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Philippines Virtual Jewish History Tour

By Ariel Scheib

philippines cia map

Spanish Jews, Marranos, first settled in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, during the Spanish Inquisition. Then French Jewish merchants arrived in the

Philippines in the late 1800s in search of new trading avenues. One of the first recorded Jewish families were the three brothers Levy, natives of Alsace, who moved to Manila in the 1870s.

American Jews first arrived in the islands in 1898, during the Spanish-American War. A few years later, a number of Jewish families arrived from the Middle East, especially from Turkey.

Following World War I, many Jewish refugees arrived from Russia trying to escape discrimination. In 1922, the Jewish community formally organized itself and, in 1924, the Jewish community consecrated the first synagogue in Manila, Temple Emil. By the early 1930’s the Jewish community of Manila numbered around 500.

As Nazi power and persecution spread throughout Europe, many Philipinos became concerned about the situation. In the 1930’s, Alex Frieder, a wealthy cigar manufacturer in Manila, suggested to the President of the Philippines, Manuel L. Quezon, that the Philippines become a safe haven for Jewish refugees from Europe. In the 1940’s, President Manuel and Paul V. McNutt (the U.S. High Commissioner responsible for overseeing the Philippines) worked together to side-step quotas and issue visas. This permitted more than a 1,000 Jews a year to enter the Philippines. Quezon even contributed personal land to harbor the refugees. Between 1937 and 1938, Alex Frieder and his brother Phillip, with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distributing Committee, successfully brought into the Philippines 1,200 Jewish refugees. Among these refugees was the future author Frank Ephraim. In Frank Ephraim’s book, Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror, the story of the Manila rescue is recounted. Ultimately, the Philippines admitted more than 10,000 European Jews.

During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, thousands more Jews settled in the Philippines seeking refuge. In 1942, when the Philippines became occupied by the Japanese, many Jewish citizens were placed in internment camps and beaten. Furthermore, the synagogue in Manila was destroyed due to all the fighting in the country. After the war, while the synagogue was rebuilt, many Jews still opted to leave the Philippines for Israel or the United States.

On November 29, 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian nation to support the partition resolution at the United Nations creating a Jewish State in Palestine. Israel and the Philippines established full diplomatic relationships in 1957. Embassies were opened both in Tel-Aviv and Manila in 1962. The two countries have enjoyed warm relations in all spheres. In 1997, the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) institutionalizing the bilateral political dialogue between the respective foreign ministries. In 2009, Israel joined at least a dozen other nations for Operaiton Blessing in sending humanitarian assistance to the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Ketsana. Israel dispatched both a search and rescue unit as well as an IDF medical team consisting of six volunteer doctors, nurses and paramedics from the organization IsraAID that assisted in medical missions for those injured.

Today, roughly 100 Jews live in the Philippines, but most Jews are transient businessmen or American military soldiers. Most of the Jewish population is Israeli or American. The U.S. Air base conducts weekly services for the Jewish militia stationed on the island.

The Jewish Association of the Philippines serves as the communal organization for the community in Manila. In 1983, a new synagogue was erected in Manila. The synagogue holds weekly services, maintains a mikveh, and runs a Sunday school. The services follow the traditions and melodies of the Syrian-Sephardic communities. The community also has a full-time rabbi, who serves as the communiy’s mohel and shochet.

In February 2015 the Philippines Department of National Defense (DND) entered into contract with Israeli Aerospace Industries subsidiary Elta Systems to purchase three ELM-2288 air defence and air traffic control radar systems. The contract, valued at $56 million, will provide the Philippino DND with resources and technology to better patrol and survey their territory in the South China Sea.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte visited Israel in September 2018, a trip that polarized Israeli opinion on Netanyahu's diplomatic adventures. Duterte is perhaps most famous for his government's campaign of state-sanctioned violence and murder against suspected drug dealers and users.  

Sources: World Jewish Congress;
“Little Told Story of Heroism”;
Embassy of Israel-Manila;
"Celebrating the Filipino Spirit";
Jon Grevatt, “Philippines to acquire Elta Systems radars,” IHS Janes (February 11, 2016);
Felicia Schwartz and Dov Lieber, Philippines’ Duterte Visit Sparks Debate Over Israel’s Diplomacy, Wall Street Journal, (September 3, 2018);