The Judaization of Panama

By Richard Edmondson
A couple of days ago our friend, sister, and research assistant MSA sent me a link to a story from the Jewish media regarding a group of rabbis who have named a New York Yankees baseball player as their “man of the year.” The player is not Jewish; rather, he is Mariano Rivera, who happens to be from Panama.

“Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera will be named Man of the Year by the New York Board of Rabbis and will be given a guided tour of Israel,” said the story, compiled by JTA, which can be found here.

One of the rabbis interviewed for the report described Rivera as “a strong supporter of Israel” as well as “a religious person who is deeply committed to doing good.” His trip to Israel will take place later this year, after baseball season and also following the Jewish fall holidays, the story adds.

I am not a sports fan and frankly had never even heard of Rivera, however, a rather lengthy article on him at Wikipedia describes him as a devout Christian.

Both MSA and I were kind of puzzled by the report, and both of us thought there may be more to it than meets the eye. Turns out we were right.

Readers will recall, of course, that Panama was one of only 9 nations to vote against Palestinian statehood this past November 29 when the UN General Assembly, over the strident objections of Israel and the US, voted overwhelmingly in favor of extending formal recognition—and in doing so, recognized the 65-year-long struggle for independence waged by the Palestinian people.

So why would the government of Panama side against such a sizeable portion of humanity, why place itself on the wrong side—of both justice and history—simply in order to stand, almost virtually alone, with the US and Israel? Are all the Christians in Panama Christian Zionists like Rivera?

In order to try and answer this, we might turn to an article that appeared recently in the Jewish Daily Forward concerning a group of Israelis who have made some rather significant economic inroads into Panama, essentially turning the country into an “Israeli Mecca,” as the headline above the article reads.

“Wherever there is good opportunity, Israelis are there,” says Avihai David, the man pictured in the photo at the top of this article.

David is part owner of something called “Dekel Development,” an Israeli company that has acquired beachfront property in a town known as Pedasi, and which has been busily turning the area into a tourist attraction. Pedasi is located on Panama’s Pacific coast, on the Azuero Peninsula, in an area known for its idyllic beaches and its pastoral lifestyle. Or as The Forward puts it, the place “emanates tranquility,” but is also located just minutes away from “the best surfing break in the country.”

A quote from The Forward article is instructive:

Driving through pastures where cows meander up to a rickety fence and the only traffic is on horseback, you suddenly reach endless white sands and blue waters. It’s one of the most beautiful places you’ve ever seen — in no small part because practically no one else is there. There are just three beachfront hotels and one backpacker’s hostel. It is, you think, truly paradise, a secret you want to hush up and hide.

Then the surprise: Most of the foreigners here are Israeli; many are relatives or friends. The only restaurant offers Shabbat dinners, which are packed. In fact, the chef was recruited from one of Tel Aviv’s hottest restaurants, Kimel. The hostel is crammed with Hebrew books; in the calle, Hebrew is almost as common as Spanish. Just how, you wonder, did a Central American Garden of Eden become a tiny Israeli outpost?

Indeed, how did it happen? Well, we go back eight years, to 2004, when a gentleman named Daniel Rudasevski decided to go “surfing in Costa Rica after serving in the Israeli army.” Around this time he met another Israeli military veteran, Rafi Museri, and initially the two tried investing in Costa Rica but found it too “developer-saturated,” so they turned their attention to neighboring Panama. Apparently the goal was to stay somewhere in Central America, to exploit whatever opportunities might be available to two smart Jews looking to make a killing (figuratively speaking), and eventually they happened upon Pedasi.

The roads were poor and the infrastructure terrible, but the two Israelis “saw the waves, the world-class fishing, the whales and dolphins and turtles that frolic here and knew they had stumbled onto something magical.” Also, the Azuero Peninsula is where a number of national Panamanian festivals are held. “This is it,” they decided.

Investors from Israel were attracted to put up funding. One project is “Andromeda Ocean Estates,” which was “just a cornfield when we got there,” but today has become a “luxury beachfront residential community” with more than 200 residential and commercial lots.

Eventually Israelis began moving there—actually leaving their beloved “Jewish homeland” no less! One is Natalie Libert. “I fell in love instantly,” she told The Forward. “It’s a really special place.”

Dekel Development has undertaken other projects in the area as well—a large-scale shopping center, a second giant resort community, hotel, coffee shop, wine bar, and an “eco-lodge.” And that’s just for starters. As the story affirms, “More is planned.”

