Opinion |

Expulsion, Refuge and Racism: The Bitter Ironies in Relations Between the Philippines, Israel and Jews

The Philippines' president gave shelter to Jews - the 'race' that birthed 'our Lord' - fleeing Nazism. Today, Israel is expelling hundreds of Filipino families, while embracing the murderous Hitler-praising Duterte regime

CJ Chanco
CJ Chanco
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Philippine President Duterte and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem during Duterte's visit to Israel, the first by a Philippine president since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1957. Sept 3, 2018
Philippine President Duterte and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu meet during the first visit to Israel by a Philippine president since diplomatic relations were established in 1957. Sept 03, 2018Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL
CJ Chanco
CJ Chanco

In late August, the first of over a hundred Filipino families scheduled for deportation from Israel was sent packing after a futile appeal.

While several protests have tried to stop them, dozens of families of migrant workers of irregular status, most of them Filipina mothers and their children, have been arrested by the Israeli authorities since the start of the year. Hundreds more are expected to be deported.

Filipino mothers with their children demonstrate opposite the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Sign on the left reads "We are the children of Israel." On Tuesday, June 11, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The crime of these women was to give birth in the wrong place. Israeli law requires migrant workers to defer having children, among other restrictions, as a condition for maintaining their temporary status. Once they become mothers, their work permits cannot be renewed - while it is impossible for their children to acquire citizenship, as Israel has no birth citizenship process for the children of non-citizens.

According to the Philippines Consulate-General, of the 29,000 Filipinos living in Israel, the vast majority are domestic helpers, and are on temporary visas (25,000).

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These deportations coincided, somewhat painfully, with the 141st birthday anniversary of Manuel Quezon, the Philippines president who opened the country’s doors to Jewish refugees right before the outbreak of World War II. Following the first of the deportations, the Philippines’ foreign minister, Teodoro Locsin, promised senators that the film Quezon’s Game, detailing those efforts, would be broadcast in Israel.

He added that his apparently influential friends in the American Jewish diaspora would "crack the whip" - so that the Israeli media would feature the contributions of Filipino caregivers to Israeli society. Indeed, the word "caregiver," in Hebrew, has become nearly synonymous with "filipina."

The situation is especially bitter for those who have cared for Israeli children and the elderly for years - while living far apart from their own families.

Yet the foreign minister’s invocation of Quezon’s humanitarianism is ironic. To the international community, Locsin represents Rodrigo Duterte’s government, which has presided over an unprecedented number of state-backed killings of alleged drug users, as well as journalists, clergy, and activists. And the irony doesn’t end there.

When he served as the Philippines’ ambassador to the United Nations, Locsin praised the policies of Nazi economic minister Hjalmar Schacht as a model for the Philippines - after Duterte compared himself favourably to Hitler.

Both incidents ruffled feathers in Germany, but did nothing to hinder closer relations between Duterte and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who treated him to the first state visit to Israel by a sitting Filipino president since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1957.

Philippine President Duterte visits Israel's Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. September 2, 2018Credit: Emil Salman

In other words, Israel is expelling Filipinas even as it embraces the Duterte regime. The Israeli government continues to sanction the sale of weapons to the Philippines National Police, a profoundly corrupt institution that is at the heart of the "drug war" which is in fact a war on the poor and an enfeebled political opposition.

What lies behind these transactional and selective appeals to historical memory? The expulsions of Filipinos exist at the intersection of entangled histories that shed light on contemporary relations between Israel, the Philippines, and the Jewish community.

"Why turn our backs on the race that produced Jesus Christ?"

In the late 1930s, Quezon’s transitional government, known as the Commonwealth, facilitated the entry of over a thousand Jews, sometimes acting against the wishes of the United States, the Philippines’ colonial master.

The saga features a cast of characters including Dwight Eisenhower and Quezon himself, working with the U.S. State Department, the Manila Jewish Refugee Committee, a small but vibrant local Jewish community that had struck roots in the Spanish colonial era, and thrived in an environment of relative tolerance.

At a time when most western democracies refused them refuge, Filipinos are said to have welcomed the Jews with open arms, continuing an established tradition of hospitality in a country that had provided shelter to White Russians and Spanish Republicans alike.

>> This Woman Survived the Holocaust Thanks to the Philippines. Now She Wants to Return the Favor

As most stories are, however, this one is not so black-and-white, and reveals much in the way of economic self-interest, human foibles, and mixed motivations. For one, behind these efforts was a philosemitic streak.

In a deeply Catholic nation, Jews had a certain allure. Quezon made no secret of his own faith. Why, he argued, "turn our backs on the race that produced Jesus Christ?"

Following the Evian Conference and the establishment of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees in 1938, the American government envisioned closer cooperation with the Philippines on the problem of European refugees. Concerned about public opinion, the Roosevelt administration proved unwilling to commit to resettling the Jewish refugees in America itself, hoping instead that the Philippines and various South American states would accept them.

The Philippines government committed to a quota of ten thousand visas to Jewish refugees. Not all the visas were issued; only a little over a thousand refugees made it through.

