When they think about the Philippines, most people do not think of Jews. However, a Jewish presence has been documented in the Philippines from as far back as the 1500s. The 16th century was an era of exploration and colonization of the new world by the Europeans. The Spanish claimed the islands of the Philippines in the middle of the century. For those of Jewish descent, this meant that settlement there was as risky as living in Spain, where they were under threat from the Inquisition. Indeed, in 1593, several conversos were convicted of practising Judaism. And while Jews certainly came to the Philippines during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, they needed to hide their Jewish identities.
The first open settlement of Jews in the Philippines occurred in the late 1870s. Jews slowly trickled in to the country following the opening of the Suez Canal, which allowed freer trade between Europe and the Far East. On June 12, 1898, the Spanish-American War left the Philippines in American hands, which would prove to be of some significance during World War II.
In 1935, the Philippines became a Commonwealth, meaning a semi-autonomous state. The President of the Commonwealth at that time was Manuel Luis Quezón y Molina, who openly supported the immigration of Jewish refugees. The U.S. government, which still had ultimate control over the Philippines, had reservations about allowing too many refugees to settle in the Philipinnes, concerned that it was being used as a means of sidestepping the U.S. quota-driven immigration restrictions. In total, a little over 1,000 Jews actually made it to the Philippines before the Japanese invaded in 1941.
The Japanese were part of the Axis Powers–allied with the Nazis. Ironically, this meant that most German Jewish refugees residing in the Philippines were left alone, but American Jews living there faced internment.
In 1946, America granted the Philippines its independence. After the war, many of the refugees moved elsewhere, but a small Jewish community remained, and today there are several hundred Jews who reside there.