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How Rep. Alma Hernandez's Jewish faith drives her work at Arizona Legislature

Arizona’s Democratic governor and Republican leaders in the state Senate were not impressed when Rep. Alma Hernandez left the state earlier this month along with 16 other lawmakers from both parties to visit  Israel in the middle of the legislative session. 

She faced criticism from just about everyone — including politicos, columnists and pro-Palestinian activists who claimed the trip was clearly pro-Israel at a time when many in her own party are increasingly critical of Israel’s tactics in Gaza against civilians. 

Hernandez disagrees that the trip was strictly pro-Israel. But she is Jewish — and has never made a secret of her staunch support of Israel throughout her five years in office. In fact, she’s an outspoken voice for the Jewish community and Israel — she drives a car with a license plate that says “ZIONIST.” And she’s taken that zeal into her work at the Legislature. 

She sponsored a bill that requires Holocaust education in public schools and, this session, has authored legislation that has been roundly condemned by pro-Palestinian groups on Arizona campuses that they say would restrict criticisms of Israel — or, at least, prohibit state universities from recognizing groups that support genocide or promote “a foreign terrorist organization.”

But Hernandez remains defiant — even as some in her own party speak out against her and as she faces escalating threats of violence. 

In the latest edition of Deep Dive, The Show sat down with her in our studios this week to talk more about her trip to Israel, her faith and the political moment she finds herself in.

Full interview

ALMA HERNANDEZ: It was an educational trip. It wasn't a vacation. One of the first stops that we did was meeting with individuals who had been impacted, that their family members have been taken hostage. We met with an Arab Bedouin community and Arab members who are Muslim who have family members that are still being held hostage to this day. And I wanted them to hear different perspectives. So we not only met with a Palestinian journalist who lives in Jerusalem, in East Jerusalem, we also set up meetings with people from the opposition of the government. We set up meetings with individuals who are Muslim who are Arab, and with Jewish Israelis as well and those that work for peace.

LAUREN GILGER: So, I mean, you would refute the claim that many have made here that this was a strictly pro-Israel trip.

HERNANDEZ: Absolutely. And, and no one until today knows what our, what our retainer or what our agenda and all of this entailed. And for me, it was important to take not only members who had never been to Israel, but members who perhaps I didn't necessarily agree with on the issue. And the reason for that is, I mean, we had members who signed the ceasefire letter who joined us. And that was important for me because at the end of the day, I can, you know, I'm not a spokesperson on behalf of Israel. I'm not a spokesperson on behalf of the IDF. I'm just speaking from experience of what I've dealt with when it comes to anti-Semitism here. And also speaking on behalf of the community because again, this is something that's affecting a lot of people. It's a very sensitive topic.

I wanted my colleagues to hear from them directly, from people that actually live there, because I'll tell you it's very different what you see on the streets here with the protest and all of these different events that are occurring across the state and across the nation. I wanted them to be able to ask their own questions, and that's what they did.

GILGER: So this became controversial for several reasons. That's one of them, another was when it happened and that it was during the session. Another was sort of this idea of what's the role, right? Like, why do Arizona legislators who deal mostly in these very local issues here in Arizona need to go to Israel? What role do they have in this war that's being carried out there? What's your answer to that?

HERNANDEZ: Yeah. You know, I'll start off by saying that I have been a fierce advocate on behalf of my community, whether it's the district where I was born and raised that I continue fighting for and continue serving, and for the Jewish community as well because those are communities that I belong to. And whether people agree or not, this situation has really impacted us as a community entirely. Not only the Jews that live in Israel, but the Jews that live abroad and the Jews that live in Arizona. It is something that we should care about because not only do we have to speak up against anti-Semitism and hate and bigotry, but if we care about protecting the free world and protecting and making sure that we're standing up for what's right, we have to be able to understand the complexities of the issues.

And also, you know, the, the whole notion of Arizona legislators shouldn't be involved in what happens. Well, you know, we, we constantly deal with situations, not only on the state level, but also on the local municipality levels. We're seeing city councils right now trying to pass resolutions, school boards, you name it. So I, I really push back on the sense that we shouldn't have, you know, an opinion or shouldn't be involved because it does affect our entire communities here in Arizona right now.

