One of the key events of this week’s controversial trip to Israel by President Rodrigo Duterte — the hardline Philippines leader who has presided over the killings of several thousand alleged drug dealers and addicts since winning power two years ago — will be a visit to a memorial dedicated to his country’s efforts to save Jews persecuted by the Nazis.
Duterte, 73, is due to land in Israel Sunday evening for a three-day visit — the first ever by a Philippines president — focused on bolstering bilateral ties in a various of areas, including trade, defense and the conditions for thousands of Filipino caretakers working in Israel.
On Wednesday, Duterte — who was widely criticized in 2016 by Israeli officials and Jewish groups in the US for having favorably compared himself to Adolf Hitler in seeking to kill millions of drug dealers and addicts — is set to lay a wreath at the “Open Doors” Monument in Rishon LeZion’s Holocaust Memorial Park.
Contrary to some media reports, he will not inaugurate the monument, as it was unveiled back in 2009.
It commemorates the Philippine’s “open doors” policy in 1939. At the time, most countries opposed Jewish immigration, but then president Manuel L. Quezon (who held office from 1935-44) allowed the issuance of 10,000 visas to persecuted Jews. Due to the outbreak of World War II and the Japanese invasion, only some 1,300 Jews actually reached safety in Philippines.
“It was a time when our moral compass pointed in the right direction, when human compassion and hope prevailed over hate and prejudice,” Philippines Ambassador to Israel Neal Imperial said last November at a memorial event at the site.
“It [serves] as a reminder to ourselves, and to other countries, that we must do the right thing when faced with a similar moral choice. Humanity will be the better for it.”
Yet as Duterte is set to arrive, some are accusing Israel and making the wrong choice by opening its doors to the strongman, who has been criticized by human rights activists and others, over his ruthless crackdown on thousands of people he accused of being involved in the drug trade.
In 2016, Duterte favorably compared himself to Hitler while vowing to kill as many drug dealers and users as the Nazi leader killed Jews.
Just as Hitler killed Jews in the Holocaust, he boasted, he was killing drug dealers and users. “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there are three million drug addicts (in the Philippines). I’d be happy to slaughter them,” Duterte said. “At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have…” he said, indicating himself.
In a subsequent semi-apology, Duterte explained that he had invoked Hitler’s name only because others had compared him to the Nazi leader. He apologized to the Jews, but was adamant that he’d said nothing untoward about the need for mass killings of drug addicts in the Philippines.
Two Holocaust survivors who now live in Israel will accompany Duterte when he visits the memorial.
One of them, Max Weisler, of Hod Hasharon, arrived in Manila in 1941 at the age of 11 years as a refugee from Germany and grew up in the Philippines. His footprints are etched in front of one of the monument’s three doors, which symbolize Manila’s “open doors” policy.
The little-known story of how the Asian country rescued Jews will also be highlighted during Duterte’s visit to Yad Vashem on Tuesday.
The first Filipino president to visit Israel since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1957, Duterte is being accompanied by a large delegation.
Yet while the visit to a Holocaust memorial by a man who once compared himself to Hitler has raised some eyebrows, its Israel’s embrace of him, and possible willingness to sell him arms, that has caused a fair amount of consternation.
Manila currently acknowledges almost 5,000 deaths and 50,000 arrests in Duterte’s drug war; human rights groups put the figures far higher, and say most of those dead are the urban poor.
The Reuters news agency has published a series of exposés that indicate Duterte’s police have summarily executed hundreds of alleged drug dealers — shooting them in the head and heart at close range.
Israel has officially welcomed Duterte’s visit as significant. “We assign great importance to this visit, which symbolizes the strong, warm ties between our two peoples as well as the enormous potential for developing and strengthening the relations,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday.
“Cooperation between the two countries is thriving. In diplomacy, it is expressed in public statements by the leadership in Manila as well as in issues important to Israel in the international arena. Other areas of robust cooperation are security and combating terrorism, tourism, investments, energy, infrastructures, and more.”
For Duterte, the visit may be most significant for his drive to seek weapons deals outside of the US.
According to the Kan state broadcaster, Duterte is bringing with him a delegation of 400, including top army and police officials, some of whom are expected to visit Israeli army bases.
“In the Philippines, and in Israel’s defense industries, there is tremendous interest in advancing arms deals — in other words, signing defense contracts with the Philippines,” the TV report said Wednesday.
