Panama’s Jews Fear Anti-semitic Reprisals in Face of Crisis

The Jewish community of Panama is wary of the potential of an anti-Semitic backlash to the political and financial crisis boiling in the Central American country, according to Jewish officials who have been in touch recently with some of the 1,800 Jews there.

Rabbi Morton Rosenthal, Latin American affairs director for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said a dozen congregational leaders told him last week during his fact-finding mission there that they feared a recurrence of the events of last June and July.

The National Civil Crusade, the Panamanian opposition movement, called a general strike in June, which many Jewish store owners in Panama City declined to honor, Rosenthal said.

Although non-Jewish shopkeepers also failed to comply, a campaign of anti-Semitic leaflets and death threats followed in July. The rabbi said Crusade leaders tacitly conceded to him last week that members of their group mounted the drive.

Rosenthal said the Crusade has since instituted controls to identify fliers that were authorized by their members. The Crusade leaders “assured us that they opposed anti-Semitism and would take steps to stop its recurrence from within their ranks,” he added.

Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, international affairs director for the American Jewish Committee, agreed in a separate interview that “Given the history of anti-Semitism there, and the ease with which people move to single Jews out, now it can be much more serious.”

The AJCommittee assessed the situation based on information obtained from Sergio Nudelstejer of Mexico City, a staffer in charge of Central American Jewish affairs for the organization who has made several recent visits to Panama and has continual telephone contact with Jews there.

Tanenbaum said that in addition to Jews’ “disproportionate percentage” among the merchant and professional ranks, Jews are involved in various ways in running the Panama Canal. The United States has placed in eserow $7 million earmarked to Panama from canal revenues.

COOPERATING WITH CRUSADE

Rosenthal said he learned that Jews are cooperating with the Crusade, which supports deposed Panamanian President Eric Arturo Delvalle and calls for the ouster of military leader Manuel Noriega.

He said that the ADL representatives met with Jewish business people who are “taking a very active role in the Crusade. The Jews are supportive of a return to democratic government.”

The ADL official added that the Jewish community would donate to a food relief program recently established by the Catholic Church.

Rosenthal and Tanenbaum differed in their emphasis on Delvalle’s Jewishness. The ADL official said that Delvalle attends a Reform synagogue in Panama City, but that “You hear virtually no mention of the fact that Delvalle is Jewish.”

But Tanenbaum said, “In the face of a crisis, there is no telling if Delvalle’s Jewishness might become a focus of anti-Semitism.” Rosenthal agreed. however, that there could be no overall discounting of future references to Detvalle’s Jewishness.

Tanenbaum said that based on the potential for conflict, and the fact, for example, that “Jewish landlords were attacked after the Mexican earthquake,” the AJCommittee had alerted the (U.S) State Department to “the possibility that Delvalle might be scapegoated.”

Panama has been politically tense for more than a year, but the situation was exacerbated in the last two weeks with the deposal of Delvalle by Noriega. It followed Delvalle’s attempt to depose Noriega, who was indicted in the United States for drug trafficking.

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