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Congressional Hopeful Pushes Latino-Israel Ties

Democrat Ruben Gallego, an Iraq war veteran, eyes Arizona’s 7th District

Yair Rosenberg
April 14, 2014
Ruben Gallego overlooks Israel's border with Syria (Courtesy)
Ruben Gallego overlooks Israel's border with Syria (Courtesy)

In 2012, a poll commissioned by the Israel Project found that while American Latinos supported Israel by a 21 to 8 percent margin, a whopping 46 percent answered “don’t know” or that the United States should stay neutral on the Jewish state. Ruben Gallego, who is running for Congress in Arizona’s 7th District, is not one of those people. As someone raised in an immigrant family and who spent significant time in Mexico, Gallego finds much in common with the Israeli story. “It’s natural,” he told me, in large part because “the Latino experience is very similar to the immigrants who have made Israel.” An Iraq veteran and Harvard grad, the 34-year-old declared his candidacy on February 27, after longtime Democratic Rep. Ed Pastor announced his retirement.

Hailing from a Chicago Catholic family, Gallego was first introduced to Jewish life by his wife Kate, an Albuquerque native from a Reform home, who brought him to high holidays services at Harvard Hillel. It was an event “probably known best for Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, falling asleep during the services,” she recalled. “Nonetheless, it was a good start for Ruben.” Following college, Kate moved to Arizona, while Ruben served in Iraq (he had previously taken off from Harvard to join the Marine Corps). Both now hold public office–Kate as a Phoenix city councilwoman, and Ruben as an Arizona state representative, where he is assistant minority leader for the Democratic caucus. The couple married in 2010, after Ruben proposed on the floor of the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Each has spent time in Israel. “Ruben and I always joke that he actually has the better personality for doing business in Israel,” Kate said. “He’s known for being very direct and will tell you what he’s thinking, and so it works out perfectly in Israel–he fits in very easily. He likes the frankness and the efficiency.” (True to form, Gallego’s campaign announcement was a single tweet.) For his part, having been on the front lines of America’s heated debates over immigration, Ruben was particularly moved by his conversations with Ethiopians in Israel. “They were talking to me about their experiences, and how they were able to integrate into Israeli society through programs that Israel has,” he recounted. “It really is similar to what I think we need in this country.

“Israel has a better appreciation, I think, for immigrants and what they bring to the country,” he continued, “and we’re starting to lose that here in the United States, especially in Arizona, and we need to start changing Arizonans more to the Israeli mindset of immigrants as an asset.”

It’s a societal outlook that Gallego credits with giving him the opportunity to succeed in America–enabling him to attend Harvard after growing up in a single-parent home, and learning English as a second language. “We were a struggling family,” he said. “I was on the free-lunch program; I got into college because I had Pell Grants and scholarships. All these things that made me the person I am right now, including service to my country, were because there were some people who put those thoughtful programs together. So we’re dedicating ourselves to continuing that.”

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.