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Panamanian businessman can't say "no" to a good Jewish cause

By Donald H. Harrison

San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, March 26, 1999

Panama City, Panama (Special) -- After U.S. military forces invaded Panama in December of 1989 to topple the government of dictator Manuel Noriega, a new government was installed. Led by President Guillermo Endara and Vice President Ricardo Arias Calderon, the new government wanted to rebuild its nation's shattered image and to restore normalcy to its domestic affairs and foreign relations. 

Panama's Former Ambassador to Israel 
FORMER AMBASSADOR -- Moises A. Mizrachi served as Panama’s ambassador to Israel from 1990 to 1993. Another past office of which he is proud is the presidency of District 23 of the B’nai B’rith. He is shown by portraits of other district presidents.
Calderon, leader of the Christian Democratic Party, approached a man known in the Jewish community for his inability to say "no" to a good Jewish cause.  Moises A. Mizrachi, over his lifetime, has been president of most of the important Jewish organizations in Panama City -- his synagogue Shevet Ahim;  the chevra kadisha (burial society), the Jewish school known as Alberto Einstein Institute; and District 23 (Caribbean area) of the B'nai B'rith, among them.

Would Mizrachi be willing to take on a new assignment? Would he be willing to serve as Panama's ambassador to Israel? 

Whereas Mizrachi never said "no" to Jews, he had refused Calderon before -- when the party leader had suggested that Mizrachi join the Christian Democratic Party.  Mizrachi explained that as a proud Jew hecould not join a party so identified with another religion. But this request, the businessman was delighted to accept. Never in his fondest dreams did he ever expect to be an ambassador of his nation to Israel. From a family standpoint, there was a sense of pride and "coming home" in Mizrachi's acceptance of the diplomatic post. His parents had immigrated to Panama from Jerusalem in 1923, when economic times in Palestine were hard. They had settled in the banana plantation area of Panama, near the Costa Rican border, where they had opened a small retail store, and where he was born. 

Mizrachi had grown up in the north of Panama, including living for four years in the City of David, Panama's third largest city which, he said, was named obliquely after Jerusalem by settlers descended from a Marrano family. 

Before Mizrachi could formally present his credentials in Israel, he needed to turn over the reins of his import-export business, Mizrachi and Company, to other members of his family--not such an easy task. Like many businesses in Panama City, it had suffered the effects of looting and rioting that come in the wake of Noriega's overthrow and the temporary breakdown of normal law and order.  Eventually, the company was reopened under a new corporate name, Importadora del Este.  As Mizrachi  in Hebrew means "from the east," so too does del Este in Spanish. 

If Mizrachi thought his assignment in Israel would take him from chaos to peace, he was mistaken.  He shall never be able to recall his 1990-93 tenure as Panama's ambassador to Israel without thinking of experiencing the Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Tel Aviv. 

"You know most of the ambassadors wanted to flee Israel, and I was one of the ambassadors who had permission from their government to leave.  But I didn't leave; I stayed. My government said, "listen, we are not responsible if something happens to you," and I said: "I am Jewish; I cannot do that. It is not nice." 

Mizrachi relishes memories of formally presenting his credentials to then Israeli President Chaim Herzog, and his opportunities to meet with David Levy, then foreign minister; Yitzhak Shamir, then prime minister, and Yitzhak Rabin, then defense minister. 

It was a time for relations between Panama and Israel to be normalized, especially given the persistence of rumors and reports that during Noriega's time (before his break with the United States), Israel and Panama had been links in the Iran-Contra chain. Iran-Contra was the affair during the 1980s in which U.S. funds intended to support "moderates" in Iran were illegally diverted to support anti-government guerrilla activities by Contras in Nicaragua. 

Avenida Israel 
SIGNS WITH A STORY -- A portion of Avenida Brazil became Avenida Israel when a President of Panama, about to leave office, decided he wanted to show his appreciation to the Jewish citizens of his nation.
In the center of the speculation about the Israel-Panama connection was Mike Harari, a former Mossad agent based in Panama City. Although Israel denied Harari was its agent, Mizrachi recalled that in Panama, "everyone thought that the Israeli government was behind him because of the arms.  They also suspected him of patronizing the drug traffic." 

Although the Panamanian embassy in Tel Aviv operated with a skeleton staff--occasionally subsidized from Mizrachi's personal funds--the new ambassador was able to promote cultural and educational links between the two countries. 

Panama and Israel had friendly relations ever since November of 1947 when Panama was one of the 33 countries at the United Nations which voted in favor of Resolution 181 for partitioning Palestine and authorizing creation of a Jewish state. (There were also 13 negative votes, and 10 abstentions.) 

