Filipino migrant workers feel a strong religious connection to Israel, where thousands of them work, as the birthplace of Jesus. But a recent wave of deportations is threatening that bond.
On a Friday night, Filipino congregants are praying in a tiny, unmarked church tucked off a nameless alley in south Tel Aviv. The church is one room, with wood laminate floors and plastic chairs. Burgundy banners read “Elohim” and “Yahweh” in Roman letters. A Star of David made of spoons hangs in the window that looks out over the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood, four floors below.
The congregants are evangelical Christians—a group that is sometimes referred to in the Philippines as “charismatics”—and their love for both the Bible and the Jewish people inspires them to use bits of Judaism in their services. About a year and a half ago, the church was raided by Israeli immigration authorities. Standing here, I try to imagine police swarming the place. But the service is so peaceful, the praying so earnest, that I can’t imagine anything but this.
The pastora of the church, who asked that her name not be used, to protect the privacy of her congregants, stands at the clear acrylic pulpit, which also holds a menorah and kiddush cup. A guitarist, keyboardist, drummer, and an Israeli flag are behind her. Her eyes are closed, her face tipped up. She pushes her hands to her heart as she leads the group in song: “We worship you,” the congregation sings. Then the music slows, softens, and stops. Someone blows a shofar. The congregants cry out to God in Hebrew.
“We are standing, Lord, in awe of you, in awe of you, in the very heart of the whole world—Israel,” the pastora, says. “In your holy and chosen nation.” I find myself moved by her words, not because they show devotion to my country and my people, but because the pastora and her congregants still have faith in Israel, despite everything it has done to them in the past year.
In July 2009, Israel announced plans to deport 1,200 children of illegal migrant workers. The pastora’s 7-year-old daughter was among the targets. But this wasn’t the beginning of the family’s trouble—the immigration police had searched the church, months before, under the false claim that the pastora was hiding an illegal worker there. After July’s news, the police started showing up, occasionally, at the downstairs apartment the pastora shares with her husband, who is also an ordained minister, and their child. She was frightened and worried, but she focused on her congregation. Single mothers were calling and stopping by night and day. The pastora counseled them on the phone. When the church was full, she led the women to the roof, where they prayed among lines of laundry and hot-water heaters.
The Cabinet decision came down in August of 2010—some 700 children would be naturalized. The pastora and her husband breathed a sigh of relief. Their daughter met the official criteria; they would be able to stay in Israel. But many members of her congregation weren’t as lucky. And here we are, on a Friday night in October—the week the deportation was slated to begin—for an emergency prayer session.
The pastora steps down from the pulpit. A Filipino preacher, who goes by the name of Apostle Abraham, speaks next. The expulsions officially began the previous Sunday, just after the high holidays, and although no one had been arrested or deported yet, he came from Manila just for this meeting.
Apostle Abraham greets everyone, extending a special blessing to me and the three other Jewish visitors. “Praise God for the life of our Israelite brothers and sisters that have joined us,” he says. “We love Israel, we love the people of Israel. We always pray for this nation, and we appreciate you at this time of crisis that the Filipino workers, migrant workers, are facing.”
He begins ministering, in English, with the Sh’ma. Apostle Abraham seems comfortable in the words. I can tell it’s not his first time starting a sermon with this prayer. When he finishes, he says, “It’s not only the Israelites that have to listen to God. It’s also the Filipinos.”
The sermon that follows is about faith, an exhortation to listen to God every day, not just when deportation looms.
I’ve done hundreds of interviews with Filipino migrants in Israel. A significant minority have told me that they consider it an honor to serve the Jewish people. In the past, I chalked the comment up to politeness—Filipinos are big on saving face. But on that Friday night, the pastora and Apostle Abraham force me to reconsider.
A few days later, I leave for the Philippines to spend six weeks conducting research for my book about foreign workers. Among the people I intend to interview are the balikbayan, Filipinos who have lived overseas and returned home. My backpack is full of Hebrew T-shirts. I’m hoping that the letters will attract balikbayan who worked in Israel. I want to understand the special affection some Filipinos feel for our little, far-away state.
Puerto Princesa City, Philippines, reminds me of my native Florida. Maybe it’s the heavy, unpredictable sky. Or perhaps it’s the humidity, the palm trees, the lizards everywhere—climbing the walls, creeping toward my plate as I eat at turo turo stands. The windows of these tiny, roadside stalls are lined with pots. The owner lifts the lids and you turo turo, point point, if the food looks good.
