Philippines president apologizes to Jews for Hitler remarks


Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte apologized to members of the country’s Jewish community for suggesting that he would kill as many drug dealers as Adolf Hitler did Jews.

“Please accept my apology. It will never happen again,” Duterte said Tuesday at the Beit Yaacov Synagogue in Makati, a city in the Manila metropolitan area where the Jewish community was celebrating Rosh Hashanah.

“That is why I am here, to say I’m sorry because I respect the Jewish people,” he said during his speech, according to the local news site Rappler.com.

Last week, Duterte compared his campaign to eliminate drug use in his country to the Holocaust, saying he would like to kill millions of drug dealers and users. “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there are 3 million drug addicts. … I’d be happy to slaughter them,” he said.

Critics objected not only to his invocation of the Nazi leader but to Duterte’s seeming halving of the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust.

In his apology, Duterte said the remarks were a slip of the tongue.

“It was just a mental slip of the numbers of 3 [million] and Hitler’s [number],” he said, according to Rappler. “It had nothing to do with the memory of the Jews because in my country we do not tinker with memories of our ancestors. It was just a play of the tongue.”

Duterte previously apologized for the remarks on Sunday following international outrage.

Duterte also noted that his former wife, Elizabeth Zimmerman, was of Jewish descent.

“For the life of me, you have never heard of a single word. As a matter of fact, my wife, Zimmerman, she was a descendant of an American Jew,” said Duterte at the synagogue.

Duterte also addressed the congregants originally from Israel, offering a back-handed compliment in saying he would not advise his government to buy arms from any country except Israel. “Why? Because we have excellent relations and if you send us this gadget they will not include a bug there that for them to listen also to what we’re saying,” said Duterte, who last month spoke insultingly of President Obama. “If I get it from America, you are talking in secret – blah blah blah – and they are listening before you buy it.”

Paul Rosenberg, president of the Jewish Association of the Philippines, told Rappler he accepted Duterte’s apology. “I think it was quite clear that I think it was sincere,” Rosenberg said.

The United Nations and the European Union both oppose Duterte’s drug war tactics. Many of the related killings have been carried out by vigilante groups, who target names on police lists — which may or may not be accurate — and, according to the Washington Post, leave bodies on the sides of roads with signs that read “pusher.”

Bringing help to Philippines


When an 18-month-old named Edgar was brought to Dr. Ofer Merin and the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) field hospital in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan, the child was unconscious and suffering from meningitis, a severe bacterial infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.

It was a hospital that — prior to the Israelis’ arrival — didn’t have an X-ray machine or a blood bank. Over a three-day-period, though, the boy was revived and was eventually transferred to a hospital in a different city, where he recovered fully.

And Edgar wasn’t alone.

Merin arrived in the middle of the night on Nov. 14 at the hospital in the Filipino city of Bogo, a city short on electricity, running water and adequate medical services. When his team started admitting patients, hundreds of people were already waiting in line. 

Soon, the team was treating 300 patients per day, with people waiting up to eight hours to be seen by one of the Israeli or Filipino doctors. By the time the Israelis left 12 days later, they had treated nearly 3,000 patients, according to Merin.

“There were quite a bit of injuries — in extreme cases, from roofs falling on the legs of people, walls that were collapsing. These are not the same walls you would see in houses in L.A.” Merin said, speaking in a phone interview from his home in Jerusalem. “These are houses that are made of wood [and other materials]. People were injured from nails that were falling on them, and so on.”

As head of the IDF field hospital, Merin has helped save lives all over the world in countries reeling from the devastating effects of mass casualty incidents, such as wars, earthquakes and storms. Over the years, Merin has built a reputation as the go-to man when Israel is looking to deploy medical teams to disaster-stricken countries in need. 

He was dispatched in the aftermath of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, and he went to Japan in 2011 to aid with the relief effort following the devastating earthquake and tsunami there. This year, he’s even gone to the tension-filled Israel-Syria border, treating victims of Syria’s civil war. Merin also serves as deputy director general of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, where he is a cardiac surgeon. 

As Israel’s globetrotting emergency medicine doctor on call, he was sent to the Philippines in November following the unprecedentedly strong tropical storm that hit the Southeast Asian island country on Nov. 8, taking thousands of lives. Merin arrived with 150 people making up two units — medical and search and rescue — who came with 70 tons of medical supplies in tow. 

Patients represented a range of injuries and medical conditions, often arriving with respiratory disease, pneumonia and high fever. No patient was turned away due to having too severe an injury, but patients with less-critical injuries were asked to wait. Patients were treated in the operating room in the local Filipino hospital, where the Israelis provided generators to power the medical equipment. They also provided ventilators; previously, patients’ family members were ventilating them.

