Bringing Israel to Spanish speakers worldwide

Former St. Louisan Leah Soibel founded Fuente Latina (‘Latin Source’), a nonprofit based in Israel that works to educate Spanish speakers about Israel and the Middle East. 

By Carol Wolf Solomon, Special to the Jewish Light

So what was a nice Jewish girl from St. Louis doing traveling the Arab world dressed in a hijab, armed with a notebook and tape recorder?  

If you were Leah Soibel in 2001, it was to learn how public opinion is formed and shaped on Israel, the Middle East and the United States. It turned out to be an experience that ultimately launched her career. 

The journey was viewed as dangerous by some, especially her mother. Soibel understood then, as she does now, that to truly comprehend the perceptions of others, one must get to know them, an inherently risky proposition. 

Soibel traveled throughout the Arab world to interview young adults ages 18 to 30 for her master’s thesis, titled “Winning Hearts and Minds in the Arab World.” Inspired by a program President George W. Bush was trying to implement to influence public opinion in the Arab world toward the United States, Soibel visited Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. 

While she donned a hijab (a head covering worn in public by some Muslim women) during her travels for safety reasons, she also openly acknowledged that she was Jewish when questioned by some of her interview subjects. With a clear sense of sadness, she says she would probably not be able to undertake this type of trip today.

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Soibel subsequently worked as a senior adviser for research and later as communications and Spanish media program director for the Israel Project, a nonprofit that educates media and the public about Israel and the Mideast.

Those experiences led her in December 2012 to launch Fuente Latina (“Latin Source”), a nonprofit organization based in Israel. It works to remove “the geographic and linguistic barriers for Spanish speakers that need to cover and understand issues related to Israel and the Middle East, whether it be about Islamic terrorism or technology and start-ups,” according to its website. 

Through her work with the Israel Project,  Soibel saw a vital need to equip Spanish-speaking media with factual information about Israel and the Middle East. She noted that the Palestinians and Iranians have been working to engage with Spanish-speaking audiences for years through Spanish language international news networks. 

Since 1960, the U.S. Hispanic population has increased ninefold, to 55.3 million in 2014 from 6.3 million. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that it will grow to 119 million, roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population, by 2060, making Hispanics  the fastest growing and largest minority group in America. Spanish is the second-most-spoken language in the world.

“There has been a lack of information on Israel in Spanish,” Soibel said in an interview. “There are great opportunities for us to get factual information to them in order to ensure fair and balanced coverage of Israel and the Middle East.”

Lior Haiat, Israeli consul general in Miami, agrees. He first met Soibel about eight years ago when he was a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Madrid and she was heading outreach to the Spanish-speaking worldat the Israel Project.

Haiat arrived in Miami early last year and represents Israel in  Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Puerto Rico, regions with a large Hispanic population. 

“The Spanish speaking media are very relevant and big here,” Haiat said. “Fuente Latina is exactly what we need. Leah is doing a great job of creating a network of Spanish-speaking journalists who use Fuente Latina as a reliable source of information about the Middle East. This is very important because many Spanish journalists were using only pro-Palestinian sources up until then.” 

The goals of Fuente Latina are to:

• Increase support for Israel among Hispanics around the world;

• Educate U.S. Spanish-speaking media and leaders to curb anti-Semitism and anti-Israel propaganda;

• Increase the frequency and positive tone of Spanish-speaking  television, radio and print coverage of Israel through strategic press and leader engagement.

Fuente Latina uses what it terms a push-pull media approach.  This entails personal one-on-one meetings, media seminars in Israel and providing story sources; relationship building and education, including briefings and VIP tours of Israel; and ongoing follow-up to maintain relationships through international media tours, story packages, exclusive interviews, and the production of multimedia and written content for news reports.

In its first three years of operation, Fuente Latina has facilitated more than 1,200 interviews with Hispanic journalists based in Spain, the United States and throughout Latin America, generating 18,000 print, radio and television news stories about Israel and other related topics. Much of the organization’s success and credibility with Hispanic media around the world can be traced to Soibel’s groundbreaking work. 


Educating about Israel

Leah Soibel is the daughter of Argentinian parents who immigrated to the United States in 1972. Her mother is a third-generation Argentinian with family roots dating back to the early 1900s. Her father’s family immigrated to Argentina to escape the Holocaust.  

Soibel was born in 1977 and grew up in St. Louis, where she attended the former Solomon Schechter Day School (now Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School) and H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy. Summers were often spent attending day camp at Congregation B’nai Amoona.  

As she prepared to enter her junior year of high school at Parkway North, Soibel elected to participate in the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program, an experience that changed the course of her life. 

“I fell in love with Israel through Muss,” she explained in an interview during a visit to St. Louis last year to visit family. 

