Congressman Joe Garcia, JD '91, Tells Law Students of Cuban Community's Symbolic Ties to Israel and Jewish Diaspora


From left, Michael Levine, 3L; Lia Calabro, 2L; Rafael Yaniz, 1L; Dean William VanderWyden; Congressman Joe Garcia, JD '91; Joanne Koren, Director of Academic Achievement Program; Dean of Students Janet Stearns; Kevin Yombor, 2L; Brendan Corrigan, 2L; and Joseph Sternberg, 3L. (Photo: Jessica Giraldo/Miami Law) 

Returning recently to the campus at which he earned two degrees, Congressman Joe Garcia told a University of Miami audience that the area's Cuban community strongly identifies with the long history of the Jewish diaspora, while the people of Israel readily draw parallels with Cuban exiles and their liberty movement.

"I love Israel," said Garcia, who has been there twice and plans to return this summer. "It has a rare vibrancy, a place of the here and now. It's a dynamic society that's on the cutting edge of so many things. I look forward to being back and, unlike some of my colleagues, I will not be skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee," he added, referring to a faux pas by Republican lawmakers and aides in 2011.

Garcia, the first Cuban-American Democrat to represent South Florida in Congress, addressed the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship in his remarks to law students and other guests at a reception hosted by the University of Miami Hillel, Canes for Israel, and the Cardozo Jewish Legal Society. Garcia expressed concern over conflicts and unrest in Egypt and Iran and the civil war in Syria, and said he supports the Iron Dome, a military defense system that is designed to track incoming missiles and intercept them.

"Israel is one of the few powers in the world that can buy almost anything off our shelf," Garcia said. "This means jobs in America, but most importantly, it helps us combine our newest technology with Israel, which allows us to better protect Americans in the long term, while helping stabilize a key player in the region."

The son of Cuban refugees, Garcia graduated from the University of Miami with an A.B. degree in 1987 and from Miami Law with J.D. in 1991. Garcia was appointed to the Florida Public Service Commission after law school and in 2000 was named executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, where he advocated for human rights in Cuba and Latin America. In 2009, President Obama appointed him a director in the Department of Energy's initiative to lower energy costs for families. In 2012, after two unsuccessful campaigns in previous years, Garcia won an election against incumbent David Rivera in the newly created 26th Congressional district.

Rafael Yaniz, 1L, a Cuban-American Roman Catholic and an activist with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, led the discussion with Garcia. "The story of a people exiled from their homeland is not new to me," said Yaniz, who strongly identifies with the Jewish community. He has visited Israel three times and has lobbied the U.S. Congress to fund the Iron Dome project in light of rocket attacks against Israel.

"When those sirens go off, you have 15 seconds to find cover – sometimes less," Yaniz said, referring to rocket strikes. "You'll hear the explosions and not know if your neighbor or family member died because of it. Playgrounds have bomb shelters under the caterpillars so kids can run under it instead of running into a building. It is brutal terror that has caused post-traumatic stress disorder rates to skyrocket in the communities of southern Israel."

Roiy Frenkel, the Israel Fellow and Director of Israel Programs at the UM Hillel, served as a commanding officer in Israel's military for four years. A native of Shoham, a town between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Frenkel serves as an emissary for Israel in the United States, talking with students about Israel's history and explaining its conflicts with the Palestinians and neighboring countries.

"What many Americans don't understand is that this is a border war," Frenkel said. "I'm not crossing 30,000 miles – I'm crossing the border. It's literally in my backyard."

Partly Arab, with relatives from Tunisia and Romania, Frenkel attributes the conflict to a long history of betrayal and the radicalization of Muslim children. "In their schools, they're taught to hate us. My father never taught me that. Unfortunately, the reality is that we reach our hand to peace, but with the finger on the trigger."

Kevin Yombor, 2L, Miami Law's American Bar Association representative, studied international relations with a focus on Asia and was always interested in politics, but prior to Garcia's discussion had not been familiar with the Middle East and U.S.-Israel relations. "It was interesting to learn that Israelis and Palestinians intermingle and find a way to work together and live in peace in certain zones in the West Bank," Yombor said. "I learned a little bit more about the world."

After the discussion, Yaniz said he was grateful for the attendance of three Miami Law administrators: Dean of Students Janet E. StearnsWilliam P. VanderWyden, Assistant Dean for Professional Development; and Joanne Harvest Koren, Director of the Academic Achievement Program.

"I am lucky to enjoy strong relationships with several administrators, even as a 1L," said Yaniz. "That is something that is particular to Miami Law – the student focus is second to none."