In Panama City, the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO) is beloved because its fundraising is focused not only on support for Israel but also support for the local public schools. One of the largest public schools in Panama is named for the Republic of Israel. 

Panama also is an enthusiastic participant in the Israel government-sponsored program which enables college-level students to study various subjects in Israel. 

While ambassador, "I used to host about eight Panamanian students in Israel a year," Mizrachi recalled. "One of them came to the Weizmann Institute to get a master's degree in water management-- a very young man, who was very low profile, very humble. After six months they invited me to his graduation, and the director of the course congratulated me on the excellent people we sent them.  Not only did he finish the course in record time, but he became a teacher to the others."

Mizrachi told that story while conducting my wife, Nancy, and me on a tour of Panama City. Along the divider section of a major highway we spotted a memorial sculpture featuring a menorah. Mizrachi explained that it had been erected by Panamanians, almost all non-Jews, who were alumni of the Israeli study programs. "There are about 1,000 of them," he said. 

Another site also attested to the friendship between Israel and Panama. As Mizrachi recalled the story, former Panamanian President Marco Aurelio Robles, a Christian who may be descended from a prominent Panamanian Jewish family of the same name, decided near the end of his term in 1968 to make a gift to the Jewish people. 

Until then, Alberto Einstein Institute--a Jewish school--was located on Avenida Brazil in the affluent Punta Paitilla area of the city. Robles decreed that henceforth the street would be divided into Avenida Brazil and Avenida Israel at the point where it curved from a north-south thoroughfare to an east-west one. 

Robles had selected as his vice president a member of the Jewish community, Max Delvalle.Under Panamanian law, whenever a president leaves his country, the vice president serves as the president. Thus, for a few weeks in April of 1967, Delvalle served as President of Panama, the first Jew in the Western Hemisphere to occupy a national presidency. 

Delvalle's nephew, Eric, became vice president in 1984 to President Ardito Barletta. When Noriega, as commander of the National Guard, forced Barletta out of office a year later, Eric Delvalle ascended to the presidency. He was considered to be under Noriega's thumb until February, 1988, when he tried to fire Noriega. Unable to get sufficient support, Delvalle fled to the United States where he was recognized as head of a government-in-exile until the invasion leading to Noriega's ouster and the installation of Guillermo Endara's government. Although more tangential to Israel, another site bespeaking the connection between the two countries is a monument commemorating the brave struggle of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland. 

Warsaw Ghetto Monument

WARSAW GHETTO MONUMENT -- At the suggestion of an educator who later retired from Panama to Israel, the Panamanian government enabled construction of a public monument honoring the martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto.
The monument was authorized by Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos, who is most remembered for the treaties he negotiated with U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1977 that resulted in the United States agreeing to turn over complete control of the canal to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999. 

Torrijos had appointed then principal of the Alberto Einstein Institute, Dr. Herschel Klepfisz, as chairman of an educational reform commission for Panama.  In the process of Klepfisz's work, he and Torrijos became quite friendly, with Klepfisz taking on the role of an unofficial political adviser. 

Torrijos sent some of his children to the Alberto Einstein Institute for their educations, as Noriega also did years later. 

A scholar of Jewish history, and an authority on Yiddish, Klepfisz had grown up in Poland and had served as a chaplain in the Free Polish Forces stationed in England. He entered the Buchenwald concentration camp with the liberating British Army, where he met his future wife. Mizrachi reports that when Torrijos one day said he would like to do something special for Klepfisz, the educator urged that the resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto be honored. Today, Klepfisz lives in retirement in Jerusalem, where he still writes articles about the Yiddish language.

From the standpoint of banking, commerce and trade, Panama is one of the world's most important centers. Ships of all nations go through the Panama Canal. The free zone on the  Atlantic side of the canal at Colon is a major entrepot. Panama City is the home to more than 130 banks, representing almost all the major nations. Numerous international corporations are headquartered in tax-friendly Panama. Ships from throughout the world fly the Panamanian flag, known internationally as a "flag of convenience." Israeli-owned banks, corporations and ships all contribute to this mix. 

With the benefits of being an international crossroads also come some tragic drawbacks. On July 19, 1994, a commuter airplane bearing 21 people, 12 of them Jews, exploded in midflight between Colon and Panama City. Responsibility was claimed by a group in Lebanon, calling itself the "Partisans of God," related apparently to Hezbollah. The incident seemed part of a world-wide conspiracy. Earlier that year, another terrorist bomb had killed 95 people and injured about 200 more as it destroyed the Jewish Cultural Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

Today, not only Israeli, but Jewish, sites in Panama maintain heavy security. Yet, for all that, there is a sense of relaxation. Yes, there are iron bars on doors and windows and guards at gates. "I've seen that in New York too!" one Panamanian Jew cheerfully told me. 


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