Panama's Jews, Arabs coexist

July 22, 2007

Author: Brian Harris

Source: JTA

COLON FREE ZONE, Panama (JTA) -- While conflicts in the Middle East make the prospect of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs seem distant, a walk along the crowded streets of this trading zone shows Jews and Arabs can get along.

Inside the stores here -- wholesale distribution centers for Asian goods seeking Latin American importers -- businesses run by Orthodox Jews and Arab Muslims operate side by side with nary a hint of conflict. In some cases, businesses are co-owned by Jews and Arabs.

"We all came to Panama to work and for reasons of prosperity, but we are all allowed to work and no one interferes," said Allan Baiten, a second-generation Jew and a consultant to businesses here. "Once upon a time we were all brothers, and we continue to be."

Unlike other parts of the world where devoutly practicing Jews and Muslims have come into conflict, in Panama the two are almost symbiotic. Saturday nights find Panamanian Jews enjoying meals at Arab-run restaurants with halal-certified food. Nightclubs are packed with young Jews and Arabs more concerned about partying the night away than the faith of their fellow partygoers.

Here at the free zone, a stone's throw from the Caribbean near the northern mouth of the U.S.-built Panama Canal, that spirit spills into the high-stress world of business. The free zone continues to be a linchpin in Latin American commerce, but the era of free trade and Internet purchasing has put the squeeze on business owners who now compete not only for customers but also for goods, prices and logistics. An increasing amount of business is done on consignment.

That, merchants here say, has led to increased stress levels but also a greater sense of kinship among merchants, no matter their religion.