Thursday, May 06, 2010

Country Profile #2: Panama

Jewish Immigration (post-marranos):
• 1876: immigrants from the Caribbean founded the Kol Sherith community (now Reform)
• 1911: 505 Jews lived in Panama (Canal construction period)
• 1933: Jews from Syria and Israel founded the Sephardi community
• 1930s-1940s: Jewish European immigrants founded the Ashkenazi community
• 1947: Jewish exodus from Syria produced large immigration waves into Panama
• 1990-2000s: another wave of immigrants (both Jews and non-Jews), who came mainly from Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina due to these countries particular situation at the moment.

The Transformation:
When Rabbi Zion Levy arrived from Jerusalem in 1951, the Panamanian Jewish community was affluent but spiritually empty. Rabbi Levy helped the community and he was very effective in transforming it from a secular/traditional community to a religious one. In 2008, when he died, he left behind one of the strongest Jewish communities in Latin America. Rabbi Levy’s son, Haim, took his father’s post.

The Community Today:
Panama has the largest Jewish community in Central America, with ~8,000 Orthodox Jews (the vast majority Sephardi), ~500 Reform Jews and ~1,000 Israelis. However, Jews are only 0.27% of the 3.3 million population. About 80%-90% of the Jews are Sephardi and they originally come mostly from Syria. Therefore, Syrian traditions and costumes are predominant. The community is very affluent and has little assimilation. Religion takes an extremely important part of Panamanian Jews’ daily lives; Zionism is also significant. There is a strong business culture in the community, as a large part of the Jews work in trade, buying and selling merchandise in the Free Zone area (Colon) and in Panama City. There is, in fact, constant interaction and very little friction with Arabs, including Palestinians (3,500 Muslims in Panama).

The two orthodox communities, Shevet Ahim (Sephardi) and Beth El (Ashkenazi), offer full religious services. There are three synagogues, two Sephardi and one Ashkenazi, as well as two schools (1,300 students) and a yeshiva. Macabi, Bnai Brith, WIZO, and some other institutions are very active in Panama. Likewise, the reform community (Kol Sherith) has one synagogue and a school.
Panama has the largest kosher supermarket outside of Israel (1,500 sq meters) and it sells more than 10,000 products. This is not surprising as ~85% of the Jews in Panama keep kashrut, at least at home. There are also eight kosher restaurants and a Jewish country club/events hall, where most events take place. There is a Jewish country club and events hall.

Panama is the only country, outside of Israel, that had two Jewish presidents in the 20th century. Especially when compared to other countries, there is barely any anti-Semitism. Jews are well integrated into society, especially in commerce. However, the relatively large Palestinian population is active. For instance, there were demonstrations against Operation Cast Lead in front of Israeli Embassy in Panama (30/12/2008 and 01/01/2009).

Relations with Israel:
Panama recognized the State of Israel in June 1948 and the two countries exchanged ambassadors in 1960. Panama consistently supports Israel in the UN and it has several agreements for mutual cooperation with Israel in the fields of agriculture, education, security, and culture.

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