The ties that bind: Filipinos and Jews, the Philippines and Israel

There are believed to be roughly 40,000 Filipinos living here in Israel.

filipino nurses 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
filipino nurses 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The overall theme of this year's events celebrating the under-recognized relationship between Israel and the Philippines is "Golden Years of Friendship and Care - Building on Common Values." These festive events and activities will both celebrate 50 years of cordial relations between the two countries, and commemorate the fact that the Philippines was one of the few countries in the world to open its doors to Jews fleeing the Holocaust in Europe. The full slate of events began last month with the participation of the Philippines in an international Purim parade in Holon, and will culminate in November with the installation and unveiling of a monument at the Holocaust Memorial Park in Rishon Lezion, memorializing the Philippines' role in saving Jews during the Holocaust and the long, yet little-known, relationship between Jews and the Philippines. Jews in the Philippines Although William Walton Brown was not really the mayor of Manila, he may as well have been. Cutting an imposing figure at almost 136 kg and always dressed immaculately in expensive three-piece suits, a diamond stick pin in his tie and a fresh rare orchid in his lapel, Brown was given the nickname "Mayor" by no less a personage than Admiral George Dewey, commander of US naval forces in Asia. The two had met during Brown's first arrival in the Philippines at the start of the Spanish-American War in 1898, when Brown hitched a ride on Dewey's flagship from Hong Kong to the Spanish colonial city of Manila. Anticipating the most urgent needs of the invading American troops, Brown watched the sinking of the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and then hurriedly contacted his business partners in New York, telling them to begin shipping liquor and beer immediately. Thanks to Brown's shrewd business acumen, US soldiers were raising glasses of American beer all over Manila before the American flag was raised over the Spanish governor's headquarters at Fort Santiago. After the war and throughout the early years of the American colonial period, Brown built a huge personal fortune by supplying the US military forces with everything from uniforms to medals, by opening the popular Alhambra Saloon, and by trading in coal through Japanese shipping companies. Brown was enormously popular among the foreign community of Manila during these years, due largely to his anonymous charities, his lavish open house and garden parties, and a lifestyle that contemporaries described as "Rabelaisian." The stuff of legend even during his lifetime, Brown was said to have calmly watched his own appendicitis operation - without anesthesia - as reflected in the surgeon's eyeglasses. For 30 years, right up to his death in 1928, William Walton Brown was one of the most prominent and powerful men in Manila. On top of that, he was Jewish. His small, unobtrusive tombstone stands today in the midst of Manila's tiny Jewish cemetery, marked simply "'Mayor' W.W. Brown." The history of the Jewish Diaspora is interesting not only because of the large and important Jewish communities established in such places as Spain, Germany, Poland and the US, but also for the myriad number of smaller Jewish settlements turning up in places one would least expect to find them - places like the Philippines, far beyond the frontiers of the Jewish world. Although never large or particularly noticeable, the Jewish presence there has been surprisingly long. Small numbers of Marranos, or crypto-Jews, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition during the 16th-18th centuries, were followed in the 19th century by both Alsatian Jews fleeing the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and Syrian Jews fleeing persecution in Damascus. An influx of American Jews during and after the war with Spain was accompanied by Russian Jews in turn fleeing the Czar, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War. The arrival of German and Austrian Jews followed the end of World War I. An ornate synagogue was built on William Howard Taft Avenue in 1924 - the first in the South Pacific - and a cemetery was consecrated a year later. Far from their old lives marked by poverty and anti-Semitism, the Jews of the Philippines were free to build new lives blessed with peace and prosperity. In the years leading up to World War II, members of the Jewish community were responsible for establishing the Philippines' first modern department stores; its first automobile dealership; thriving embroidery, clothing and tobacco industries, as well as the country's first commercial radio station. A US "possession" run by a series of American colonial governors, the Philippines was granted Commonwealth status in 1935, with most administrative functions