The Forward also gives us a bit of history on Jewish involvement in Panama, and lest you think otherwise, this involvement did not begin with the two Israeli surfer dudes. The country has actually had two Jewish presidents: Max Shalom Delvalle, who served in 1969, and Eric Delvalle Maduro, who served 1987-88. (For some reason Wikipedia has the latter listed as “Eric Arturo Delvalle,” although the dates given for his presidency, 1985-1988, roughly correspond to those given by The Forward for Maduro, so I’m going out on a limb and assuming it’s one and the same man).

History buffs will of course remember that the US invaded Panama in 1989 in a successful drive to topple the country’s military leader, Manuel Noriega. The Wikipedia article gives us some interesting background information on that:

In 1986, US Secretary of State Elliot Abrams openly called on the Panamanian military to overthrow Noriega and suggested that it could lead to the restoration of military aid. The Delvalle government protested, filing a complaint with the Organization of American States; sixteen Latin American states joined Panama in condemning the US statement.

But it seems Delvalle made a quick about-face. “Loyalty” being what it is, of course, the Jewish president, after backing the most powerful man in the country initially, quickly threw his lot in with the greater power, the US, when the writing on the wall became evident:

After Noriega’s indictment on February 4, 1988 by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Delvalle unsuccessfully attempted to remove Noriega from his formal post as head of the Panamanian Defense Forces. Instead, Noriega’s allies in the Legislative Assembly voted on February 22 to oust Delvalle as president, appointing Education Minister Manuel Solis Palma in his place.[4][5] Delvalle then went into hiding with the help of the American government.[4] Though initially stating that he intended to remain in Panama,[6] Delvalle soon went into the exile in the US.[5] The administration of US President Ronald Reagan refused to recognize the legitimacy of Delvalle’s successors and continued to officially support the legitimacy of Delvalle’s presidency until his term’s official ending in late 1989.

In other words, Delvalle switched loyalties, treacherously aligning himself with the invaders of his nation. But then maybe Panama wasn’t really “his” nation per se; maybe, after all was said and done, he thought of Israel as his true homeland. We don’t really know for sure. What we do know is that the invasion began on December 20, 1989—just as Panamanians were preparing for the Christmas holiday—and that thousands of people were killed and injured. One heavily populated area, the El Chorillo neighborhood in Panama City, was burned practically to the ground. In December of 2012 I put up a post marking the twenty-third anniversary of the Panama invasion. You can check it out here. It includes an article by Felicity Arbuthnot and a 22-minute video clip from the film, “Panama Deception.”

Another Israeli who has moved to Panama is Adi Shlush, another Israeli military veteran, who comments, “I feel comfortable here.” Shlush remarks also that there is a “big Jewish community here,” and that “we have a very good group. We’re like family.”

So how many Jews are there in Panama? The story in The Forward places the figure at 8,000 (out of a total population of 3 million) and also informs us that Jewish immigration there has “tripled in the past two decades.”

And what’s going on in Pedasi only scratches the surface. The following, presented in no particular order, is a sampling, all of it turned up by our research assistant MSA. Links are included:

Panama Jews Welcome NY Visitors,2209?page=3&content_source=
While the Russian Jewish community in Panama is tiny, Lipsman expects it to be the next incoming wave, attracted by a warm climate and stable economy. 

“Unlike Florida, there are no hurricanes, and I’ve never been happier,” said his father Jacob Lipsman, who runs an air conditioner installation firm after arriving in Panama a month after his son.

“I thought it was going to be jungles, but it’s booming in construction. I was pleasantly surprised,” said RAJEon participant Angelina Fridman, 26. 

“I didn’t realize there were so many Jewish people here, and they’ve been here for decades.”

Dubbing the trip a success, Rabbi Ibragimov is mulling other exotic Jewish locations for his group, possibly including Cuba, Uganda and South Africa.

“This trip was a test run, we make the itinerary, and we have our connections in these countries, and we reach out to them. It’s like an extended family.”

Panama City—Panama Jews Welcome NY Visitors
Panama City – Having climbed out of its past as a military dictatorship, Panama is revamping its image for the world as a hub for business, culture and tourism. 

As the country’s famed canal expands and its capital city’s skyline rises, its Jewish community is also growing, a rare statistic in a world of assimilation and demographic fears.