You know, if you look at what's happening on our college campuses, where you have organizations that are formerly recognized by our universities that are calling for the death of Zionists, right? Like this just recently happened at ASU. You know, Jewish people do not feel safe right now, whether it's in Arizona or around the country. And it is important as legislators, as I said, I, you push back on that notion of we have no business of getting involved or learning about the issues when it comes to Israel, because as a legislative body, we also do this with many different countries.

I think that's one thing that's being forgotten here in the whole story. And you know, it made the news that we went to Israel, like, that's great. But also there's constantly trips throughout the year, whether it's Taiwan, whether it's we have people who have been to Ukraine last year. You know, I can go on and on about the list, Mexico. And it's really always, really interesting to me where the question always comes back. Anything that has to do with Jews or Israel right away, it's like, but why? Arizona has a trade office there. You know, we, we go to Israel to seek advice when it comes to water conservation. We go to Israel to seek advice when it comes to the medical field. When it comes to technology, they're leading on a lot of these different things. So yes, it is important for us to have this working relationship and understand because it also contributes to our state.

GILGER: Tell me a little bit about how this has impacted your life personally. I know you've been the subject of death threats, a lot of vitriol for some time, but this seems to have ticked it up a notch.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah. You know, I'll sadly say that I'm getting used to this life and I don't believe that anyone should — sorry.

GILGER: It's OK.

HERNANDEZ: You know, since Oct. 7 happened, it really shook the Jewish community to the core. You know, the fact that, and this is nothing new to me because again, I've been doing this work and advocating on behalf of myself and my community since I was in high school. I've been involved in this movement literally since I was 14 years old and nothing has changed really when it comes to anti-Semitism, but things have continued to get worse over the years. There's been an unprecedented tick when it comes to anti-Semitism and targeting elected officials who are Jewish, as you said, you know, I've dealt with this a lot. Not only have I received death threats. My home address has been shared on every public profile when it comes to the pro-Palestinian groups, which again, I'm an elected official, yes. But also there is more to that, right?

When you're encouraging and inciting hate and you're encouraging really, in my opinion, violent behavior towards individuals just because they disagree with you or because you think that they disagree with you. It, it's difficult, you know, I, I try to live a normal life. I'm just like anybody else. I'm also a student, I'm also faculty at the university. You know, I have a family. I, I care a lot about my family, and when you're constantly, you know, having to be in contact with the police chief and you're being told literally almost every weekend, it's not safe for you to come home or, hey, if you don't have to be home this weekend, we advise you're not home.

It, I don't know about anybody else, but I don't wish this upon anybody, not even my enemies. I would never encourage that sort of behavior. And it's really frustrating that as an elected official and as a woman, I'll tell you because I've been dealing with a lot of this hate and just truly vile anger towards me since I started running for office in 2018. Just this week, this weekend, I was home collecting signatures to get on the ballot and I, I can't even go to my local breakfast spot anymore. You know, I, I was there with my sister. We were peacefully having breakfast. We walked out, and an individual comes out yelling behind me and making a scene and, you know, "free Palestine" and yelling at me. And again, when you're a woman and you live alone, you know, that's, that's been very obvious, very clear. It does bring a sense of insecurity, and I don't feel safe in my home. I don't feel safe and, you know, the fact that I have to carry pepper spray with me now is just absurd. I never thought it would have to be in that situation, you know, because of my license plate. And that's been shared everywhere now.

GILGER: Your license plate says "ZIONIST."

HERNANDEZ: Yeah, "ZIONIST." And by the way, that's been like that for years, it's nothing new. It's frustrating and it's really hurtful as well because as a Democrat and as someone who truly believes in, you know, democracy and helping others and really, I do care about everybody being targeted in this way. It doesn't matter if it's from the far left or the far right, feeling unsafe in your home should never be something that someone feels. Especially an elected official that is never a good feeling to feel that you're constantly having to watch your back or you're worried that you have to call someone and let them know where you are, share your location with all of your friends and your family members. You know, I've been, I've had cars try to run me off the freeway already.

I feel sometimes just because I feel that I need to speak out and, and, you know, defend my community doesn't mean I'm not scared, right? Like I think that's one important thing is people forget like, yes, I am being brave and standing up for my community. But it's also a really scary thing and a very scary feeling to feel that at any point someone can harm me just because I'm speaking out.

