Jewish Groups Lobbying White House to Revive Panama’s Battered Economy

American Jewish organizations are urging the White House and the Congress to work actively to repair and rebuild the battered economy of Panama.

The business community, in which the 5,000 Jews of Panama play a major role, was not only hit hard by the widespread looting following the recent U.S. invasion, but has suffered from the U.S. sanctions imposed during the latter years of the regime of deposed Gen. Manuel Noriega.

According to those who have been in touch with the Jews in Panama, the panic that existed during the first days of the U.S. invasion, when Noriega’s “Dignity Battalions” rampaged through stores and neighborhoods, has now abated.

With Noriega now in U.S. custody, and the new Panamanian government tentatively in place, concern among Jews there has shifted from ensuring their physical safety to rebuilding their businesses and their lives.

With Jews owning well more than half of all Panamanian businesses, American Jewish leaders believe that the success and stability of Panama’s Jews is inextricably tied to the strength of the country’s economy as a whole.

With that in mind, Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations, sent a letter to President Bush this week supporting U.S. economic assistance to Panama.

JEWISH MERCHANTS IMPACTED

In addition, letters signed by six major American Jewish groups favoring the development of “a comprehensive U.S. program of assistance designed to rebuild the Panamanian economy” were hand-delivered Thursday to Vice President Dan Quayle and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu by representatives of the American Jewish Committee.

Ira Silverman, AJCommittee’s executive vice president, and David Harris, the organization’s Washington representative, conveyed the letters during previously scheduled meetings with Quayle and Sununu.

In those meetings, “we made clear that our interest was universal, but stemmed from the fact that the Jewish community was disproportionately represented in the merchant class,” Silverman said in a telephone interview Thursday.

A similar letter was sent to House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who is leading a congressional mission to Panama to determine how the United States can best assist the country.

The letters were written under the auspices of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and were signed by leaders of AJCommittee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, B’nai B’rith International and the Council of Jewish Federations.

Jewish leaders maintained that the letters stemmed from concern for the welfare of both the Jews and the entire country.

“The two are intimately intertwined,” said Rabbi Morton Rosenthal, director of Latin American affairs for ADL. “If there is a Jewish merchant with a store of 50 employees and there is an economic resurgence, the merchant will do well and his employees will do well.”

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said his organization has also had contacts with State Department officials and members of Congress.

The WJC has suggested to American leaders that aid could be given to Panamanian businesses in the same way that aid was extended to the Dominican Republic after the April 1965 invasion by U.S. Marines there.

At that time, Dominican businesses faced a similar problem to that faced now by those in Panama: Their insurance companies did not compensate them for damages, claiming they were not insured for an act of war.

The United States chose to guarantee money to the insurance companies, which in turn, were able to bail out the Dominican businesses.

Steinberg said he had not gotten a specific response to his proposal, but that he was “cautiously optimistic.”

Despite the amount of political activity relating to Panama by Jewish organizations, B’nai B’rith International is the only group that has chosen to offer direct assistance, by initiating an “open mailbox” for donations.

Officials from American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the United Jewish Appeal’s traditional channel for assistance to Jewish communities overseas, determined that the agency’s help was “not needed” at this time, according to JDC spokesman Amir Shaviv.

JDC made the decision after contacting a number of other Jewish agencies, including B’nai B’rith.

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