The place is familiar in other ways. There’s an “Elohim Copy Center” on one street; a tricycle named Nazareth motoring down the next.
I’m staying at a pension close to a Catholic church. Most Filipinos are Catholic, and the church wields tremendous social and political influence. So, I decide to start my research at mass. I put on a Hebrew T-shirt that reads, “I’m laughing on the inside.” It’s probably inappropriate. I don’t mean to be disrespectful. It’s black and the nicest top I have.
When I arrive I find that I’m late and woefully underdressed. But as I slide into a wooden pew, the woman next to me doesn’t seem too concerned. She’s kicked off her high heels and is resting her bare feet on the kneeler in front of her.
Although the sign outside the church said that 5 o’clock mass would be in English, the priest conducts services in Tagalog. I’ve learned some but not enough to keep up. I catch “Israel” here and there, a few other words, and that’s it. When mass is over, I rush outside to talk to the priest and catch him on his way to the chancery. I introduce myself and explain that I’m trying to understand the Filipino connection to Israel. I add that I live there myself.
“Oh!” Father Christian says, not hiding his excitement. “Well, it’s because of Christianity.”
I know, of course, that Israel is significant to Christians the world over. But Father Christian’s enthusiasm reminds me, again, that there’s something different about the Filipino faithful. I grew up in a predominantly Protestant area, and my Judaism was never met with a smile like Father Christian’s. I was urged to convert, lest my soul burn in hell.
I push for another answer. “Every time I explain the scripture,” he says. “I give them the background first—the culture of the Jews during the time of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Who were the scribes? Who were the Pharisees? What is this Jericho? Jerusalem? Nazareth? Was it below sea level? Or above? Sometimes I even talk about how the rocks looked. If you have this grasped, you will embrace the true message of the gospel.”
“Do you talk about modern Israel?” I ask.
“No, no,” he says. “Filipinos feel they are connected to the Jews by our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
I ask Father Christian if he’s ever visited Israel. “How I wish,” he says. “Maybe someday, in God’s will.”
I wander around Puerto Princesa City, wearing Hebrew. One afternoon, I’ve got on my “We are al Arakib” shirt, which includes Arabic script. I pass a row of stalls selling drinks, snacks, and phone cards. A woman calls out to me. She’s leaning over the counter, pointing at my shirt. “I worked in Dubai,” she says, not realizing that al Arakib is a Bedouin village that Israel has bulldozed numerous times.
Denise tells me she and her husband, both college graduates, have four children. She missed them terribly while she was in Dubai. But, she confides, part of her liked the freedom.
We plunge into an intimate conversation—as Filipinas are often willing to do—and soon, I’m sitting behind the stall with Denise and her friend, Felicia, a man in a short denim skirt and pink tube top who works one window over. Felicia clatters off in his high heels and returns with a snack of skewered bananas fried with brown sugar.
When customers approach, Denise waves them off. “I’m leaving in a week for Abu Dhabi,” she explains to me. “I’ll make money there.” It will be Denise’s second “deployment,” as she calls it, to the United Arab Emirates. The conversation meanders toward another war—Operation Cast Lead. “I’m very angry with Israel,” Denise says, shaking her finger at me. “I am a Catholic, and before I went to Dubai, I thought Israel is nice. I thought it was like the Philippines, you know.”
Denise explains that just as Israel is the only Jewish state, the Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic country in Southeast Asia (save for tiny East Timor). Both Israel and the Philippines have a Muslim minority. Both countries have eruptions of internal violence. “And like the Jews, we Pilipino are piling pili,” she says. I asked what that means. She struggles to translate, then says, “Very chosen.”
The Filipinos bore hundreds of years of colonization, she says, comparing that to biblical descriptions of Jews as slaves in Egypt. “It’s like a dream come true that there is an Israel and a Jerusalem,” she says. “But then I went out and worked abroad. And they are bombing and fighting with the Palestinian people,” speaking of Cast Lead.
Denise then fumbles for words, not because her English is bad, but because she seems overwhelmed with emotion. She says, “I don’t believe that these people, the Jews, that their faces are the same as Jesus Christ’s.”
Late last year Israel accepted what’s set to be the final wave of Ethiopian immigrants. But the country is still struggling to integrate the 120,000 who’ve arrived over the past three decades.
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