By February 1939, Quezon had been convinced that European settlers, in this case German Jews, could boost the Philippine economy and settle areas perceived as underpopulated. For some time that meant Mindanao, the country’s largest southern island and home to a sizeable Muslim minority, as well as to American fruit and rubber plantations.

To its own population, the Quezon administration was reassuring: it emphasized that the Jewish newcomers would not threaten the economic wellbeing of the native Filipino population, and indeed would improve it through their scientific expertise. It set its own conditions for the resettlement of refugees, restricting entry permits only to those perceived most useful to the development of the country, particularly in agriculture. President Quezon set out this position in February 1939:

"Only those whose professional qualifications, particularly in science, could supply needed services in the Philippines, have been admitted…With the cooperation of the [US] Department of State, however, the President has succeeded in limiting the number of immigrants only to those who would be of advantage to the Commonwealth."

Quezon also wanted refugees to be naturalized as soon as possible, thereby "expressing their intention to become Filipino citizens." On the other side of the globe, the Dominican dictator Rafael Trijillo followed a similar logic, encouraging Jewish settlement in his country at around the same time.

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Manuel Quezon of the Philipines in Washington DC, May 13 1942Credit: Wikimedia

But not all Filipino elites were on board. General Emilio Aguinaldo, the nationalist leader of the independence movement against Spain in the 1890s, and the first Philippines president, opposed the Mindanao plan on overtly anti-Semitic grounds. Suggesting there was a reason that Europe wanted Jews out, he argued that "the Jews are dangerous people to have around in large numbers."

Over three centuries of Spanish colonial rule, plus a few decades under the Americans, have instilled a fierce sense of national pride and identity among Filipinos. This has played out in complex ways, not least in their country’s positions over another piece of history that overlaps directly with Israel’s: the partition of Palestine.

It is often mentioned that the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote for the Partition of Palestine in the United Nations in 1947. In fact, Carlos Romulo, who served under Quezon before becoming the Philippines UN ambassador, initially opposed it. He feared that partition along ethnic lines risked taking the world "back on the road to the dangerous principles of racial exclusiveness and to the archaic doctrines of theocratic governments."

This was the era of decolonization, and Romulo was acutely aware of the nationalist sentiments of Arab Palestinians, and his own country’s resistance to American colonial impositions in Mindanao.

He opposed the partition of the Mandate territory as being "clearly repugnant to the valid nationalist aspirations of the people of Palestine," just as similar attempts by the United States to effect, continued Romulo, the "territorial dismemberment" of his country were rebuffed by Filipinos themselves.

Romulo was referring to the late 1920s, when certain parties sought Mindanao’s secession from the Philippines. They included American businesses and some leaders of the country’s Muslim minority, who preferred to live under a U.S. protectorate than to submit to the country’s Christian majority after independence.

The UN vote on the partition of Palestine, 1947. Credit: GPO

And so even as he recalled the Philippines’ generosity toward Jewish refugees from Nazism, he opposed both an independent Jewish state and the "territorial mutilation of the Holy Land."

Romulo took the minority position of supporting a binational "single independent State of Palestine" for all inhabitants of Palestine regardless of race or creed, expressing his desire for "an approach to the Jewish problem in general that would more nearly accord with the modern trend towards interracial co-operation and secular democracy."

Such idealism might have jarred with the complex realities of the time, as millions sought to escape Europe’s DP camps and violence spiked between the Arab world and an Israel-in-the-making. Indeed, the United States prevailed upon Romulo to reverse his position. The Philippines consequently provided the crucial swing vote in the creation of the State of Israel.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Romulo became a leading figure in the Bandung Conference, an alliance of non-aligned third world nations. A committed democrat, Romulo was just as critical of the cynicism of authoritarian regimes that justified their rule on the basis of national sovereignty or self-determination. Post-colonial nations, he insisted, could not mirror the practices of their former colonizers, nor could human rights be sacrificed on the altar of economic development.

Nationalism was useful only to the extent that it laid the foundation for full human flourishing in democratic polities. It could not be abused to shield governments from international scrutiny for human rights violations committed on their territories. Governments, including those of former colonies, were to obey principles that transcended the nation-state.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte holds a Galil sniper rifle during the National Police chief handover ceremony in Camp Crame, Quezon City, Philippines, April 19, 2018Credit: \ Dondi Tawatao/ REUTERS

Diaspora Filippinos and 'Messianic' Duterte

But his democratic principles didn’t last. Betraying his own words, Romulo himself went on to serve under Ferdinand Marcos upon the latter’s ascent to power in 1968, even supporting the declaration of Martial Law.

By the 1970s, the Philippines was no longer as strong a voice for human rights at the UN as it was in the past. Like many other countries in the global south, the Philippines saw the reversal of the erstwhile hopes of national self-determination in the retreat to despotism, ethnic cleansing, or civil unrest.