Merin, 53, praised his team. 

“The people who go on these missions — the medics, the people from home front command, the cooks and the physicians — I can honestly say these are very special people,” he said.  “Some of them are doing actual duty in the army, a lot of them come from reserve forces, [and] everyone drops everything — their jobs, their families and other obligations — and go to a place which is far way and which, I must say … is not fun work. It’s not like you’re going to search a new region in the world. This is hard work.”

Working in Bogo, a city of approximately 75,000 people in the northern part of the island of Cebu, Merin said it was essential that the Israelis’ efforts not undermine the trust that the Filipinos of that community had in their local hospital. They did not want to set up a field hospital that would make the locals choose between Israeli medical assistance and Filipino assistance. So instead of creating a separate venue, they made a space that was an extension of the existing hospital, setting up 10 large tents outside and working alongside Filipino doctors in treating patients. 

“This was an important message: not working alone, but working hand-in-hand with the Filipinos,” Merin said.

When the Israeli team prepared to leave, a team of European medical professionals arrived to replace them. The Israelis left behind their supplies on the condition that they be used for the relief effort.

Shortly before their departure, several of the Israeli physicians, including Merin, made a long drive to the hospital where Edgar had been transferred. The boy’s parents were stunned, Merin said. 

“Just to see the eyes of the Filipino family, the mother and the father of the kid in this hospital, they were shocked to see the Israeli physicians walking into this hospital in this evening to check on their kid, who we treated a few days earlier,” he said. “For me, it’s something very symbolic.”

Israeli military in Philippines to assess typhoon damage


Representatives of the Israeli military landed in the Philippines to evaluate the situation on the ground and determine how Israel can best assist in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

The team, including search and rescue experts, doctors and representatives of the Home Front Command, arrived Monday. A representative of the Foreign Ministry arrived with the team, according to Ynet.

The Israel Defense Forces plans to send additional doctors and other officers once it receives the go-ahead from the government.

The Israeli team plans to set up a field hospital to treat wounded survivors of the typhoon.

[Typhoon Haiyan: How you can help]

The death toll in the typhoon, which made landfall in the central Philippines on Friday, could be at least 10,000, according to reports, though the official death toll currently stands at more than 1,700. At least half a million people also have been left homeless by the devastating typhoon.

An emergency response team sent to the Philippines by the Israeli disaster relief organization IsraAid to the areas hardest hit by Typhoon Haivan also arrived Monday and will be working primarily in Tacloban City in Leyte, one of the areas hardest hit by the typhoon. A larger team is expected to land by the end of the week, according to IsraAid.

“On behalf of the government and the people of Israel, I extend heartfelt condolences to the families of those who lost their lives as a result of the horrific typhoon, and I send best wishes for a speedy recovery to those who were injured,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a letter to Philippines President Benigno Simeon Aquino III. “I hope Israel’s assistance will help alleviate the suffering of those affected by this disaster.

Typhoon Haiyan: How you can help


In response to the devastation wreaked on the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan, which hit land on Nov. 8, killing thousands and obliterating whole towns and villages, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has set up the Philippines Typhoon Relief Fund.

The solicitation for donations went live on Monday, Nov. 11, on the Federation website, jewishla.org, according to Mitch Hamerman, Federation’s senior vice president of communications and marketing.

The L.A. Federation’s response is only one example of local Jewry attempting to reach out to Filipinos suffering in the aftermath of the largest storm surge in modern history, despite the absence of a sizable Jewish population on the Southeast Asian island country. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has already sent emergency teams, and the Israeli nonprofit IsraAID has dispatched a team of humanitarian workers. The L.A. Federation is working with both organizations.

“We know our community wants to take action in this time of crisis,” a statement issued by Federation said.

On Monday, members of Congregation B’nai David-Judea in Pico-Robertson received an email from Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky asking for donations to IsraAID.

“We're all aware of the horrible death and destruction that occurred in the Philippines over the weekend. There is a special connection, as you may know between the Philippines and the State of Israel,” Kanefsky wrote, emphasizing that members of the Filipino community often are the healthcare workers who care for elderly Israelis.

Israel’s reaction to the storm has been robust, with the Israel Defense Forces and Magen David Adom both promising aid. Israeli consul general in Los Angeles David Siegel estimated that “several hundred” people, representing the Israeli government and Israeli non-government organizations, may join the relief effort in the Philippines.

“We’re very happy to do this, and I think you’ll see Israel put not insignificant resources into this, both in aid and in the representatives that we send,” he said. As a leader in trauma medicine, Israel is expert at responding in the immediate aftermath of mass casualty events. And helping another country in need fulfills the obligation of tikkun olam, Siegel said.

