Leah Soibel is bridging the gap between Israel and the Spanish-speaking world
Her nonprofit, Fuente Latina, aims to bring information about Israel to the world’s Spanish speakers — all half billion of them
Less than two months before the 2020 U.S. elections, the Spanish sister-publication of The Miami Herald published an advertising section sponsored by a Cuban American political activist. The 40-page insert in El Nuevo Herald had a full-length column called “American Jews and Israeli Jews,” which made deeply antisemitic and racist statements.
“What kind of people are these Jews? They’re always talking about the Holocaust, but have they already forgotten Kristallnacht, when Nazi thugs rampaged through Jewish shops all over Germany? So do the BLM and antifa, only the Nazis didn’t steal; they only destroyed,” wrote the author of the insert.
For the readers of El Nuevo Herald’s print edition, this insert could easily have been confused for a normal section of the paper, even though it was paid advertising. But because it was an advertisement, El Nuevo Herald’s editorial staff had not read it before it was published. In the aftermath, the paper’s managing editor resigned and its publisher was demoted.
For Leah Soibel, these falsehoods directed at the Latino community were nothing new; they were just finally reaching the mainstream media.
“It’s something that we see all the time. It just became much more apparent, because of its timing prior to the elections,” said Soibel, founder and CEO of Fuente Latina, a nonprofit organization created in 2012 that seeks to bring pro-Israel information to Spanish-language media. Fuente Latina organized virtual educational events for Latino media in the wake of the El Nuevo Herald incident.
Fuente Latina’s potential audience is enormous; nearly 600 million people worldwide speak Spanish. Yet many of them know little about Israel and the Jewish community — many don’t see an obvious reason to care about a country several thousand miles away and a religious group with very few adherents.
The enormity of the task does not deter Soibel, who lives in Miami. After studying public diplomacy and researching how the U.S. spreads its message to foreign nations, Soibel took what she learned about cultural messaging and applied it to Israel.
In a recent interview, Soibel spoke with Jewish Insider about what she views as the crucial project of bringing information about Israel to Spanish speakers, including the rapidly expanding Latino population in the U.S. “Hispanics, in general, don’t understand the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Soibel said. Part of the reason, she claimed, is that Jews and Latinos view each other as unrelated communities, with little in common: “The Hispanic media aren’t covering what is going on in the Jewish community and the Jewish community isn’t talking about what’s happening in the neighboring Hispanic community,” she argued, but “we have so much in common.”
In a promising sign for Soibel, many U.S. Latinos have not yet made up their mind on Israel. A 2017 survey found that 28% of Hispanic Christians in the U.S. had no opinion on the Jewish state. But that same survey found that a sizable number of Hispanic Christians harbor somewhat antisemitic beliefs, with 42% agreeing that “Jewish Americans have too much influence in American society.”
Soibel is a Latino Jew who grew up in a Catholic neighborhood of St. Louis, and people were often confused about her identity. “At that time,” she recalled, “people just had no clue. They were like, ‘How can you be both?’ There’s no way.”
Soibel was born to Argentinian immigrants who had moved to St. Louis, which had a sizable Jewish community but very few other South American Jews. “I always asked the question as a kid, ‘Why did the boat stop in St. Louis?’ Every other Argentinian that I know went to Chicago, New York, Miami, even L.A. We stopped in St. Louis,” she said.
In Argentina, her mother had worked for the chevra kadisha, the group of people who care for the bodies of the deceased before they are buried. Her father was a police officer in Buenos Aires, where he at one point worked with officers who were monitoring Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi leader who was captured in Argentina and brought to Israel to stand trial for war crimes. “He wasn’t part of the capture, but he was involved in the monitoring of Eichmann,” Soibel explained. “He was tasked to monitor [Eichmann’s] home.”
Soibel grew up as a proud Zionist; she studied in Israel in high school and attended Camp Young Judaea. By the time she started at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, she wanted to learn about the Middle East beyond Israel. But this was the 1990s. The September 11 terrorist attacks, which would spur a generation of young people to learn Arabic and enter the field of foreign policy, had not yet occurred. “At that time [people wondered], what is a Jew at a small liberal arts college in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, doing studying Arabic?” she asked. Her line of thinking, she said, was “if I’m going to be a Middle East expert, I can’t only know Hebrew. I obviously have to know Arabic. I have to understand both sides to this huge, complex story.”
After graduating, she spent a year studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo. It was a tumultuous time: “I saw protests on the campus there, and I saw animosity towards the United States in the type of video footage that you always see — of an angry mob in the Arab world, burning an American and Israeli flag, that type of stuff. But to see it as a Jew — and again, there were very few Jews on the campus at that time — obviously, there was a sense of concern,” she recalled.
After leaving Egypt, her first week in Washington as a master’s student at The George Washington University coincided with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“The culmination of all of that left me with a deep and desperate yearning to get back to not only the Middle East, but Israel specifically,” Soibel said. For her master’s thesis, she visited several Arab countries to try to answer the question, “Why does the young generation in the Arab world dislike America so much?” It was 2002, a dangerous time to be an American woman traveling alone in the Middle East.
That project was her first foray into the world of “public diplomacy” — the way a nation or political entity gets its message across through cultural means, using informal educational methods to communicate with citizens of another country. At the time, the U.S. had launched the Arabic-language Radio Sawa in the Middle East, modeled on the Radio Martí network that broadcasted to Cuba and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that brought American music and culture to the former Soviet Union. As Soibel recalls, “the modern-day public diplomacy was, ‘How do we win Arab hearts and minds?’”
