JERUSALEM On the menu: Immigration. Citizenship. Demographics. Allegations of racism. National identity.
As someone who writes frequently about these topics as they relate to Latinos in the United States, imagine my surprise when I arrived here to find them waiting for me. I was one of a handful of Latino journalists invited to visit the Holy Land by the New York-based organization America's Voices in Israel, which financed our trip.
Tell me if this sounds like any country you know:
Israel is a racially diverse place that likes to think of itself as to borrow a phrase a nation of immigrants. But its people struggle with all that this designation requires and try to meet high expectations. They worry about changing demographics and dread the possibility that the country could because of high birthrates be transformed.
Many will tell you that the people who are trying to immigrate today have lower skills, less education and a more backward culture than the immigrants who came here a generation ago. And so, with every slight or act of discrimination against these newcomers, one must confront the possibility that at least some of the animosity is fueled by racism and ethnocentrism.
I have to ask: Am I in the Middle East, or the American Southwest?
You know who I'd like to bring to the United States, where Latino immigrants are often treated like convenient foils, villains and scapegoats? Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Recently, Peres who is also a former prime minister ruffled feathers when he unflinchingly condemned what he called a growing problem with racism in Israel.
There have been reports of Israelis hurling racist slurs at Ethiopian immigrants and homeowners refusing to rent apartments to them. This sparked large protests in Jerusalem, including a demonstration outside parliament that drew more than 1,000 immigrants and their supporters.
In response to the complaints and protests, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver made matters worse by clumsily saying that Ethiopian immigrants should be "thankful" for all that Israel has done for them. This includes efforts by the Israeli government to airlift Ethiopian Jews out of Africa over the last three decades.
Stepping into the fray, Peres visited a school in Jerusalem with a large Ethiopian population. According to the Jerusalem Post, when a sixth-grade student asked the president what he thought of how the Ethiopians are treated, Peres unloaded.
"Everyone in Israel should be ashamed of what we have witnessed in recent days," he told the students. "We should all be grateful to Ethiopian immigrants that they chose to come to Israel and not the other way around. There is no room for Hitlerism or racism in Israel.
"I know that there are a lot of unpleasant situations, but you have nothing to be ashamed of. The racists should be ashamed. You shouldn't have to say 'thank you.' They should say 'thank you.'
"When we established the state, our dream was that it would attract Jews from Ethiopia, Russia, Libya in fact the whole world. Everyone who came had absorption difficulties, but there are those who simply do not know how to behave toward new immigrants."
Bravo. Thank goodness Peres had the courage to say this. Too bad we don't hear more politicians in the United States strike a similar tone in response to racism and intolerance aimed at Latino immigrants.
The thorny but necessary conversation here about demographics and diversity has been going on for more than a decade, and it will continue. It came on the heels of what is referred to as the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising in September 2000 that put an end to the tradition of having Palestinians work in low-skilled jobs and act as domestic servants in Israeli homes. To fill the vacuum, workers were brought in from Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. Today, many immigrants are coming from African countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan. In fact, about 120,000 of the 7.8 million people who live in Israel are from Ethiopia.
Those figures pose a challenge for Israelis. You can look out across the desert and almost hear the refrain that defines how Americans have reacted to every immigrant wave: "There goes the neighborhood."
This is a magical country. Israelis can do better. And given all that they've endured, they should know better.