“Whenever there is a humanitarian disaster, we’re poised to be the first, if not one of the first, to provide immediate aid,” Siegel said.

Additionally, The United Kingdom’s World Jewish Relief organization has said it plans to offer help, and a fund launched by American Jewish World Service is providing support to local Filipino-run groups on the ground in the Philippines.

Philippine typhoon death toll to rise as rescuers reach remote areas


Rescue workers were trying to reach towns and villages in the central Philippines on Tuesday that were cut off by a powerful typhoon in an operation that could reveal the full extent of the loss of life and devastation from the disaster.

Officials in Tacloban, which bore the brunt of one of the strongest storms ever recorded when it slammed into the Philippines on Friday, have said the death toll could be 10,000 in their city alone.

Compounding the misery for survivors, a depression is due to bring rain to the central and southern Philippines on Tuesday, the weather bureau said.

“I think what worries us the most is that there are so many areas where we have no information from, and when we have this silence, it usually means the damage is even worse,” said Joseph Curry of the U.S. organization Catholic Relief Services.

The “sheer size of the emergency” in the wake of the typhoon was testing relief efforts, he told NBC's “Today” program on Monday, speaking from Manila.

[Typhoon Haiyan: How you can help]

John Ging, director of operations at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said “many places are strewn with dead bodies” that need to be buried quickly to prevent the outbreak of a public health disaster.

“We're sadly expecting the worst as we get more and more access,” Ging, speaking to reporters at the United Nations in New York, said.

President Benigno Aquino declared a state of national calamity and deployed hundreds of soldiers in Tacloban to quell looting. Tacloban's administration appeared to be in disarray as city and hospital workers focused on saving their own families and securing food.

Nevertheless, relief supplies were getting into the city four days after Typhoon Haiyan turned the once-vibrant port of 220,000 into a corpse-choked wasteland.

Aid trucks from the airport struggled to enter because of the stream of people and vehicles leaving. On motorbikes, trucks or by foot, people clogged the road to the airport, holding scarves to their faces to blot out the stench of bodies.

Hundreds have left on cargo planes to the capital Manila or the second-biggest city of Cebu, with many more sleeping rough overnight at the wrecked terminal building.

Reuters journalists travelled into the city on a government aid truck which was guarded by soldiers with assault rifles. “It's risky,” said Jewel Ray Marcia, an army lieutenant. “People are angry. They are going out of their minds.”

RELIEF EFFORTS PICKING UP

International relief efforts have begun to accelerate, with dozens of countries and organizations pledging tens of millions of dollars in aid.

Operations have been hampered because roads, airports and bridges were destroyed or covered in wreckage by surging waves and winds of up to 235 mph.

About 660,000 people were displaced and many have no access to food, water or medicine, the United Nations said.

U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos, who is travelling to the Philippines, released $25 million for aid relief on Monday from the U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund.

Amos and the Philippines government are due to launch an appeal and action plan on Tuesday to deal with the disaster.

Aquino's declaration of a state of national calamity will allow the government to use state funds for relief and to control prices. He said the government had set aside 18.7 billion pesos ($432.97 million) for rehabilitation.

Additional U.S. military forces also arrived in the Philippines on Monday to bolster relief efforts, officials said, with U.S. military cargo planes transporting food, medical supplies and water for victims.

Other U.S. aircraft were positioning to assist the Philippines, with U.S. forces operating out of Villamor Air Base in Manila and in Tacloban.

DEATH TOLL EXPECTED TO RISE

Rescuers have yet to reach remote parts of the coast, such as Guiuan, a town in eastern Samar province with a population of 40,000 that was largely destroyed.

The typhoon also leveled Basey, a seaside town in Samar province about 10 km (6 miles) across a bay from Tacloban in Leyte province. About 2,000 people were missing in Basey, said the governor of Samar province.

The damage to the coconut- and rice-growing region was expected to amount to more than 3 billion pesos ($69 million), Citi Research said in a report, with “massive losses” for private property.

Residents of Tacloban, 580 km (360 miles) southeast of Manila, told terrifying accounts of being swept away by a wall of water, revealing a city that had been hopelessly unprepared for a storm of Haiyan's power.

Most of the damage and deaths were caused by waves that inundated towns, washed ships ashore and swept away villages in scenes reminiscent of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Jean Mae Amande, 22, said she was washed several kilometers from her home by the surge of water. The current ripped her out to sea before pushing her back to shore where she was able to cling to a tree and grab a rope thrown from a boat.

An old man who had been swimming with her died when his neck was gashed by an iron roof, she said.

“It's a miracle that the ship was there,” Amande said.

Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco and Karen Lema in Manila, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Dean Yates; Editing by Janet Lawrence

Conversion: Kimia Sun


Kimia Sun was born a refugee. 