She took that goal with her to Israel, where she enrolled in a public diplomacy doctoral program at Bar-Ilan University. While in grad school, she served in an intelligence unit. “I don’t like to be bored,” she offered as an explanation.
“I was really fascinated by the element of communication and how different countries were good at it, or how different countries were bad at it,” she noted. She was again studying the Arab world, but she began to ask the same questions of Israel: “How is Israel getting its message out amidst the sea of other countries that dominate the narrative?”
A couple years into her graduate studies, Soibel’s then-boyfriend, at the time a reporter with The Washington Post, attended the first press conference that The Israel Project (TIP), a U.S.-based Israel advocacy group, hosted in 2005, at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. He came home and told her about the group, which was created during the second intifada to educate people in America and Europe about the Jewish state. The organization was looking for a researcher; Soibel took the role and dropped the doctorate.
For her first few years with TIP, which ceased operations in 2019, Soibel’s work did not focus on Spanish-language media. She was a generalist, and a good one, said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the organization’s founder.
“She has a perspective: She’s pro-Israel, but she doesn’t pretend that Israel is perfect, which some people try to do, and it eliminates all credibility. And I do think she has a lot of empathy for people on all sides of the equation,” Mizrahi told JI. In 2010, five years after joining TIP, Soibel launched the organization’s Spanish media program.
Soibel would bring journalists on tours of Israel — something she now does at Fuente Latina — to try to show them, in real geographic terms, the nature of Israel’s borders, relative to Gaza and Lebanon and Syria. When reporters were not in Israel, Soibel would bring the country to them by producing video segments during conflicts.
“You have to be pretty gutsy that when there’s sirens and people are being told, you know, go into your bomb shelter, that you’re going to leave your safe office in Jerusalem and go up north to where the rockets are, or when there’s an issue going on with Gaza, go down to Sderot and be on the front lines, where the where the rockets are coming in,” said Mizrahi, who said she made sure Soibel always took a flak jacket and a helmet.
Soibel noticed that unlike English-language publications, many Spanish-language news organizations did not have foreign correspondents stationed in Israel. She had to work to interest them in stories about Israel. “The first big one, when she was able to bring in Spanish-speaking journalists was when [Pope Benedict] came to Israel” in 2009, Mizrahi recalled. “The pope is always a big story in Spanish-speaking countries, because obviously the Catholic Church is the predominant religion.”
In large part, the decision to launch TIP’s Spanish division came from the reality that many people in Spanish-speaking countries are deeply religious, as Mizrahi noted. “This was at a time when Israel was starting to realize allies in the evangelical Christian world, and some of the largest numbers of evangelical Christians we actually see within the global Hispanic population,” Soibel explained. Among many Latino Catholics, she said there’s a desire to visit the Holy Land. “They may not know much about Israel, but the Holy Land they know a lot about, and it speaks to them in a spiritual and an emotional way,” she noted.
TIP’s Spanish division was eliminated shortly after Mizrahi left the organization in 2012. Rather than staying on in a different role, Soibel took a couple of the project’s donors and went out on her own, creating Fuente Latina. The organization has staff in Miami, Los Angeles, Spain and Mexico City, and consultants scattered through Latin America.
“We know exactly [how] each country and each outlet that we engage and work with covers Israel,” Soibel said. As an example, she cited El Pais, “our equivalent of The New York Times, [which] is out of Spain. They have a correspondent in Israel.” But, Soibel said, Spain is home to growing antisemitism. (At a neo-Nazi march in Madrid in February, one speaker said, “The Jew is the culprit.”) And since Spain has a small Jewish population, Fuente Latina steps in to provide resources to the country’s reporters.
Soibel insists that Fuente Latina’s role is not to promote Israel unequivocally, or be an apologist for the country on an international stage. “We’re not the spokespeople of Israel,” she said. “We, in essence, are giving Israel a voice in the global Spanish-language media, which is distinct [from] us constantly promoting the Israeli side,” she said.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, Soibel recalled, “Nobody was interested in international stories. Everybody was looking local.” Fuente Latina’s response was to create a network of Jewish medical professionals from around the world and give them media training to speak to Spanish-language media. Soibel and her team would also point to Israel and say, Israel “has overcome the same challenge you have in L.A., or you have in Mexico City.” Fuente Latina would then make Israeli experts available to talk about technology they were using to fight the virus, or about how they handled COVID lockdowns.
Part of Fuente Latina’s objective is to counter foreign disinformation about Israel. HispanTV, a Spanish-language broadcasting network operated by the Iranian government, employs journalists across Latin America. HispanTV launched in 2011, during the Arab Spring. Soibel noted that the launch happened around the time that “the Spanish community was kind of waking up and getting more interested in what was happening in the Middle East,” Soibel said. With the weight of an entire government propaganda apparatus behind it, HispanTV has a wide reach in Latin America.
For years, Fuente Latina has been conducting outreach to journalists, both proactively and in response to Iranian and other anti-Israel falsehoods. But come this summer, Fuente Latina will be launching its own digital media publication. “Think of a Latin Jewish AJ+ with a twist,” she said, referring to Al Jazeera’s digital media brand that targets young people. “We need to create a new digital brand, to engage Hispanics, because this is an incredible opportunity for us — and I think for the U.S. Jewish community in general — to now engage Hispanics that maybe we didn’t have access to in the pre-pandemic era.”