News Special Report

Special Report: The Jewish experience in the Philippines

(First of 2 parts)
By the Philippine News Today,
 Manila research team

MANILA – On November 29, 1947, Jews worldwide were listening to their radios as the United Nations member states voted on whether or not to accept a proposed Hebrew state as full-pledged member.

A two-thirds majority was needed, which would result in the splitting of Palestine into two separate states. Jews waited with bated breath as the vote took place that fateful Saturday.

It was, as one non-Jewish student of history said, “the greatest event in 2,000 years,” and something of “great significance for the whole of mankind.”

A state which last existed in biblical times was at the cusp of rejoining the modern world. But only if their representatives in the still-young UN could win the minimum number of votes.

Some member nations voted to accept the Jewish state, others did not. Jews were waiting for the minimum number of votes to be cast that would pave the way to their return to their homeland, very literally after two thousand years.

That “magic” number when it became official that Israel would indeed become a UN member state was cast by the Philippines. Other nations would also welcome Israel to the UN, but Jews everywhere erupted with joy at the announcement of the Philippine vote.

The final tally was 33 in favor, 13 against, with 10 abstentions. That same day, their eventual first leader – David Ben Gurion – announced that the “Hebrew state” was now a reality. Oddly enough, the name of “Israel” for that Jewish state had not yet been finalized. But this historical footnote did little to lessen the celebrations of that fateful day.

It would not be the first time that the Jews of the world felt a kinship with the Philippines.

                                Escaping Nazi Germany

Some years before, around 1,300 Jews who were escaping persecution by Nazi Germany but with no place to go found themselves welcomed with open arms by Philippine President Manuel Quezon.

Small numbers of Jews had been making their way to Manila in the months leading to that exodus.

It was not too difficult an option for them as Nazi Germany had cancelled the passports of all German and Polish Jews, effectively turning them into stateless refugees.

Back then, the Philippines was not even an independent country, but was rather a Commonwealth nation with the US. As such, it was one of the few places where entry visas could be granted.

Essentially, three leaders would serve as their heroes and saviors. Besides Quezon, there was Paul McNutt who served as US High Commissioner in the Philippines. Then there was future US president US Army Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The three men had formed a tight-knit friendship going beyond their official duties. They frequently socialized and even played poker together. In those evening sessions, they would be joined by the Frieder brothers.

The Jewish siblings had put up a successful cigar import business based in New York City. They had chosen Philippine-made cigars as their product of choice, so had set up a manufacturing company based in Manila.

One of the conditions that the Commonwealth government had set was that the Jews who would enter the Philippines would have to fend for themselves and/or would have skills that would be useful for the economy.

Thus, while a good number of them would be doctors, dentists, engineers, and other professionals, there would also be some who were listed as agriculture “experts” who would then find employment in the tobacco company of the Frieders.

                                      The Filipino Schindler

In many ways, Quezon is viewed by the Jews as a Filipino version of Oscar Schindler, the German businessman who managed to save hundreds of Jews  from the Nazi death camps on the pretext that their services were necessary to the German war effort. Most actually worked in Schindler’s manufacturing plant creating kitchenware.

In the case of Quezon, the initial 1,300 Jews he agreed to grant visas to with the approval of McNutt should have been just the beginning. The Philippine president had envisioned bringing in as many as 30,000 Jews to settle in Mindanao.

He even considered an improbable dream of accepting as many as 100,000 Jews, based on some reports.

But the US State Department frowned on the idea, only agreeing to a maximum of 2,000 Jews in that first wave.

World War ll, however, interrupted with Quezon’s plan. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941, and then bombed the US bases in the Philippines shortly thereafter.

Not only was the plan to bring in more Jews to the Philippines put on hold, Quezon was also forced to flee the country. He would eventually die in exile in Washington DC on Aug. 1, 1944.

But the Jewish people would always remember the fiery Philippine president, who had fought against the Spaniards in the Philippine War for Independence of the late 1890s.

There is a memorial for Quezon known as the Open Doors Monument in Rishon Lezion, a city south of Tel Aviv. The monument honors the 2nd Philippine president’s compassionate act of saving some 1,300 Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

Quezon not only welcomed the 1,300 Jews under his authority as president, but as private Filipino citizen he also donated 7.3 hectares of land from his own country estate in Marikina that provided shelter for some of the refugees.

When he donated the property, Quezon said: “It is my hope and indeed my expectation, that the people of the Philippines will have in the future every reason to be glad that when the time of need came, their country was willing to extend a hand of welcome.”

                               The first Jews in the Philippine islands

Going back further in the past, the first Jews had managed to find their way to the Philippines, albeit in small numbers, sometime in 1870 with the Levy brothers becoming permanent residents of the Spanish territory.

Even before that, however, an unknown number of Jews are said to have made their way to the Philippine islands, but were described as “marranos” or New Christians. The term is also used to describe Muslims who were converts to Christianity, either by force or by circumstance.