placed in the hands of an elected native government led by President Manuel Quezon. At the same time, half a world away, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime were enacting the Nuremburg Laws and intensifying the persecution of Germany's Jews. As German rule spread to Austria in 1938, and to the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia in 1939, Jews from these countries began to find their way out of Europe, across Asia, and to the Philippines. With the outbreak of war following Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939, the trickle became a torrent. The newly inaugurated President Quezon announced his willingness to issue an immediate 10,000 visas to Jewish refugees, and proposed to settle even larger numbers of Europe's Jews on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao . Thus, while countries all over the world were turning Jewish refugees away, this small tropical island nation - not yet even fully independent from the US - was eager to admit and absorb them. Slightly more than 1,200 Jews managed to find their way to the Philippines before the islands were invaded and occupied in 1942 by Japan, a World War II ally of Nazi Germany. The ferocious battle to liberate Manila from the Japanese in February 1945 left the city almost totally destroyed, with more than 100,000 Filipino civilians dead. The US returned only briefly at the war's end, granting the Philippines full independence on July 4, 1946. A year later, still emerging from the utter devastation of four years of occupation and war, the fledgling country was nonetheless able to participate in the United Nations debate on the partition of Palestine . In the epochal vote on November 29, 1947, the Philippines was one of 33 countries - and the only nation in Asia - to vote in favor of partition and the creation of a Jewish state. With only limited resources for the creation of a foreign service, overseas embassies and a diplomatic corps, the Philippines still managed to establish a diplomatic presence in Israel in 1950 with the appointment of an honorary consul. Full diplomatic relations were established on May 13, 1957. Among the first high-ranking Israeli officials to visit the Philippines was then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir, who received an honorary degree from Ateneo de Manila University in 1962. The Jewish community of the Philippines, meanwhile, began to rebuild itself in the years following the war. The synagogue, destroyed like the rest of Manila in 1945, was rebuilt. While most of the refugees left for other countries - including the new State of Israel - other Jews arrived, mostly involved with business. Today, the Philippines is home to a small but thriving Jewish community of roughly 200 members. Filipinos in Israel There are believed to be roughly 40,000 Filipinos living in Israel. The overwhelming majority of them are young, female, and working here as caregivers - caring for our elderly, sick and severely handicapped. Among this group of caregivers are a smaller number of young men. At any given hour of the day or night, they seem to be all around us, pushing old folks around in wheelchairs, gently helping them on and off buses, or patiently keeping them company on park benches in every Israeli city from Metulla to Eilat. Allowed one day off each week, from early Saturday evening to the same time on Sunday, they virtually own Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station on Saturday nights. One can wander through the building's lower floors and see nothing but young Filipinos, moving joyfully around a "Little Manila" of Filipino shops, grocery stores, travel agencies, Internet cafes, restaurants, nightclubs and discos - and hear such languages as Tagalog, Cebuano, Kapampangan and Ilocano. There are, in addition, two competing weekly magazines, Manila-Tel Aviv and Focal, which cater specifically to the Filipino community in Israel. Glossy, well-produced and published in Tel Aviv, both magazines offer an entertaining mix of local human interest stories, articles on foreign workers' rights, a bit of gossip, and news and entertainment features from back home. Many of the young women and men who comprise this community are college and university graduates. A surprising number were professionals at home in the Philippines - nurses, school teachers, social workers and so on. All have been forced to leave parents, siblings, spouses and children by a Philippine economy variously characterized as either "slow-growth" or "no-growth." Forming a quiet but indispensable army of care-giving, helpful sojourners from a land of tropical islands halfway across the world, they have become so much a part of Israeli life that their very name has become a Hebrew word, "filipinit," meaning caregiver or domestic helper. (The term is probably not meant to be derogatory, but imagine the outcry here in Israel if we were to learn that the word for "lawyer" in some other exotic language was "jew" with