Pakistan is home to several religious minorities, notably the Hindus, Sikhs and Christians. It is also home to a tiny 200 member Jewish community which is scattered all over the country. This is their story.
Pakistan’s small Jewish community gained attention when a Pakistani Jew, Fishel Benkhald, was reportedly allowed to undertake a “religious journey” to Israel, a country the Pakistani government does not recognise due to its illegal occupation of Palestinian land. This community is also known as the Lost Tribe by many.
What is the Lost Tribe?
According to Jewish lore, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel refer to the ten tribes that formed the Kingdom of Judah which then vanished from Biblical accounts after the Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians around 723 BC. While this is not necessarily where the name is derived from for the community, it provides insight into what the the phrase Lost Tribe holds in the Jewish community.
There are more Jewish tribes than one might think in Pakistan, if you get time later, check this journal out. For now, though, story time.
Pakistan’s most famous Jew
Fishel Benkhald, 32, is quite popular on social media and had published a couple of articles to his name in international publications before writing for a local paper.
He wrote the first article for an English
daily in Pakistan in 2018.
In the piece titled “I’m a Jewish and a Pakistani…let me go to Israel” he made a passionate appeal that he be granted freedom to religion through allowing him to visit holy places in Israel.
“I am stuck in a real life conundrum. Being a practicing Jewish man, I want the freedom to perform my religious duties, a right granted to me and other minorities in the country by the constitution,” he wrote. Fishel continued, the reality is that my Pakistani passport states that ‘this passport is valid for all countries of the world, except Israel’.
“As per the constitution, every citizen has the right to practice their religion, including religious pilgrimages. How then, can the state be justified in prohibiting not only Jews, but Pakistani Christians, Messianic Jews, and even Muslims from travelling to Jerusalem? This self-conflicting sentence on our passports is flawed and inconsistent with our constitution, and it is time to challenge this archaic law,” Fishel gave us a good reminder.
Then, finally the Pakistan Tehreek-e-insaf Government granted him his wish.
A Brave man
He is the son of a Muslim father and a Jewish mother, and all four of his brothers practice Islam.
He was registered as a Muslim at birth but he always identified with Judaism.
In 2016 he finally got the courage to register himself as a Jewish Pakistani with the National Database Registration Authority in 2016. He was the first Pakistani to do so, also making him the first known Jewish person in Pakistan.
He will be the first Pakistani citizen of Jewish faith to officially travel to Israel if he is granted a visa and other required facilities.
A Short historic Jewish
Local media and some officials have put the figure for the country’s Jewish community between 700 and 800, though Fishel believes they number no more than 200.
The history of Jews in Pakistan dates back to the 19th century. Most Pakistani Jews belong to India’s Bene Israel community, while some had come in from neighboring Afghanistan.
Speaking to an international publication, he says most of the Jews currently living in Pakistan belong to the first generation. The second and third generations according to him have “migrated in the last four to five decades”. The senior Jews he says are dual nationals and they shuttle between Pakistan and their second homes.
Benkhald says the senior generation still has feelings and affiliation with Pakistan and they regularly visit the country aswell, as they still have homes and other properties here.
The second and third generations have supposedly permanently settled abroad and no longer have any links with this country.
Most of the local Jews left reside in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.
Karachi was once home to 1,000 to 1,500 Jews before the Independence of Pakistan in 1947. At that point, a very significant majority of them migrated to Israel following the creation of the Hebrew state.
After the 1947 migration, the second largest exodus was in the late 1960s following the Arab-Israel war.
Another exodus took place during the 1980s following the burning of a central synagogue in Karachi in reaction to the massacre of Palestinians by the hands of Israeli forces.
Karachi’s Jewish Past
According to Anadolu Agency, a Turkish publication, Jewish architects, especially Moses Somake (1875-1947), have designed a number of Karachi’s landmark buildings.
Buildings like Mules Mansion, BVS Parsi High School, Khaliqdina Hall, Edward House and the famous Flagstaff House were all designed by the Pakistani jewish architect Moses Somake.
There are still a few streets named after notable Jews in Pakistan e.g Solomon David street in Karachi’s Jubilee market area.
Abraham Reuben, a leading member of the local Jewish community, served three terms as Karachi’s mayor after elections in 1919, 1936 and 1939.
A 19th century stone building located near the Karachi Press Club was believed to have been used as a temporary place of worship by the Jewish community until 1948.
There is also an old Jewish cemetery located in Karachi’s southern district which is part of Karachi’s massive Mewa Shah graveyard, that consists of nearly 300 graves dating back to the late 19th Century.
According to the official Bureau of Statistics, there were around 12 Jewish government employees in Pakistan in 2003, but the 2006 census of civil servants didn’t show even a single Jewish employee, suggesting they either left the service or well, changed their faith.
Keep Hustlin’ Fishel
The decision to let Fishel Benkhald go to Jerusalam might have been approved by the Government initially, but the issue is not as simple as it seems according to Pakistan’s only known Jewish person.
Benkhald claims the Foreign Ministry hasn’t told him anything in fine print – whether or not, he’s travelling. He says, that initially the Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal, himself encouraged him to share the news on social media. But now, there has been no further response from him or any other official regarding the trip and permission to travel to Jerusalem.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman, in 2019 while responding to a question during a weekly briefing at the Ministry, said: “On the question regarding Israel, our position on Israel remains unchanged.” He further evaded repeated questions on the issue, saying: “I will reiterate yet again what I said earlier: On Israel, Pakistan’s position remains the same.”
It looks like a dream almost too good to be true. Imagine, we are talking about a Jewish individual in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan fighting for his identity and then trying to go to Israel, a country Pakistan doesn’t even recognise! But let’s imagine the government lets him go for a one time only super historic deal and offer pilgrimage. This is the stuff Netflix binge worthy docu-series are made of. But you know what, stranger things have happened. So keep hustlin’ Fishel.
Farewell lost ones
Fishel says he does not feel threatened in Pakistan and his friends include Muslims, Christians and Hindus. He says they simply treat each other as friends. Minor issues are everywhere. But by and large, he says, he enjoys his life here.
He also acknowledges though that most Pakistani Jews do not feel like him and they live in fear that if their identity is revealed, they may have to pay a price for what’s happening in the Middle East.
He believes that Pakistani society is progressing and is on the right path.
This is a picture of a synagogue in Karachi in 1957. It was built 54 years before Pakistan’s creation, in 1883. The board reads ‘Pakistani Israelite Mosque’ in Urdu, Bengali and Hebrew. According to some sources, the last Jewish family of Karachi is said to have migrated (to Israel) around 1968. This synagogue lasted as a heritage building till 1988 when it was torn down and a shopping plaza was made in its place.
I don’t know if Fishel’s dreams will trump government policy and change history, or if followers of the Torah will ever set foot in the land of the pure. I don’t know. I do know though, that the Jewish people who called Pakistan home were good people and we probably lost them forever.
It’s too little, too late but I’ll say it anyway, farewell lost ones.
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