This Chanukah is a Time of Fear and Heroism for Jews of Panama

Chanukah has not been a joyous time for the Jews of Panama, but its very first day was a time for heroics, in keeping with the mood of the holiday.

Following the U.S. invasion of Panama on Dec. 21, the Jews, a majority of whom are merchants, found their businesses mercilessly looted, down to the lighting fixtures and toilet facilities. They placed calls of desperation to U.S. Jews.

As dusk approached Friday afternoon, when Jews should have been preparing to light menorahs, those living in the swank neighborhood of Punta de Patilla found themselves about to be assaulted in their homes. They quickly formed their own vigilante brigade.

An armed Jewish brigade of about 30 men, keeping watch from Friday night to Saturday morning, was successful in turning away assailants and even, in one case, capturing armed thugs attached to ousted military strongman Manuel Noriega, according to accounts pieced together from Jewish sources in New York who have maintained close telephone contact with Jews in Panama.

The two pro-Noriega men, whom the Jews turned over to the U.S. troops, were bodyguards of Noriega’s mistress, said New York businessman Mitchell Drimmer, who handles shipping for businesses in Central America, a large number of which are owned by Jews.

Jews, in fact, own a substantial share of major businesses in Panama. Guesses at how large a share range from “a conservative estimate of 70 percent” to “over 90 percent,” according to three separate descriptions.

The Jews have done well, and now they are wiped out, say those familiar with the community.

ARMED WITH UZIS AND HANDGUNS

Jews living in the high-rises of Punta de Patilla knew even before the U.S. invasion last week that their neighborhood would be assaulted, said Drimmer.

Over radio telephones that business owners there keep to communicate with each other, they heard specific directions between members of Noriega’s “Dignity Battalions” to assault the neighborhood, Dimmer said.

They requested direct American assistance in their neighborhood, which is some 100 yards from the Vatican mission where Noriega has taken refuge.

One tank entered the neighborhood for two hours, said Dimmer. He was among several New York Jews who called local members of Congress and the State Department, asking for help in the Jewish neighborhood.

When it became apparent that adequate protection was not coming, the Jews formed their own defense group and took to the streets.

On Friday night, under the leadership of a Jewish retailer of ladies’ clothes, the Jews went out, armed with Uzis and handguns, and pitifully little ammunition, and used cars and vans to cordon off the three streets that provide access to the area.

They stopped cars and asked for proof of registration, Dimmer said, pulling out those who could not provide it. There were many car thefts by local brigands associated with Noriega.

By Tuesday, the situation had improved, with the streets reported to be calmer. Jews were said to be no longer fearing for their homes.

Despite accounts of fear and stress, the story is not one of anti-Semitism, emphasized Rabbi Morton Rosenthal, director of Latin American affairs for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.

He said the Jews should be seen as Panamanians suffering from the effects of war and angry that the U.S. invasion plan did not include protection of civilians and streets to complement the military strategy.

LARGELY SEPHARDIC COMMUNITY

Although there was said to be some level of cooperation between Noriega and business leaders, many of whom are Jews, it is believed that few Jews voted for him in this year’s presidential election, won by Guillermo Endara but invalidated by Noriega.

Virtually all Panamanian Jews support the U.S. invasion, according to sources there.

About 70 percent of the some 4,000 Jews of Panama are Sephardic, most of whom are of Syrian origin, their families coming mainly from the city of Aleppo.

Other Jews are of Egyptian, Greek or Portuguese origin, and there are a substantial number of Israelis there.

One Israeli, Avi Cohen, was a leader in the vigilante brigade.

Dimmer credited one native Panamanian Jew, Victor Angel, with the defense of Punta de Patilla. Angel, owner of a chain of women’s wear stores, La Casa Amarilla, found his business looted down to the tiles on the ceiling.

In his stores, as well those of others, looters carried away not only all the merchandise but the toilet facilities, rugs and lights.

Monday night, about 300 business leaders held a meeting at the local synagogue, Shevet Achim, and estimated that their losses from looting amounted to $400 million, with some 5,000 Panamanians out of work.

Their insurance situation is unclear, they report, and they say they need help.

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