During the Spanish occupation of the Philippines, Christianity – specifically Roman Catholicism – was the de facto official religion. Thus, Jews and Muslims either converted or pretended to convert to Christianity in order to live and do business with the Spanish authorities, especially in the area in and around the Walled City of Intramuros, that served as the seat of political and military power of the Spanish occupiers.

However, Jews from the Iberian peninsula in Spain are said to have settled in the Northern Samar area in the first and second century of the Spanish occupation.

Known as Crypto Jews, they observed their Jewish rites in secret.

Today, only a handful of the Jews whom Quezon saved are still around. They did, however, leave behind descendants, some of whom still live in the Philippines. There is also a small, but vibrant, community of Jews as well as converts to Judaism that live and the work in the country.

As for the Philippines and Israel, diplomatic relations between the two states are as strong as ever, and tens of thousands of Filipinos have found their way to Israel to work, many in the caregiving industry.

Filipinos have also intermarried with Israelis, creating a new generation of Filipino Jews.

(This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American )

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(Second of 2 parts)

By the Philippine News Today Research Team, Manila

MANILA — Except for a small number, most of the Manilaners somehow survived the horrors of World War ll in the Philippines, especially the deadly retaking of the capital City of Manila by US and Filipino forces.

According to Lee Blumenthal, executive director of the Jewish Association of the Philippines (an affiliate of the World Jewish Congress), the last of the 1,300-plus Jews who were welcomed by President Manuel Quezon had left by the 1970s. Most had families by then, and they generally headed for the US or Israel.

There are, to be sure, descendants of the 1300, but most have totally assimilated and are plain and simply Filipinos, although they may still have a mestizo complexion. And in all probability, they have become Christians, probably Roman Catholics like the majority of the population.

Blumenthal told Philippine News Today that there are anywhere from 100 to 200 Jews permanently residing in the Philippines, mostly in Metro Manila.

There are also an unknown number of Jews who temporarily reside in the country, such as expats working for multinational companies, or the growing number of Israeli companies doing business in the country.

While synagogues do not have a uniform look, “they should all face Jerusalem,” according to Blumenthal. By tradition, men and women sit separately during service.

Designers of the Makati house of worship wanted to give it a local touch by incorporating bamboo in the design, he said.

All the books in the site are either in Hebrew or English.

New Yorker Blumenthal has been in the Philippines for 35 years, he said, and he plans to head back to the Big Apple when retirement time comes. For now, he is part historian, part caretaker, and fulltime father figure to the Jewish community in the country.

The Torah, the Jewish bible, is written in old Hebrew and has no vowels, he explained. It is therefore read in a singsong manner. The synagogue may be located in the middle of the Makati business center, but the traditions of one of the world’s oldest religions are intact.

He cleared the misconception that Jews have been in the Philippines only in the last century. As far back as the 1600s, the Rodriguez brothers who were then stationed in Spain headed for Manila, then a Spanish colony.

“The first Jews who came here (in larger numbers) was in the 1800s,” Blumenthal said. One of them was Emil Bachrach, the founder of Estrella del Norte, which still exists to this day.

Among the lasting impressions left by those Jews is a street in the Binondo district called ‘Synagog street,’ possibly because services were held there before a formal synagogue was built.

By 1910, businessman Bacarat brought in the first cars in the Philippines, the Ford Model-T.

Bachrach then partnered with the Zobel family to form a taxi company. He then bought a property along Taft Avenue, where the first synagogue was first built. That structure is gone now, taken over by a commercial operation.

“The community was very small, no more than a few hundreds,” he said.

The Frieder siblings would then follow, setting up a cigar trading and later a manufacturing company.

Then came the operation to save as many Jews as possible from what would turn out to be the beginnings of the Holocaust. “The Night of the Broken Glass” in November of 1938 was when crazed Nazis went on an evening of extreme violence, attacking Jews, their businesses, even synagogues and schools.

Two weeks later, the beginnings of the plan to bring in Jews to Manila in large numbers was hatched. It started when then Senator Quintin Paredes led a rally in the Ateneo to inform the Filipino people of the growing persecution of the Jews.

That was when President Quezon made his historic decision. As an aside, Quezon’s political nemesis, Emilio Aguinaldo, was against the idea.

“The Philippines was the only country in the world who welcomed Jews,” according to Blumenthal, although China also allowed them to enter and leave with no problem.

Quezon, he said, was “an amazing man,” also donating part of his personal property to the Jews who had arrived with little more than the shirts on their back.

“You save one man, you save the world,” Blumenthal quotes and old Jewish saying.

It is the reason Jews in the US or Israel take every opportunity to come to the assistance of the Philippines and Filipinos whenever disaster strikes, Blumenthal said.

Jews in Manila today

Meanwhile, a direct descendant of one of the Manilaners is currently employed at the Quezon City hall, at the Tourism Office. Mayor Joy Belmonte pointed this out when a sisterhood agreement was signed recently between QC and Tel Aviv.