“Panama is one of the few communities outside of Israel that has experienced growth and there is very little assimilation,” said David Mizrahi, president of the Central Jewish Community Council of Panama. “85 percent of our community keeps kosher. There is virtually no intermarriage.

The first Jews arrived secretly in Panama to escape the Spanish Inquisition, but established communal roots date to the 1850s, when California-bound travelers needed a synagogue to handle burials and shelter sick Jews. That synagogue, Kol Shearit Israel, is now a Reform congregation, and its roster includes two former Panamanian presidents, Max Delvalle and his nephew Eric Arturo Delvalle.

But the real success story is the Orthodox segment, which now boasts two kosher supermarkets, eight restaurants, and three integrated Jewish schools with 1,600 students between them.

“The Jewish community here is more united and religious, people invest here more in Shabbat,” said Ofir Levy, 30, manager of the Deli K supermarket. “The dollar is accepted in Panama and we can match American prices on the food.”      (at the end of this paragraph it directs reader to the article above !? at jewish star…)

Panama’s Reform Jews Shunned by Orthodox
…When Torrijos put his children there, everyone from colonels down wanted their children at the Albert Einstein–colonels, majors, captains, whatever,” Zebede said. “Our rabbi was furious, all the society was furious.” 
After the split, the board at the Einstein decided to require non-Jewish students to learn Hebrew, a move that cut applications drastically, according to Zebede. “Like when we were in Catholic school (before the Einstein was opened) we were pressured to learn catechism–we knew more catechism than they did!” 
Zebede said he doubted there ever could be a reconciliation between the Reform and the Orthodox communities. 

“They would have to change their whole way of thinking, and of acting. It is difficult for them even to think that on Shabbat they cannot drive a car, or use a phone or handle money,” he said. “To them, how is it possible that we can’t have dairy products with meat? They take it as a matter of fact that one of their boys will marry a goya: ‘’What’s the problem?’ they will ask. This cannot be with us, under no circumstances. We don’t even want to permit the opportunity for this: it leads to intermarriages, it leads to not preserving our Jewishness. 

“I will tell you something: our community, thank God, has become with Rabbi Levy’s insistence, more and more observant.”

The History of Jews in Panama (snipped only small piece from this one)
Jews have held very high positions in politics within the Republic. Did you know that Panama is the only country besides Israel to have had two Jewish presidents in the twentieth century? 
Max Delvalle was first vice president of the Republic and later President from 1964-68 and Eric Delvalle Maduro served as president from 1987-1988.

The current wave of Jewish immigration started in the mid-1990’s when Israelis started to see Panama as a good place to settle down and invest in business. During this period about 1000 jews moved to Panama. 

They mostly settled in Panama City, but also scattered around the country in small clusters in Colon, David and the former American Canal Zone.

Diplomatic relations with Israel are strong. Panama has consistently supported Israel in the United Nations. Since 1948, 180 Panamanian Jews have emigrated to Israel.

Things Panamanians Like———————————— A blog to help foreigners assimilate in Panama

according to comments posted on this page…)

#72 Complaining about jews
November 22, 2010 by Panamaniac
One of the most efficient ways of gaining Panamanian friendship is to talk to them about jews. 88% of Panamanians have had a Jewish boss/friend who has done something bad to them and referencing this information can gain you a one-way ticket to the Panamanian heart.

In the Panamanian book of who not to trust, jews come right after Colombians and because most of Panama’s jews are wealthy, your first priority is to steer the conversation to the topic of inequality. (Example: “The jews park all their Range Rovers and I cannot find a space!”)  It is also acceptable to reference stores that are inconveniently closed on Jewish holidays (Example: “Oh, Multiplaza is closed today because of the jews.”). For added effect, you can say that a jewish person was rude or disrespectful in the process.

If none of these tactics work, try saying that you went to a Jewish school as a child. This is a way of saying, “I know too many bad jew stories to count” without necessarily coming up with anything specific.

Note: If you do happen to encounter a Panamaniana jew, it’s important not to freak out. There is a 13% chance that they have non-Jewish friends. You can also say “I’m jewish too” in which case the tables will turn and they will most likely invite you over for seder.

Perhaps what’s going on in Panama could be thought of as a “Judaization” process, not so terribly unlike that taking place in Jerusalem, differing maybe only in scale. Unlike the Palestinians, the Panamanians have not been dispossessed of their country—at least not yet.

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian  
The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this Blog!

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