Her parents were survivors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rogue, which claimed nearly 2 million lives in the late 1970s. The couple was among the lucky ones and escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Sun was born and spent her first months. Next, the family traveled to the Philippines, where Sun’s parents learned English and purchased plane tickets for America.  

When Sun was just a toddler, she arrived with her family in Memphis, Tenn. Her parents were Buddhists and her father had been a Buddhist monk for 14 years, but they converted to Christianity. Sun was raised a Southern Baptist, but at age 13, she decided it wasn’t right for her. “It just didn’t gel with me,” she said. “I asked my parents if I may stop going to church. I just didn’t understand or agree with what I was learning in Sunday school. ”

At that point, she essentially disconnected from organized religion. “From then on, I called myself a universalist, and that lasted all the way through college. I didn’t have a religious home. I believed in God and the goodness of people.”

Then, when Sun moved to Los Angeles six years ago, she lived with and worked for an Israeli family in the Hollywood Hills. She shared Shabbat dinners with them and picked up on some Hebrew words. “They were so open to all my questions,” she said.

Living with the family sparked Sun’s interest in Judaism, and that interest was solidified after she dated a Jewish man and read books about the religion. Although she was intrigued, converting initially didn’t cross her mind. After she and the man broke off their relationship, however, one of her friends persuaded her to look into becoming a Jew. “He said I have a Jewish soul,” she said. 

Sun, who today lives in Hollywood and works at Sunrise Brands, which assists apparel companies, began to take classes at Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program. The lessons she learned prepared her to pursue a Conservative conversion. 

“I remember the first day of class he broke down the etymology of the three main religions,” she said. “For example, the Christian people are ones who adhere to God or want to please God, Muslims are people who serve and fear God, and Jews are those who struggle with God. That caught my attention. Sometimes my prayers are more like debates or arguments with God, and I never knew if that was acceptable or not. I just knew that this was my relationship with Him.” 

For a year, Sun took classes and learned Hebrew with the rabbi’s wife, Miri Weinberg. Sun started preparing her own Shabbat dinners and put together a Rosh Hashanah meal. Temple of the Arts became her synagogue, and she spoke to the congregation there about her conversion. In June 2010, Sun completed her conversion at American Jewish University with the West Coast Rabbinical Assembly. “My experience in the mikveh was almost indescribable,” she said. “It was so unique, so special and uplifting. I felt really aligned with God.”

Since her parents had undergone their own conversion, they understood Sun’s need to find to herself spiritually. Her dad revealed to her that in the refugee camps, where a day’s worth of food consisted of a handful of rice and a chicken wing, an Israeli United Nations worker had given her pregnant mother extra food. The worker also helped them learn English. 

Out of all the Jewish traditions she’s learned about over the past six years, Sun said one of her favorites is honoring the Sabbath. “It’s super important to me, because it’s a time to acknowledge all of the hard work that you’ve done all week long and then you rest. I think that can be taken for granted. I love all the traditions. Everything has a specific meaning and purpose on Shabbat, and I love how it centers around your family and friends.”

The holiday she connects to most is Passover, because of her family history, she said.  “I really connect to the symbolic meaning of this holiday. [You] remember to be thankful for your freedoms and also to remember and pray for those who are still in oppression or in captivity. Maybe I relate to this most since my family and I survived the terrors of the Khmer Rouge.”

Before Sun discovered Judaism and took it on, she said she, like a lot of people, was a spiritual wanderer. “A lot of people feel a little bit lost or disconnected. I was one of those people.”

Now, however, that has changed. “Judaism brought me closer to God. I feel connected, grounded and complete,” she said. “In a way, it gave more meaning and purpose to my life.”

Austrian peacekeepers start pullout from Golan


Austria began the withdrawal of its 380 soldiers from the United Nations peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights.

The Austrians, who comprise more than a third of the 1,000-member U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, crossed on Wednesday from the Syrian side of the Golan to a U.N. base on the Israeli side. Some of the troops were scheduled to arrive in Vienna later in the day.

Last week, Austria said it was pulling its soldiers after fighting between government and rebel forces in Syria’s two-year civil war placed them in danger.

Croatia withdrew from the peacekeeping force earlier in the year due to similar fears.

Soldiers from the Philippines and India remain on the force. However, on Tuesday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he also is considering pulling out his 342 soldiers.

The head of the peacekeeping force told an Austrian newspaper on Wednesday that he did not have enough time from Austria’s announcement to the withdrawal to find replacements.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week offered to send Russian troops to replace the withdrawing soldiers, but was turned down since the 40-year-old cease-fire agreement stipulates that soldiers from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council cannot be included in the force.

The U.N. force has been stationed on the Golan for 40 years.