Soibel went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Middle East history from Dickinson College, and a master’s in security policy studies from George Washington University. She is also a National Security Education Program Fellow with an Arabic language certificate from the Arabic Language Institute of the American University in Cairo, and she completed coursework for a doctorate in political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

She speaks English, Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic, and reads Portuguese and Farsi.  

After making aliyah and moving permanently to Israel in 2003, Soibel completed two years of military service working in information gathering for the intelligence department. 

“My fluency in Arabic and knowledge of Arab countries and culture were clearly an asset,” she said. 

Soibel also acknowledged that she inherited at least part of her fascination with intelligence and information-gathering work from her father, who also worked in intelligence. 

Soibel guides the operations of Fuente Latina from its headquarters in Israel. The organization also has an office in Spain and within the past year opened another in Miami. 

Building ongoing relationships with Hispanic journalists is central to Fuente Latina’s mission. The organization regularly arranges mission trips to Israel for journalists targeting specific interests ranging from technology to evangelical Christianity.   Many of the visits include helicopter tours of Israel. 

“There is nothing we can say or write about Israel that can have the same impact as seeing the reality of Israel’s size and border security issues from the air,” Soibel said. “They can see for themselves that only 5 to 6 percent of the security fence is actually a brick wall.”


Trips with a mission

Gonzalo Abarca, a Voice of America Spanish television anchor, attended one of those media mission trips in September 2015. 

“The Middle East, particularly the Israel-Palestinian conflict, is a recurring topic for us,” he said. “We’re based in Washington, D.C., but don’t have the opportunity to really see what is going on in Israel and the Middle East.” 

When Fuente Latina invited Abarca to participate in a media mission, he jumped at the opportunity. 

“They did a great job with all of us,” he said. “They exposed us to all kinds of resources and information. It was a big eye-opener for me.”  

Prior to arriving in Israel, Abarca said, he had been seeing the Middle East through a filter. 

“We saw very disturbing images of the Israeli military acting against the Palestinian people,” he said. “I was expecting to see a lot of violence. It was a very different story when I saw it with my own eyes. Jews and Arabs were living next to each other. There was some tension, but not at all what I had in mind.”

Abarca finds Fuente Latina to be a very reliable source of information.  

“I contact them for balance,” he said. “They go the extra mile and provide me with people for my show who will contribute to the balance that I want to give to my audience. It is better for my audience to see that there are different opinions and visions.”

Achieving credibility with journalists like Abarca is key to Soibel. She is quick to emphasize that Fuente Latina is not an Israel advocacy organization. 

“We build our credibility by maintaining objectivity,” she said. 

The organization’s focus extends beyond Israel, Soibel said. 

“We also deal with Hezbollah and Iranian presence and activities in Latin America and the U.S.,” she said. “We provide sources and factual information on the worldwide threats of Islamic extremists.

“We are also very careful in targeting our audiences. We look for ways to make news about Israel relevant.”  

Citing a recent example, she said that Fuente Latina piqued Hispanic media interest in writing about Israel’s drone security technology once the organization informed the journalists that it would be part of the security plan for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.


Follow-up is crucial

While the media mission trips have a profound impact on the journalists who participate, the key, Soibel said, is the follow-up and ongoing relationship building. 

“Other groups would bring Spanish-speaking journalists to Israel,” she said. “The journalists would fall in love with Israel during their visit and then go home and never cover Israel again because they lacked the information and resources they needed.”  

Fuente Latina builds on those mission trips and provides a steady stream of factual information and access to Spanish-speaking experts, politicians and other resources that put Hispanic journalists on the same footing as their English-speaking counterparts.  

There are many examples of how Fuente Latina cultivates relationships with Hispanic media in order to foster accurate coverage of Israel. The organization provided production assistance in Israel to Univision’s Jorge Ramos, a prominent Hispanic journalist in the United States, for his one-hour documentary about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Ramos hired a Palestinian producer in Ramallah, and Fuente Latina produced his stories in Israel. More than 5 million Latinos in the United States viewed the documentary on his news show, Al Punto.

Fuente Latino constantly looks for angles that will make news about the Middle East relevant to Hispanic audiences. During the negotiations leading to the Iran nuclear deal, Hispanic media coverage of the talks was virtually nonexistent because attention was focused on the prison escape of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Soibel said.  

“We learned that the escape tunnel used by El Chapo was the same type as those used by Hamas to infiltrate Israel,” she said. “Once we were able to provide that information to the Spanish-speaking media, the Middle East news suddenly became more relevant to Hispanic audiences.”  

One of Fuente Latina’s biggest successes came when it  partnered with the Jerusalem Press Club and the Center for Entrepreneurial Jewish Philanthropy to create a Latino Media Center in Israel for Pope Francis’ historic 2014 visit. The center engaged more than 400 Hispanic journalists from 21 countries.

Looking ahead, Soibel is focused on getting the new Miami office fully staffed and operational. With the fast growing Hispanic population in the United States, there are many opportunities to build relationships with Spanish-language media, she said.