Of Boats, Jews, and Origin Stories: A Lesser-Known Tale of the Philippines

Israel+ Phiippine Flag + Quezon + Jews in PH
ILLUSTRATOR Leana Vibal

(SPOT.ph) I've always been fascinated by my family history. So deep into it that I've purchased DNA kits, continuously pestered aunts for details on our origin, and more—all to uncover the story of my grandfather, and his parents before him. Born in the Philippines to a Jewish father and a Spanish mother, my grandfather's origins are far from typical. While having Spanish heritage as a Filipino is not that uncommon—thanks to over 300 years of colonial rule—I've often asked myself, "How on earth did my Jewish great-grandfather find his way here from Europe?" 

The thing is, my grandfather had a way with words, as an aunt put it, and therefore told varying accounts of his origins to his children. Call it a father's love, but he used to tell stories of my great-grandfather's adventures and misadventures in the Philippines as a way to keep my mother and her siblings entertained, so who knows just how embellished—and made kid-friendly—they were. 

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So having hit a bump in the old family route, I could only turn to something bigger: history. Time can tell endless tales, and so perhaps the history of Jews in the Philippines could be where my answer lies.

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A long history of Jews in the Philippines: From Spanish Colonial to WWII

Reaching out to the Jewish Community in the Philippines—yes, we have one!—led me to the archives of the Jewish Association of the Philippines. In emails and conversations with several members of the association, I found out that Jews have been in the Philippines as far back as Spanish colonial times. Many had sought refuge in Asia to escape being forcibly converted to Christianity; back then Judaizantes or Clandestine Jews were tortured, tried for heresy, sentenced to life imprisonment, and in the worst cases, burned to death. In the years 1593 to 1677, a total of eight Jews were known to have lived in the Philippines and were convicted as Judaizantes. 

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When the Suez Canal opened in 1896, cutting travel time from Europe to the East by half, potential for trade in the Philippines increased. The country then became a very attractive destination for Jews, as people who were known to be traders and were still coping with the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. Towards the end of the colonial era, there were about 50 Jewish residents living on the islands. This was despite the fact that there was no formal Jewish organization at the time as Spanish law made it very difficult for them to practice their religion openly. 

By the time control was transferred to the U.S. in 1898, many of the American troops and businessmen that arrived in the country were Jewish. They had decided to try their luck and set up shops and businesses here; some of the most successful businesses at the time were owned by American Jews who stayed in the country. This included big names such as Isaac Beck of Beck's American Bazaar, a company included in the one-million peso corporations of the Philippines in the 1930s. Then there's also Emil Bachrach of Bachrach Motors, which brought the first shipment of American automobiles to the country.

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Beck
PHOTO from the Jewish Association in the Philippines
history bachrach motors
PHOTO BY Jewish Association of the Philippines
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One of the most significant events in the relations between Jews and Filipinos happened during World War II. In the late 1930s, then-President Manuel L. Quezon created an open-door policy for Jewish refugees who were trying to escape persecution in Europe—a policy that came at a time when most countries closed their doors in fear of Hitler's retaliation. Quezon, along with then-High Commissioner to the Philippines Paul McNutt, proceeded to sign visas for over 1,200 Jews from Germany and Austria and have them assimilate to life in the Philippines, urging Filipinos at the time to welcome and help them adjust. Were it not for the interference of the American government and the eventual Japanese occupation in the Philippines, thousands more Jews could have been saved as Quezon even had the plan to create a Jewish settlement in Mindanao that could have helped over 10,000 Jews.

Manuel Quezon
PHOTO BY Wikimedia Commons
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Although around 1,200 Jews escaped the terror of Hitler in Germany and Austria, they faced the wrath of the Japanese when the war at the eastern front began. Their German and Austrian passports did land them a bit of leniency from the Japanese. 

So what's happened now? Of those who survived the Japanese occupation, most if not all have left the Philippines, but from the 1,200 Jews saved by Quezon came a little over 8,000 descendants. A true manifestation of kindness' ripple effect.

The Philippines and Israel have maintained strong diplomatic relations throughout the years. In 1947, the Philippines voted in favor of UN Resolution 181 recommending the partition of Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish State in 1947. We were among the 33 countries that supported the establishment of Israel and the only Asian country that voted for the resolution.

Jews in the PH Today

Today, the Jewish community in the Philippines is mostly composed of diplomats, expats, and their families. There are a few Filipino Jews, too. Over 50 families continue to worship and are active members of the community. This number was higher pre-pandemic at over 100 families, until the lockdown saw many leave the country.

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The community gathers in the Beit Yaacov Synagoguethe only synagogue in the countrylocated in Metro Manila. It is not a public spot, in the touristy sense of the word, but I was allowed a visit. 

The synagogue is part of a complex that houses a kosher kitchen, a large function room, a library, classrooms, and a mikvah or a ritual bath designed for the Jewish rite of purification. It also houses several beautiful copies of the Torah and is the place to be for celebrations of Jewish holidays.

Synagogue
The synagogue
PHOTO BY Leana Vibal
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Synagogue_prayer books
Prayer books
PHOTO BY Leana Vibal
Synagogue_10 Commandments in Hebrew
10 Commandments in Hebrew
PHOTO BY Leana Vibal
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Torah
Many elaborate Torahs in the synagogue
PHOTO BY Leana Vibal
Synagogue_mikvah
The Mikvah
PHOTO BY Leana Vibal
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Synagogue_Function Hall
The function hall
PHOTO BY Leana Vibal

More than a place of worship, the synagogue is the physical representation of the community. Jews from all walks of life come and go, spending time with the rabbi and with each other. More than a spiritual leader, the rabbi also serves as the go-to person for advice regarding problems that members of the community are facing whether it may be personal, marital, or whatever, the rabbi lends his ear. 

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Synagogue_Rabbi
PHOTO BY Leana Vibal

Worship at the synagogue while a deeply sacred activity is also a social event with many members of the congregation finding time to catch up with each other before, during, and after the service.

Finding Answers

Among all the stories told to me of my great-grandfather, there is one detail that remains throughout: he came to the Philippines in a boat sometime in the 1930s. Why? One aunt says it's because he was fleeing persecution in Europe, another tells me it's because he's a wine trader. The specifics, the motives, remain unclear—what is definite for me is that my great-grandfather's arrival to the Philippines, alongside the Jews he came with and those that came before, has led not just to my being, but to this synagogue as well. 

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Another thing that struck me during my visit is how tightknit the Jewish community in the Philippines is. Everyone knows each other, they have high regard for their history and culture, and more importantly, kindness is at the center of all their beliefs. So I may not have found solid answers as to why I and my family are here now, but suddenly, that doesn't seem as important.  

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