Jewish Refugees and the Resettlement of Mindanao

Ria Sunga recently contributed a short essay on Jewish refugees in the Philippines to the Refugee History blog. The essay is full of interesting details, including the observation that under the Japanese occupation during World War II, Jewish refugees were not interned because the Japanese… considered them to be Germans.

Having (expired) German passports, the Japanese did not intern them, unlike those with Allied nationalities in the Philippines.

Internment conditions under the Japanese occupation were notoriously hard. It is remarkable that the small Jewish refugee population in the Philippines appears to have been spared.

Perhaps even more interesting is the so-called “Mindanao Plan,” which called for Jews to be resettled in the Philippines large and restive southern island of Mindanao.

Tauber and many other Jews sent letters to the Philippines, applying to enter under a special immigration programme that proposed a Jewish agricultural settlement on the southern island of Mindanao. The ‘Mindanao Plan’ was conceived after the Evian Conference, led by American President Franklin Roosevelt. The Conference sought a solution to the ‘Jewish refugee problem’, which included proposals for establishing agricultural settlements in underdeveloped regions. These plans extended to the Philippines. In 1939, Quezon agreed to resettle 10,000 refugees in Mindanao over ten years under certain conditions, including that refugees took naturalisation papers and that they would not become public charges. It was the only such plan to be seriously considered in Asia (though a similar resettlement plan was proposed by the Dominican Republic).

The idea of resettling Jews in some “empty” territory is not new: see Madagascar, Birobidzhan, Alaska, and the Kimberley. What makes the Mindanao case interesting is that it follows a longstanding policy that Mindanao needs to be “settled.” This policy dates to the early American colonial period, addressing the legacy of incomplete control of Mindanao by the Spanish. In the words of Wernstedt and Simkins, Mindanao under the Spanish had

failed to participate in any significant degree in the economic or political development of the Philippines.

Indeed, Mindanao is not like other regions in the Philippines: it has a large Muslim population (termed the Moros by the Spanish, a term that persists until today), and successive colonial and post-colonial government have conceived of the region as something of a colony of the Philippines. Writes Abaya‐Ulindang (PDF),

the Americans believe in resettling farmers from Luzon and Visayas to assume their role as model citizens of the natives in the course of interacting with them. Conceived as part of the Filipinization policy of Governor General Harrison to make a ‘Filipino out of the Moro’, the agricultural colonies were created at the end of the pacification campaign of Pershing.

The Resettlement Policy brought Catholics from Luzon and the rest of the Philippines to Mindanao. It is an important driver of the Moro conflict, which pits some of Mindanao’s Muslim population against the majority-Catholic Philippine state. Indeed, current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte grew up in Davao, but was born on Cebu.*

That the Philippines’ Jewish refugees were slated to settle in Mindanao is an interesting footnote to the longstanding problem of figuring out how to incorporate Mindanao into the Philippine state. In this, it parallels the idea of using Jewish refugees from Europe to populate other “peripheral” regions in the USSR, US, and Australia. As in the cases of Alaska and the Kimberley, the main political obstacle was the fear that the Jewish refugees might not stay put in the periphery. But relative to those two cases, the Mindanao Plan appears to have been relatively more serious; had the Pacific War not broken out, it might even have been implemented.


* Duterte’s former wife is of German Jewish ancestry but to my knowledge has no connection to the Jewish refugee community.