Philippines Virtual Jewish History Tour
By Ariel Scheib
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 first synagogue was consecrated 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 Filipinos 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 haven for Jewish refugees from Europe.
At a time when most nations closed their doors to Jewish refugees, Quezon welcomed Jews, who became known as “Manilaners,” from Germany and Austria. Quezon wanted to bring tens of thousands of Jews to the Philippines and permanently settle them on the island of Mindanao, but the U.S. government, which controlled the islands, allowed him to accept no more than 1,000 Jews a year over a 10-year period.
Manuel and Paul V. McNutt, the U.S. High Commissioner responsible for overseeing the Philippines, worked together to side-step quotas and issue visas. 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 more than 1,200 Jewish refugees to the Philippines. Among these refugees was Frank Ephraim, who later wrote, Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror, recounting this story.
During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, thousands more Jews settled in the Philippines seeking refuge. Ultimately, the Philippines admitted more than 10,000 European Jews.
In 1942, when the Philippines became occupied by the Japanese, many Jewish citizens were placed in internment camps and beaten.
The synagogue in Manila was destroyed during the war. It was rebuilt after the war. By then, however, many Jews opted to leave the Philippines for Israel or the United States.
Today, roughly 100 Jews live in the Philippines, but most Jews are transient businessmen, Israelis or American military soldiers. The U.S. Air base conducts weekly services for the Jews 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, which 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 community’s mohel and shochet.
Relations with Israel
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.
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 Operation Blessing, 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.
In February 2015, the Philippines Department of National Defense (DND) signed a contract with Israeli Aerospace Industries subsidiary Elta Systems to purchase three ELM-2288 air defense and air traffic control radar systems. The contract, valued at $56 million, will provide the DND with resources and technology to better patrol and survey their territory in the South China Sea.
President Rodrigo Duterte visited Israel in September 2018, a trip that polarized Israeli opinion because of his controversial policies in the Philippines.
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);
Rich Tenorio, “Little known Philippines’ WWII rescue of Jews was capped by US interference,” Times of Israel, (February 20, 2020)