Since the establishment of a colonial presence in Panama, the territory had been known as a transit station, and long before the construction of the Panama Canal, merchants and missionaries, adventurers and bandits crossed Panama to go from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific or vice versa. Among these were Spanish and Portuguese Conversos who had been expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th and 16th centuries and were forced to practice their Judaism in secret. These early Jewish settlers in Panama did not form a community, and for the most part were either forced to convert to Catholicism if discovered, or lost much of their Jewish heritage over time.
There was almost no Jewish immigration to Panama until the 19th century, when the Spanish Empire began to dissipate, and many former colonies began declaring independence, becoming open to Jewish immigrants. At the end of Spanish colonial rule in 1821, Panama became attached to Colombia and at this time several Sephardic Jews from Jamaica and Ashkenazi Jews from Central Europe settled in the province. Due to the lack of a strong Jewish community, many of them intermarried and assimilated. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a number of immigrants of Sephardi origin from the Caribbean region, and a few Ashkenazim from the Netherlands, settled in Panama. They were attracted by economic inducements such as the construction of the bio-oceanic railroad and the gold rush in California, which had brought them west. The earthquake of 1867 in the Virgin Islands saw the arrival of more Sephardic Jews from the then-Danish island of St. Thomas. From the onset of their arrival, Sephardi in Panama were well regarded by the general Panamanian population and authorities.
The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 brought Jews looking for economic opportunities to Panama. After World War I, Sephardic Jews, many of Syrian origin, arrived there fleeing persecution and instability in the Middle East brought about by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Ashkenazi Jews began to arrive in Panama during the 1930s.
Following World War II, Panama experienced further Jewish immigration, as a number of Jews from Arab countries found themselves forced to flee their respective countries following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. They, like other Jewish immigrants before them, found themselves drawn to the country due to economic opportunities and the low levels of anti-Semitism. In fact, Jews were quite prominent in Panamanian society, with Max Delvalle Levy-Maduro serving as Vice President from 1964 to 1968 and briefly as Acting President in 1967.
In the 1970s, more Syrian Jews immigrated to Panama, and despite the assumption of power by dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno in the following decade, Jews continued to prosper there. Eric Arturo Delvalle Cohen-Henríquez served as President, under Noriega’s de facto military rule of the country, from 1985 to 1988. Following the removal of Noriega in the 1990s, more Jews arrived in Panama.
Today, Panama continues to be a destination for Jewish immigrants, as the country’s importance as a center for international business and its general level of tolerance make Jewish life in Panama quite stable. Recently, many Jewish immigrants from South American countries, notably Venezuela, have come to Panama due to economic crises throughout the region, and have enjoyed the economic stability and acceptance of Jewish religious and cultural life that Panama offers.