a small "j.") Many of these caregivers speak Hebrew, some fluently. We gladly allow them into our homes to take care of our elderly parents, and we treat them well or badly, depending mostly on the nature of our own individual personalities and the quality of our characters. Many caregivers are able to say that they are treated as a "member of the family" by their Israeli employers, while a few return to the Philippines with their own personal horror stories of mistreatment, withheld wages, and emotional and physical abuse. Yet not all of the Filipinos in this country are caregivers. An unknown number of Filipino women are citizens of Israel, married to Israeli men. Most of these women are converts to Judaism - some Orthodox, a small handful actually Haredi. Others are here for professional reasons. A good example of this group is Dr. Isagani Leal. Born 40 years ago in a small, poor farming village in Mindanao, Leal's zeal at religious studies while in high school attracted the attention of local Catholic priests who invited him to study at a nearby seminary toward the vocation of priest. Leal soon discovered, however, that his interests and capabilities were oriented more toward science than theology. He left the seminary, moved to Manila, and put himself through medical school, studying at Manila Central University by day and working at night, first as a counterman at a fast-food hamburger restaurant, and then as a hotel room-boy. Upon graduation, Leal began working as a public health doctor in Manila when he received an invitation through the Israeli Embassy from Mashav, Israel's overseas development assistance organization, similar to the United Nations Development Assistance Program and America's USAID. Mashav was sponsoring a training program in Israel for Filipino health care professionals, and Leal joined a group of doctors invited to Israel for specialty training in Israeli hospitals. One of these, Dr. Grace Pare o, is currently studying neurosurgery at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv; Leal is learning orthopedic medicine at Tel Hashomer. In addition to his studies, Leal assists his supervising doctors as they go about their rounds. "The program is very good, and truly addressed to my needs," he says. "I learned a specialization here that I could not have studied in the Philippines, and Israeli medicine is very advanced - among the most advanced countries in the world for medicine. I have learned many things here that I will be able to impart to other doctors when I return to the Philippines." Leal says that the only problem he has encountered is the language barrier. "I have had to learn many of the medical terms in Hebrew," he says with a smile - and a bit of condescension. "When I first arrived, some of the doctors here tended to underestimate me," he recalls, "but others - particularly those who had studied or worked in the US, where Filipino doctors are department heads - appreciated Filipino doctors and respected our capabilities." Aside from his internship at Tel Hashomer, Leal provides pro bono medical treatment to Filipino caregivers who do not have insurance or are ineligible to use the country's health fund clinics. "For this," he says, "I have traveled everywhere from Beersheba to Nahariya - wherever I've been needed." Leal also writes a weekly column for Focal magazine, and has even found himself playing a supporting role in Israeli director Dan Wolman's recent film Tied Hands, portraying, of all things, a Filipino caregiver. Leal sees the time he has spent in Israel as the turning point of his life. "It was only in this place that I discovered my talents. I did not know that I could be an actor in a film. I did not know that I had talent as a writer. It was only in this place that I discovered this. Also, a lot of wonderful things have happened to me here that would never have happened in the Philippines. I have learned a lot, and discovered a lot about myself here that I could not have learned and discovered in the Philippines, and that has made me very happy." As Israel joins the Philippines in celebrating 50 years of close relations between our two countries - and an even longer relationship between our two peoples - it might be wise to reflect on the comment of a very pro-Israel and pro-Jewish Filipino caregiver, who prefers to remain anonymous. Flashing the open, beaming smile that has made the Philippines famous as "the land where Asia wears a smile," she says, "We have a nice friendship, you and us. We sheltered your people during the Holocaust, and we're sorry we couldn't save more. We voted for the creation of your country in 1947. And now we are over here, taking care of your grandparents. Is that not what friends are for?" For a full schedule of events and activities celebrating 50 years of relatons between Israel and the Philippines, contact Chester Omaga-Diaz, Cultural Attach , Embassy of the Republic of the Philippines , Tel. 03-544-0527, 03-602-0549, email: [email protected]