Within south-east Asia, countless people fleeing violent regimes saw Marcos’ Philippines paradoxically leading the way in the region to host Indochinese, Cambodian, and other refugees who hoped to be resettled in the West.

It was around this time, too, that the Philippines pioneered the policy of exporting workers that laid the path to the establishment of the Filipino community in Israel.

The Marcos dictatorship pushed the policy to deal with high domestic unemployment.

It was also a safety valve against political rebellion. The policy expanded in the 1980s and 90s, sending millions of Filipinos to work overseas in the booming oil sector in the Arab world – the same period that saw Israel turn to cheap Asian labour to replace Palestinians in the work force.

Today about ten percent of the Filipino population lives and works overseas, sending millions of dollars in remittances that have been critical to sustaining the economy back home. Waves of longer-term migration have also created a large diaspora that played a significant role in propelling Duterte to power – and keeping him there.

Duterte appealed to the sense of exclusion that overseas Filipinos felt from previous governments, translating into their fierce support for an administration whose politics of violence has declared open season on indigenous minorities and the urban poor back home.

Duterte remains hugely popular in the diaspora where he is seen by many as a messianic figure of national renewal who will improve the toxic social conditions that drove them overseas. The majority of overseas Filipinos continue to back his administration, with millions having supported his hand-picked candidates in this year’s mid-term elections.

"Better a country run like hell," Quezon once said, "than a government run like heaven by Americans." That was his battle cry during negotiations for independence from the United States. Duterte’s Philippines, a tragic metaphor for the disposability of human life in our time, is Quezon’s prophecy fulfilled in the worst way possible.

Filipinos have their own independent state. But it is one that has often betrayed them and their hopes for meaningful independence, economic equality, and honest, humane government, compelling many to seek better lives elsewhere, while others support a far-right regime that offers a cure worse than the problem.

Protesters burn an effigy of President Duterte holding a Chinese flag at a rally against his closeness with China and the thousands killed in his so-called war on drugs. Quezon City, July 22, 2019Credit: Bullit Marquez,AP

For those being driven from Israel, returning to Duterte’s arms is poor compensation. Indeed, the deportations make little economic sense for either side. The costs of repatriation for both the Israeli state and the Filipino families do not appear to justify the deportations – which opens up the possibility that the underlying thrust of this policy isn’t economic at all, but demographic.

Non-Jewish migrants, including children, in Israel have become collateral damage for a cynical, and irrational, political project of creating an ethnically homogenous nation-state surrounded by high walls. There remains no clear pathway to citizenship for those who have contributed much to Israeli society through years of living and working in Israel, but are not, as the treatment of would-be immigrants and minorities of color suggest, of the right ethnic or religious origin.

Moreover, the language surrounding the issue is dehumanizing. Filipinos are both model guest workers but also, once established, a threat from within. They are the thin end of the wedge for Israel’s broader anxieties about irregular migrants - African asylum-seekers, South-east Asian workers, and of course Arab Palestinians - or "infiltrators," as the political right-wing calls them - and as such must be made an example of.

The Velasco family as they get arrested by Israeli authorities on August 18, 2019.Credit: UCI United Children of Israel

The same term, "infiltrator" or "infiltrees" was used by Allied military authorities to describe Jewish displaced persons in the refugee camps of Occupied Germany after WWII - and for those who fled pogroms that persisted in Eastern Europe even after the Holocaust.

It may be argued, with some justification, that life is worse for migrant workers, Filipina or otherwise, elsewhere in the Middle East. In contrast to many Arab states, where the kafala system constrains many under slave-like conditions and the threat of arbitrary deportation is a constant, working in Israel might seem like a paradise.

But whataboutery never made a wrong policy any less unjust. In a country that claims to aspire to higher standards, it should not be illegal for mothers to hope for a better future for their children in a place better than the one they left behind.

Finally, the deportations do nothing to improve Israel's standing in the international community. They cut to the heart of what the people of Israel and the Philippines intend to become, and the values both nations intend to represent, moving forward.

A system that discriminates against individuals, citizen or foreigner, along religious, racial, or ethnic lines is inconsistent with basic democratic values. Those values are just as inconsistent with a self-destructive politics that enables violence against a country’s own most vulnerable citizens, as in the case of the Philippines.

Democracy is a fragile institution that is more than a card to be whipped out to shield a government against all criticism.

At a celebration in Manila marking Quezon’s anniversary, Israel’s ambassador to the Philippines described him as a man of "integrity and moral conviction" for his work on behalf of Jewish refugees. "History," he continued, "provides today’s leaders with role models."

If the lessons that our leaders draw from the past inspire a retreat to nationalist extremism that speaks only the language of fear and power, of exclusion, discrimination and abuse, then they may be drawing the wrong ones.

CJ Chanco is a PhD student in History at McGill University. He has written about the efforts of the labour movement and the Jewish Canadian community on behalf of post-WWII displaced persons resettled in North America, and published on issues concerning Filipino politics, the left, and the history of internal displacement in Mindanao. Born and raised in the Philippines, he worked in the non-profit sector before moving to Canada.

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