Duterte has been very open about his proclivity for Israeli arms, having said publicly that he is prefers them over the products made in other countries.
“On the matter of arms, I said, Do not buy from anyone except from Israel,” he said in 2016.
This week’s visit for Duterte is a way to find “an alternative market for… weapons for our armed forces as well as for the police,” Henelito Sevilla, an international relations expert at University of the Philippines, told AFP.
The US and Canada have both had military hardware deals fall apart with the Philippines due to concerns over Duterte’s drug war. But so far sales with Israel have gone smoothly.
The Philippines emerged as a significant new customer in 2017 for Israel, with sales of radar and anti-tank equipment worth $21 million.
There could be far bigger deals on the way as Manila plans a multi-billion dollar overhaul of its armed forces. Duterte has been dismissive of American sales overtures, saying he does not need US fighter jets or submarines.
Israel is among the world’s top arms dealers, with nearly 60 percent of its defense exports going to the Asia Pacific region, according to Israeli Defense Ministry data.
Taking care of caretakers
Though the two countries have enjoyed strong ties since establishing diplomatic relations some 60 years ago, Duterte’s government has rebuffed rumors that it may seek to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem.
“This is actually not a topic of discussion,” Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Ernesto Abella told journalists at a pre-visit briefing.
Israel’s friendship with the Philippines actually goes back to 1947, when the country voted in favor of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, thus paving the way for Israel’s creation. It was the only country in Southeast Asia to back the resolution.
Shortly after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport at 7 P.M., Duterte is set to attend an event for Israel’s Filipino community, which consists mostly of caregivers, in a Jerusalem hotel.
In 2017 alone, nearly 3,000 Filipino caretakers were deployed to Israel, according to the Foreign Ministry in Manila.
During his stay, a “ground-breaking” bilateral agreement will be signed to “regulate the employment of thousands of Filipino caregivers, who are so valued in Israel,” the Foreign Ministry said.
“The agreement will protect the workers’ rights, ensure equal and fair treatment of them, and cancel all the fees that until now they have been forced to pay to intermediate agents. The agreement will benefit Israel’s elderly population and others in need of nursing services and will have positive consequences for similar agreements to be signed with other countries in the future.”
Additionally, agreements science and technology, business and the environment will be signed this week.
Israeli and Filipino officials are also expected to work on an agreement that would bring workers from the Philippines to Israel to work in the local hotel industry, which is suffering from a shortage of manpower.
They will also start discussing the opening of a direct flight route between Manila and Tel Aviv.
“Direct flights will bring a rise in the number of Philippine tourists coming to Israel, particularly Philippine Christians wanting to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land,” according to the Foreign Ministry.
Filipino planes will reportedly be allowed to fly over Saudi airspace en route to Ben-Gurion Airport, similar to Air India planes, which recently won the right.
On Monday around noon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will host Duterte for lunch at his Jerusalem residence. The two leaders are not expected to make statements to the press.
Later that day, Duterte will visit Yad Vashem.
On Tuesday, he will be welcomed by President Reuven Rivlin in his official residence and preside over a business seminar for heads of large companies from Israel and the Philippines in his Jerusalem hotel.
More than 150 Filipino businesspeople are part of Duterte’s delegation.
Other top officials accompanying the president include the foreign minister, the national defense ministers and the ministers of trade and industry, agriculture, internal security, science and technology, labor and employment, tourism and transportation.
After meeting Rivlin, Duterte is also scheduled to attend a simulation of an emergency medical disaster response at Jerusalem’s Magen David Adom headquarters.
After the ceremony at the “Open Doors” memorial, he will leave Israel en route to Jordan, where he will stay until Saturday.
On his trip to Israel, Duterte is being accompanied by his daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, the mayor of Davao City, one of the Philippines’ largest cities. She is the daughter of Duterte’s Jewish-American ex-wife, Elizabeth Zimmerman.
The strongman president cited his decades-long marriage with Zimmerman in 2016 when forced to apologize for the Hitler comparison.
“My [former] wife is a Zimmerman… a descendant of an American Jew,” he said in an address in a synagogue in Makati City, addressing the local Jewish community on the occasion of the Rosh Hashana holiday. “So why would I defile the memory of the Jews?”
AFP contributed to this report.