NOT too many people know that our special relations with the Jewish people began even before the birth of the state of Israel in 1948. It started in the late 1930s and early 1940s just before World War II when the Jews left Germany and Austria and fled to the Philippines. We welcomed them with open arms by our warm hospitality and accepted them with our Christian humanity.
The information and insight was shared with invited members of media by Deputy Director-General Mark Sofer, head of the Asia-Pacific Division of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was in town last week for top-level meetings with our Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). He spoke with perspicacity of the great ties that bind – the special relationship between the Filipinos and the Jewish people!
Ambassador Sofer had long and productive meetings with our DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario and Undersecretary for Policy Evan Garcia for the 8th Joint Commission Meeting (JCM) between the Philippines and Israel. The meetings lasted for about five hours that included talks over lunch at the DFA office with Secretary Del Roario.
The bilateral talks touched on strengthening areas of mutual interests, such as on defense, labor and economic cooperation. However, Deputy Director-General Sofer said that it was Trade &Tourism that have tremendous potentials, particularly on the latter which is called the “hospitality industry.” Ambassador Sofer and Secretary Del Rosario talked on the prospects of tourism for both their countries at length and with enthusiasm.
The diplomatic globetrotter cited the warm and friendly character of smiling Filipinos that he finds unique in his travels around the world. He told me jokingly after the meeting that he would like to be posted in the Philippines. When I replied that Israeli Ambassador Effie Ben Matityau just arrived half a year ago, he said in jest that he could have their envoy in Manila reassigned somewhere else.
In his reply to my email sent the next day, Ambassador Sofer wrote: “My entire visit to Manila was short, but very very sweet!” He added that “there are truly so very many things we can and must do together” in the areas of trade and tourism promotion. I have broached the subject earlier during our meeting at the residence of the Israeli Ambassador in Makati.
Long memory of Israel on Filipinos
What struck me the most during the meeting was when the Israeli high-ranking diplomat mentioned of the “Long Memory” of the Jewish people on what the Philippines had done for them. Ambassador Sofer was referring to the time when the Jews were being persecuted in Europe, particularly in Germany and Austria, and our country was the only one in the world that accepted them and gave them safe haven.
The top Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said that Israel will never forget. Indeed, they have shown their gratitude and appreciation in more ways than one. Among others, Filipinos can travel to Israel without any visa required and stay up to six months as tourists. The rare privilege is in recognition of what we have done that saved more than 1,300 lives from the tragic and inhuman genocide of 6 million Jews in World War II.
Israeli Ambassador Effie Ben Matityau told me in our meeting last month that during the “dark moments in human history” in the last world war, it was only the Philippines that gave the light to the world. He said passionately that our country had “no pretensions or aspirations” (read: hidden agenda), but we did the right thing unlike the others.
In his keynote speech last Thursday in a forum “Sharing of Stories” by the children of Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust, Ambassador Matityau referred to the “moral victory of the Philippines.” He was referring to what the great President Manuel L. Quezon (MLQ) did in issuing visas to Jews in Europe. In contrast, he cited the “moral decline” of the so-called “enlightened nations” that did nothing at the great time of need.
(The press conference was organized by the Pilipinas Sandiwa Heritage Foundation in partnership with the Israeli Embassy in Manila. Disclosure: this writer is the founder and managing director of said foundation.)
Another instance of their appreciation is the employment of more than 20,000 Filipinos working as caregivers and domestic helpers, among others. I know of instances when Filipino domestic helpers are treated like family. In Ms. Rina J. David’s çolumn in the Philippine Daily Inquirer yesterday, she wrote of Israelis being fond of Filipino caregivers because they give “so much love and cheerfulness” taking care of the Jews, including the Holocaust survivors.
In our meeting with Ambassador Sofer, he said that the Filipinos are well-treated in Israel and protected by their laws. Indeed, Israel is probably the best place to work in the Middle East and North Africa. I have yet to hear of abuses done by their employers in contrast to the horror stories of maltreatment on other countries in the region.
Even for tourists to Israel, the high regard to Filipinos is easily seen and/or felt. Philippine Star columnist Valeriano “Bobit” Avila spoke of the “Israeli Friendship” in his email to me when I invited him to the forum of the children of Jewish refugees who were either born or raised in Manila. Bobit Avila wrote that “when you tell them (Jews) you are Filipinos, they show respect to us.” He added:”they are true friends of Filipinos.”
‘Thank you, Philippines’
In appreciation for everything that the Filipinos have done for them, the Israeli Embassy in Manila has embarked on its “Thank you. Philippines” program. It will be a series of events to show their gratitude to the Filipino people. This program validates the statement of Deputy Director General Mark Sofer that the Israelis truly have a “Long Memory” for us.
There will be a Jazz Fest 2015 starting with a free Friendship Concert on Feb 26, Thursday, at the Music Museum in Greenhills in San Juan, Metro Mnila. Ms. Rose Fostanes, the 2013 X-Factor Grand Champion, will fly from Israel to the Philippines to sing together with other well-known local performing artists.
The Israeli Embassy in Manila is fortunate to have a young competent diplomat in the person of Deputy Chief of Mission Adam Michael Levene since July 2013. I attended the Philippine-Israeli Friendship Day in Feb. 26 last year and it was well-organized. Adam reminds of the young Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who was the Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) in New York at age 33.
Likewise, the new Israeli Ambassador Effie Ben Matityau, a seasoned professional career diplomat, who assumed his post six months ago. He has an amiable personality, very knowledgeable, and has done so much already. Ambassador Effie reminds me of Ambassador Amos who was assigned to Manila some 20-25 years ago. By coincidence, the former also worked with the latter and refers to him as “My Ambassador.”
Long live the special friendship between the Philippines and Israel. Mabuhay and Shalom!