MEET THE AMBASSADOR: Filipino ambassador is no stranger to turmoil

Neal Imperial: I admire the quality and depth of strategic thinking and analysis you can’t find anywhere else.

FILIPINO AMBASSADOR Neal Imperial (left) presents a Hebrew edition of the Lonely Planet Philippines guidebook to Boaz Waksman of Ophir Tours. (photo credit: PHILIPPINES EMBASSY)
FILIPINO AMBASSADOR Neal Imperial (left) presents a Hebrew edition of the Lonely Planet Philippines guidebook to Boaz Waksman of Ophir Tours.
If you happen to catch sight of Filipino Ambassador Neal Imperial at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, it doesn’t signify a change in lifestyle.
He’s still being driven from place to place in his ambassadorial car, and has no intention of using a bus. But the terminal is one of the few places in the country where he can purchase authentic ingredients for Filipino cuisine. It’s also where on any given day, he can bump into large numbers of his constituents.
He says there are some 27,000 in Israel including agriculture students, priests and caregivers.
Filipino caregivers number some 20,000, and while Imperial is proud of them, he also believes that the care that they have given to Israel’s aged population has in a sense tarnished the image of the Filipino population in general. Israelis tend to view Filipinos in a one dimensional way and regard them as a nation of caregivers, he tells The Jerusalem Post, but most of the caregivers are skilled or semi-skilled professionals in many other occupations which they have put aside to come and work in Israel, where the conditions and salaries are generally good.
Unfortunately, he says, the Israel government will not allow Filipinos to work in other professions here.
“This is the only sector that Israel opens to Filipino workers,” so they have no choice, he says. Imperial hopes that the Knesset will realize that Filipinos can also be beneficial to Israel in other ways and will pass legislation that will allow Filipinos to diversify in the work they do in Israel. He knows, for instance, that due to a labor shortage in the hotel industry in Eilat, workers come from Jordan on a daily basis and go home at night. Filipinos are known for their excellence in the service industry, says Imperial. If they were working in Eilat, they would also be spending money in Eilat and contributing to the economy.
It bothers him that Filipinos cannot work in their own professions in Israel, but what concerns him even more is the extent to which Filipinos working in Israel are exploited by employment agencies which charge astronomical placement fees.
“That’s one of the reasons that Filipinos overstay,” he explains.
They usually come on five year contract and it takes them two years’ worth of salary plus interest to pay the agency fee, so they tend to overstay their visas in order to make up the financial difference. In the Philippines, he says, the government has a recruitment agency for Filipinos wishing to work abroad, but Israel has no compatible system for incoming foreign workers, and as a result, employment is handled by private agencies.
Imperial would be grateful if the Knesset were to enact legislation whereby foreign workers were handled by a single government department within an appropriate ministry. This would represent enormous monetary savings for foreign workers, would enable more effective monitoring by the government and would result in fewer foreign workers overstaying their welcome.
One of the tasks that he has set for himself during his tenure in Israel is to reach some kind of labor agreement whereby there is a lowering of fees charged by employment agencies, so that the rates will be fair and uniform.
Another matter of concern with regard to his constituents is the number of Filipino children born in Israel who know no language other than Hebrew and nothing of their Filipino heritage.
There are approximately 600 Filipino students at south Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin School which accepts children from kindergarten to 12th grade regardless of religion, race or nationality or whether or not they are legally in the country. The welfare and education of the child take priority over all other issues.
Most of the Filipino children will eventually go back to the Philippines, unless they have an Israeli parent. But if the parents are not married and the relationship deteriorates, any children of the union become extremely vulnerable and are targeted for deportation.
Some youngsters of mixed Israeli-Filipino parentage who have graduated from high school have gone on to serve in the IDF, and in doing so have lost their Filipino citizenship, says Imperial, explaining that while the Philippines recognize multiple nationality, anyone serving in the armed forces of a foreign country automatically loses citizenship. However, it is relatively easy to reapply for citizenship after the army service is finished.
To help Filipino children who will sooner or later have to go back to the Philippines, Imperial spoke to the school’s principal about bringing in Filipino teachers to conduct special heritage and language classes for students.
He was delighted to find that his request met with an enthusiastic response. The school already has events geared to the backgrounds of its students, but is happy to introduce something more intensive and with greater depth.
