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.

What Happens if Elections Are No Longer Legitimate?

Two years ago, just a couple weeks before the 2016 presidential election, I asked what does it look like when citizens don’t trust elections?

Perhaps more than anything that he has said through his campaign, Donald Trump’s charge that the upcoming presidential elections will be rigged have frightened political observers, and especially political scientists. The reason is that elite and public acceptance of electoral procedures is essential to democratic politics. Political scientists understand that the foundation of democratic political order is the acceptance of the rules of the game. The only way that we really know that losers accept those rules when they lose and respect the outcome. The politics of a losing presidential candidate rejecting the election itself is almost unimaginable. It would risk a crisis of systemic legitimacy.

But what would such politics look like, now that we must imagine it? American history is no great source of information. There is the case of the Civil War, which began when southern states seceded from the union. But this was a cleavage first and foremost over policy—slavery—and the political order that it required. And as such, the Civil War had a clear regional divide over that policy. Trump’s allegations about vote-rigging are not regionally defined, and they are not about specific policy. They are channeling mass dissatisfaction with the entire political system, refracted (as is often the case with Trump) through the candidate’s own self-obsessions. No state could, or would, secede from the union over Trump’s electoral defeat. The crisis of systemic legitimacy would be national, within the states, between supporters of Trump and his opponents.

The answers are not good, and I used the examples of Thailand and Madagascar to make my point. In the event, President Trump did not question the legitimacy of the 2016 election because he won it. But this morning, things have changed.

It is now the official White House position that constitutionally-mandated recounts are illegitimate.

In a month of harrowing news, this development is still almost incalculably bad for American democracy. I now assume that a substantial minority of Americans believe that the results of the elections in Florida, Georgia, Arizona, and California are democratically illegitimate unless the Republican candidate wins. Updating the lessons from the previous post,

  1. When electoral procedures lose popular legitimacy, it is nearly impossible to get that legitimacy back. Elections are one great way of building popular legitimacy, and if by assumption they no longer do, what will?
  2. Non-electoral sources of power are particularly dangerous when elections no longer legitimately empower politicians. It now falls to the very politicians who are involved in the recount to vouch for its legitimacy. The safest way to defend that legitimacy would be for the losing candidates to rebuke the President, directly and publicly. A public endorsement would be most meaningful if it were to come from, for example, DeSantis. Let us just ponder how likely that is.
  3. The downstream consequences from the loss of electoral legitimacy are nearly impossible to predict. I suspect that one consequence will be an ever-greater tolerance for executive malfeasance, on the logic that Congressional representatives and state governments lack democratic legitimacy.

Caveats, as always, apply.

Any number of Americans can tell you that they have never considered the current U.S. system to be legitimate. But even the strongest critics of electoral democracy must take seriously the gamble that they entertain when candidates like Trump undermine the legitimacy of U.S. elections. After all, look what happened when U.S. politicians tried to undermine the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency: Donald J. Trump became the GOP nominee.