship between Mexico and the United States. It was a thoughtful and substantive conversation and it will go on for awhile. And, in the end we’re all going to win. Both countries, we’re all going to win.”
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