Imperial presented his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin in December 2014, but came to Israel several months earlier to serve as chargé d’affaires in the absence of a head of mission. Israel was then caught up in Operation Protective Edge, and the Philippines government wanted to evacuate its citizens from the Gaza Strip.
The Foreign Ministry’s Protocol Department, which had already approved his appointment as ambassador, made a special humanitarian exception to allow him to be a chargé d’affaires. Strictly speaking, an ambassador designate is not permitted to take up his ambassadorial responsibilities before presenting his credentials. In order to enable him to function, Israel accepted him at a lower diplomatic rank in which he did not have to present credentials.
There were approximately 50 Filipinos in Gaza and 34 of them asked the United Nations representatives to take them to the border where Imperial was waiting to bring them into Israel.
This was not his first brush with conflict. In fact much of his diplomatic career has been punctuated with other peoples’ conflicts.
His first diplomatic posting was to Jakarta, where he was a third secretary at the Philippines Embassy.
He arrived in the midst of the unrest that led to the resignation of long-reigning president Suharto. “I saw history unfolding,” he recalls, adding that despite his junior diplomatic rank, he met all of Indonesia’s senior officials. The embassy worked at an intensive pace to evacuate a thousand Filipinos. The ambassador, who was a terrorist target, almost lost his life when a bomb placed under his car exploded. Imperial was standing only 180 meters away when the bomb went off. “It was a baptism of fire,” he remarks. The ambassador’s residence was destroyed as was that of the Bulgarian ambassador next door.
It was in Jakarta that he met his wife, Octavia, a Singapore University graduate, who had also been a television personality, a fashion model and an airline stewardess.
They were married in Jakarta in a Catholic ceremony and have a 14-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, who goes to school in Jaffa.
Imperial also served in Singapore during a period of riots, and experienced a hair-raising period in 2013 when sent to assess the security of Filipino troops who were then serving with peace-keeping forces on the Golan Heights. In order to get to the troops, Imperial and the UN convoy with which he traveled had to fly to Lebanon, then drive to Damascus wearing helmets and bullet-proof vests and from there to the Golan Heights. En route, they had to stop at 70 checkpoints manned by Syrian forces allied to the Assad regime.
“It was a scary experience,” Imperial recalls.
Unlike many of his colleagues from other countries, Imperial, though in charge of the Middle East and African Affairs desk at the Philippines Foreign Ministry before becoming ambassador, is reluctant to comment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Middle East peace process. His job, he says, is to enhance bilateral relations and that’s his focus. “We have enough problems in our own region. I will not pretend to pontificate on issues important to Israel,” he says.
As part of the enhancement of bilateral relations, Imperial wants to boost tourism in both directions.
Within this context he organized a tour to the Philippines for Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, witnessed the signing of a new agreement between Philippine Airlines and El Al, and with Philippine Honorary Consul Boaz Waksman, launched a Hebrew edition of Lonely Planet’s travel guide to the Philippines.
Tourism figures in both directions are increasing, he says. The projection for Israeli visitors to the Philippines this year is 15,000, and 20,000 are expected next year. Around 20,000 Filipinos have come on pilgrimages to Israel this year and there are 93 million Christian Filipinos worldwide who would love to come to Israel on pilgrimage, Imperial asserts.
When they have time, Imperial and his wife love to dine in Israeli restaurants and marvel at the quality of Israel’s fruits and vegetables, though he is quick to declare that the Philippines have the best mangoes and pineapples in the world.
They also like to enjoy spicy Thai food and Japanese cuisine, but have not yet discovered a good Chinese restaurant. They enjoy seafood restaurants, but were slightly disappointed to find that the exotica that they expected when ordering denis or St. Peter’s fish, was in fact familiar.
Denise is sea bream, and St. Peter’s fish is very popular in the Philippines where it is known as tilapia.
In their travels around the country, they’ve explored many churches and archeological treasures.
Imperial is completely enjoying his time in Israel. “What I really admire is the quality and depth of strategic thinking and analysis that you can’t find anywhere else. We consider Israel as a listening point for monitoring the security situation of neighboring countries and we pay attention to your analysis,” he says.
The strongest memory of Israel he has had was the funeral of Shimon Peres at which he represented the Philippines because President Rodrigo Duterte was unable to attend. It fell on Imperial to be the sole representative of his country, and finding himself among “so many global leaders in one place paying tribute to a great man,” will stick with him.
The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference will take place on November 23 in Jerusalem.