GILGER: I was going to ask you that because it's interesting to hear this side of it because so much of what you hear from you on social media or in the public eye is that you're really outspoken about this. It almost seems like you welcome these kinds of exchanges, you're happy to defend things, but there's another side to it, it sounds like.

HERNANDEZ: Oh, of course. Yeah. And yes, I have always been very vocal and I'm a fierce advocate and I will never back down. And if you follow me on social media, you know this. I am always up for a debate but I am never OK with people inciting hate, actively asking for violence against me. I am never OK with someone following me in public places, following me around and shouting at me. I am never OK with people sharing my home address and asking people to come talk to me at my home.

My office is always open, my door. I always tell people I will meet with anyone and everyone, my assistant knows I will set up meetings with even those that I disagree with. I am happy to have those conversations. But there's been a really big change in politics over the last, especially over the last few months, where people think it's OK to do these things. And it's not.

GILGER: I want to back up for a minute or two and just talk a little bit about your conversion to Judaism, why you chose this, what you love about it? I always think it's interesting, the sort of cross between religion and politics and yours is a particularly interesting cross, particularly at this moment. But so you converted almost a decade ago, right? Tell us a little bit about why.

HERNANDEZ: You know, I always tell people, I don't feel that I, that I converted. I always feel that I came back to my roots and I'll tell you why. My mother is from Mexico. She came from a family of Mexican Jews who converted to Catholicism to be able to live a normal life in Mexico. My mother always told us a story about her family and how they weren't able to live a fully open Jewish life. And that is partially the reason why I have always felt that it's my responsibility to speak up on behalf of my community because I am not willing to go back to a place where I'm told that I have to hide my identity and who I am to fit into society.

GILGER: So your family story has really affected you in the past.

HERNANDEZ: It has. And for me, it's just a big part of my life and who I am. And I've always felt that we need to do and fight for what is right. And that's just a big part of also like the Jewish learning and the Jewish community is we help other people and we have a purpose, and I feel that it's part of my job now that I have an ability to have a platform to speak in a positive way about the community. You know, when we talk about whether it's the civil rights movement or women's rights, and you name a lot of the issues that have happened over the years to get us where we are now, Jews have always been at the forefront of that.

GILGER: So you're talking there about sort of the the cross section of your, your Jewish identity and your role and how you see yourself as an activist, right? Like it's an interesting line, right? Because this war and the political divides that it has revealed, I think has sort of revealed some, some pretty raw rifts within the Democratic Party, within your party. And you've been sort of right at the center of that. So final question for you is sort of about that. I mean, like, do you see any coming together, do you understand the points that some within your party have about Palestine and about what's happening there?

HERNANDEZ: Yeah, of course. And you know, I want to make one very important point here that I think a lot of people refuse to hear even when we say it multiple times, is any loss of life is hurtful. I don't care if they are Jewish. I don't care if they're Muslim or Arab or Palestinian. Every loss of life is sad and terrible. And I don't know anyone, at least not, not a part of my community that is advocating for more deaths or saying like this is what anyone deserved because I'll, I'll be very honest, on Oct. 7, things really drastically changed, whether it's been in politics, like you said, within the Democratic Party. Yes, things have changed.

I think the most important thing for me is I always am willing to hear what others have to say. It doesn't mean I'm going to agree with them, but I will at least hear them out. And I don't see that same effort being made on the other end. When we visited the Kibbutz Kfar Aza, which was the first one that was actually breached, we were literally less than 2 miles from the Gaza border like we were right there. There was a red circle with a red dot on every home where someone was murdered, almost every single home in that kibbutz had that circle in the dot And that's something that people don't comprehend or will understand unless you see it. And that's why our trip was so important for us to see this.

You know, I know that the situation for me is going to continue to get worse because I, I don't see things getting any better in the next week. But I'll tell you that it's not going to push me out of politics. I'm going to continue doing what I do. Obviously taking a lot more precautions for myself and my family because nothing to me is more important than my safety and my family's safety. And I just ask people to take a step back out of everything because I know there's a lot of anger and just a lot of truly misinformation that's out there, too. Take a moment and take a step back and realize that people on every side are hurting right now. And I'll tell you that in Arizona as a Jewish community, we're also hurting.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.