There are also Filipino Jews, some of whom converted to Judaism. Arguably the most famous is Mike Hanopol, the last surviving member of original Pilipino rock band, the Juan de la Cruz band. Hanopol was also the real voice behind Hagibis, the Filipino version of the Village People, but that’s a story for another day.

The story goes that Hanopol had found his way to New York City when his days as a rocker had ended. He had known of family members who were Jews, and it was there that he converted to the old religion.

In practice, however, one must be born of a Jewish mother in order to become a full-fledged Jew.

(Note: There are four main branches of Judaism today namely Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist.)

There are, in fact, Filipinos who reside in Israel who became citizens of the Jewish state, and who also converted to Judaism. The fastest way of becoming an Israeli citizen is similar to how Filipinos can become US citizens, which is by joining the Armed Forces.

One example stands out for being a member of the Israeli Defense Force who was killed in action recently.

As reported in the Times of Israel, Cydrick Garin had been one of 21 soldiers killed due to a massive explosion at Gaza last Jan 22. He had already earned Israeli citizenship by then.

Considered a hero by the Jewish state, the fallen soldier’s parents were also granted Israeli citizenship, as reported by Interior Minister Moshe Arbel. His mother Imelda had been a temporary resident of the state, while his father Rico was actually deported 20 years ago due to issues with his residency documents.

Cydrick Garin is not the only Filipino who has earned Israeli citizenship. Filipino caregivers who opted to stay with the senior Israelis during the Hamas invasion were also granted the same privilege, and they will be receiving lifetime pensions, to boot.

Rockstar rabbi

Despite the relatively small size of the Jewish community in the Philippines, there has always been a rabbi assigned in the country to take care of their spiritual needs.

Today’s rabbi in residence is Jonathan Goldschmidt, a young man who could have been a musician in another lifetime.

In fact, the rabbi frequently jams with the abovestated Hanopol, playing the bass guitar.

Goldschmidt can frequently be seen at the Jewish center headquarters in Makati, which is also where their one and only synagogue is located.

In the course of Philippine News Today’s lengthy interview with the men and women of the center, Goldschmidt’s eyes lit up when talk turned to music.

He insisted on inviting the team to his small music room in the center, talking shop and playing a couple of the guitars in his collection. He also has a keyboard as well as an assortment of small musical instruments which he purchased in his various travels. India, he said, is one of the places where he was able to buy different instruments that border on the exotic.

One of his acoustic guitars was bought in India, and despite its being an unknown brand, it had a beautiful feel and sound, he said.

Goldschmidt has been in the Philippines along with his wife and pre-teen daughter, and expects to stay for another year or so, before being reassigned.

Strong diplomatic, economic ties

In 2024, it may be said that economic and diplomatic ties between Israel and the Philippines are as strong as ever.

The office of Ambassador Ilan Fluss provided Philippine News Today with the number of Israeli companies now doing business in the country.

For obvious reasons, defense and security companies are present providing arms and supplies to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police but whose identities are considered confidential.

There are also Israeli companies with Philippine operations in a number of key industries.

In the field of IT/telecoms, there is Amdocs (Israel), while in cybersecurity there is Cyberint. In the field of agriculture, there are the LR Group and Netafim, while in water treatment there is ODIS.

In the energy sector, Ormat Technologies and Ratio Petroleum also have a presence in the Philippines, while in tourism the Abraham hotel group also has local operations.

In cosmetics, there is Alma Lasers.

It must be noted that besides the defense and security industries, Israeli companies in the field of medicine are also present, but the embassy requested that their identities be kept secret.

(Note: Philippine News Today editor Beting Dolor recently went to a high-end clinic in Makati run by an Israeli, who told him that a certain former First Lady had sought their services. The initial treatment was affordable, but the full treatment for diabetes was on the pricey side.)

In all, trade between the Philippines and Israel can be considered as brisk, with the latest figures from 2022 pegging the volume at $534 million (see graph).

That figure is expected to balloon substantially if negotiations to supply more arms and munitions for the AFP and/or the PNP pushes through.

Last year, for example, Elbit Systems won a $114 million contract to supply two long range patrol planes to the country.

(Note: Israel manufactured the Galil, popular with firearms enthusiasts. Lately, however, the Tavor assault rifle has been the standard issue for the IDF, and the AFP is said to favor the weapon, but for its relatively high price.)

Meanwhile, Filipinos and Israelis can visit each other’s country with no need for a visa. The Open Door policy is no doubt the result of Jews and Israelis never forgetting the acts of friendship extended during their most trying times in the past.

The ties that bind Israel and the Philippines are highly appreciated by the former, and it is for this reason that Jews feel that they can always find a second home in Manila.

As the old saying goes, “Thus has always been, and thus shall it ever be.”

(This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American)

(Contributors to this report are Gilda Balan, Prana Balan, Kahlil Labastilla, with special thanks to Charlie Laureta)