The Jews and the Filipinos

HISTORY MATTERS - Todd Sales Lucero - The Freeman

Last October 7, hundreds of Israelis died due to a surprise attack by Hamas. After Hamas' attacks, Israel immediately retaliated. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, officially declared war against Hamas. As of Monday, more than 1,500 have died from both sides, many of them innocent civilians. Palestinian authorities have reported their hospitals overwhelmed and, as both sides continue to engage, the number of dead civilians continue to escalate.

The Philippines was one of the first nations to immediately voice out its concern over what is happening in Israel, condemning the violence and offering our sympathies to everyone who lost loved ones in the attacks. We also received reports that some Filipinos have been taken as hostages by Hamas, although Israeli ambassador to the Philippines Ilan Fluss stated that they are still verifying these reports. As of yesterday, 22 of the 29 unaccounted-for Filipinos have already been located by authorities. Ambassador Fluss also asked for an expression of support from the government as well as from Filipino friends in the country, hoping to get support for Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas. While we are still monitoring the situation and have not come right out and expressed full support, it cannot be denied that our relationship with the Jewish people runs very deep.

Jews were already in the Philippines as early as 1593. The earliest Jews were the brothers Jeorge and Domingo Rodriguez who were long-time Manila residents imprisoned and tried for heresy in Manila in the 1590s. Another early Jew was Manuel Gil de la Guardia, an attorney working for the audiencia. He was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment with all his properties sequestered. Records from the Spanish period show that at least eight Jews resided in Manila from 1593 to 1677 who were tried in Manila and punished in Mexico City for the crime of “judaizing”.

Following the abolition of the Inquisition between 1813 and 1825, several Jewish traders, mainly from Alsace Lorraine, settled in Manila and neighboring areas in the late nineteenth century. One descendant was the late actress Susan Roces of the prominent and successful Levy family. The Levy’s building was utilized for Jewish high holiday services until the first synagogue was built. Jewish immigration continued after American occupation in 1898, followed by Russian Jews after WWI. The first official congregation was established in Manila in 1922, with a synagogue built in 1924. In the late 1930s, President Manuel L. Quezon instituted the Open Doors policy to welcome over 1,200 Jews from Europe who escaped Hitler’s holocaust. This policy was quite unique as many other nations had closed their doors to Jewish refugees. Quezon initially wanted to bring in more than 10,000 refugees, but the US government restricted the number of Jews to be admitted to the Philippines. Nevertheless, Quezon’s actions saved more than a thousand Jewish lives.

When Japan invaded and captured Manila, many Jews suffered. They treated the Jewish community in Manila harshly and in 1943, the Japanese Military Administration in Manila decreed that the Jews were “a people without a motherland who are parasites” who harbored antagonism against both the German and Japanese governments. They accused the Jews of hoarding commodities to raise prices, exploiting Filipino women, espionage, and behaving out of harmony with the policies of Japan. Of course, these accusations were just a pretense so they could persecute the Jews. Around 70 Jews were recorded to have died in Manila during WWII.

We continued to support the Jewish people after the war, being the only Asian nation to vote in favor of the UN 1947 partition resolution to create a Jewish State in Palestine (though some historians say we were pressured to do so, but that’s another issue altogether) and have maintained full diplomatic relations with them since 1957. In 2009, Israel erected a monument honoring us in Rishon Lezion’s Holocaust Memorial Park. Filipinos also enjoy a 90-day visa-free visit to Israel. As of 2023, between 27,000 to 30,000 Filipinos work in Israel.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex. Both sides have blamed the other for hostilities. I pray that everyone affected in the conflict, civilian Israelis, Palestinians, and other foreign nationals including and especially Filipinos, will be spared and not caught in the crossfire. Let us pray for the lives lost, and for the safety of those still there. And pray, too, for the end of the conflict.

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