A Pakistani Jew visited Israel after putting up a fight for several years. Fishel BenKhald now had freedom to worship and pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. A promise to freedom of religion that he believes was made to him by Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 1947 that “you may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of State.” Yet the Pakistani State forbids citizens to travel to Israel on their Pakistani passport — “THIS PASSPORT IS VALID FOR ALL COUNTRIES OF THE WORLD EXCEPT ISRAEL,” page 3 states.
So, for Karachi’s BenKhald to have battled the odds first to be officially registered as a Jew in Pakistan and perform pilgrimage in Israel on the same passport, is no small feat. Born to a Muslim father and Jewish mother of Iranian origin, Fishel BenKhald is a civil engineer and works at a kosher certification agency. He has been campaigning to preserve the Bani Israel graveyard, the only Jewish cemetery in Karachi, which is in shambles.
In any country, this journey would be a best-selling human and religious story. But in Pakistan, not so much. This stiff stance against the Jews despite a growing realization, especially in the past two decades, that Pakistan has an image problem and the country desperately needs a “soft image”. But given the atmosphere of bigotry that shrouds anything Jewish, you’d be considered insane to think otherwise.
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Extinct Pakistani Jews
At the time of the Partition, Pakistan had a small Jewish community in the cities of Karachi, Quetta, Rawalpindi and Lahore. Many of them escaped persecution and left for India and Israel after the latter’s formation in 1948. The historical Magain Shalome Synagogue in Karachi was demolished in 1988 on the orders of military dictator Zia ul Haq and a shopping mall built in its place. In 2013, the Election Commission of Pakistan counted 809 Jewish registered voters. By 2017, the number went up to 900. These figures, like all things Jewish in Pakistan, are perceived conspiratorial.
In Pakistan, many Jews hide their identity by taking Muslim or Christian faith in official documents. Today, as the community members claim, there are less than two hundred Jews left in Pakistan. And of those 200, when a BenKhald asserts his religious identity, he faces discrimination at the hands of his landlord, mob attacks, and a conspiracy theory that his ‘discovery’ was a sign Pakistan should establish diplomatic relationship with Israel.
Now imagine the tizzy in which the nation of 220 million goes when it hears an Israeli president talk about Pakistanis visiting Israel, even if they were expats, or even if it was a private visit of mostly Pakistani-Americans, arranged by foreign NGOs working on improving interfaith relations. The Israeli President saying it “was an amazing experience” hosting Pakistani expats was explosive enough for political and religious rhetoric in Pakistan to continue for the whole year.
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The Israel scandal
In Pakistan, reactions to this visit are simply comical. A tour that none of the Pakistani expats were trying to keep a secret of became a national scandal because it was unhidden. Imagine the hysteria, if the details of the not so hidden meetingsespecially in the last three years, were to become public. Citing photos of the trip, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Shireen Mazari lost no time in launching a smear campaign against the Shehbaz Sharif government and the PTV anchor who was part of the Israel trip. PTI’s social media is also busy implying army chief General Qamar Bajwa for sending his niece to shake hands with the Israeli president. Only problem, the peace activist isn’t a niece of the chief.
This is #fakenews . This is me but I am NOT Gen. #Bajwa never @OfficialDGISPR. I’m on #american #Pakistani and there is no relation to #COAS or other Pak Political parties. I’m on #interfaith #activist where our goal is #peace making. @ammwecofficial. @ImranKhanPTI @StateDRL https://t.co/6w6mdJKl9s
— Aisha Bajwa (@Abajwa77) June 4, 2022
The delegation organizer has confirmed that the Imran Khan government knew about the details of the trip and had given a go-ahead to Fishel BenKhald. Distancing itself from the Israel visit, Pakistan government sacked the PTV anchor for being part of the group in personal capacity. The foreign office also rushed to say that it had nothing to do with the expat visit. Understandably, Pakistan foreign office also doesn’t have much to do with foreign policy either, especially if and when it will come to Israel.
The storm in Pakistan sees no signs of abating as former Prime Minister Imran Khan is busy convincing people that the Sharif government is tasked to establish ties with Israel and compromise with India on Kashmir — acts he himself stands accused of. Khan’s government was ready to go forward on Israel and had used personal connections for the same.
As prime minister, @ImranKhanPTI was ready to establish diplomatic ties with #Israel, used personal and family contacts as conduit. Changed track only when his government became unstable due to bad governance. We might see new information emerge regarding this.
— Ahmed Quraishi (@_AhmedQuraishi) May 15, 2022
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In another 75 years
The understanding that these sparks give way to an ‘annual public debate’ in Pakistan vis-à-vis Israel is highly flawed because the entire discourse is steeped in anti-Israel bias and laced with anti-Semitic tropes, which helps none and doesn’ t take the debate forward in any manner. The question ‘if the Arabs can normalize ties with Israel, why can’t we?’ also contains the answer: ‘we can’t, for we are we.’
The television debate is so average that seeing Pakistanis landing in Israeli president’s palace is interpreted as some sort of a security achievement or a major Israeli giveaway. “These Pakistanis have seen the presidential palace, they now know exactly about their protocols, this can be used.” Used for what? Then the anchor wraps up the entire show in Jewish suspicion: “For them [Israelis] to allow such a contact is unreal,”; “They are sensitive about our atom bomb, which they know is an Islamic bomb, they have felt that it is only Pakistan that will bomb them.” Now looking at Pakistan in the last three years running with a begging bowl in both its hands, nuking Israel would definitely be on its to-do list. A cleric will always be on the talk show panel to discuss this foreign policy issue as a religious one.
In 75 years of its existence, for Pakistan, it was just another day of spinning conspiracies around Israel. The decades of emotional brainwashing of Pakistanis with Kashmir, which destroyed social fabric with militancy, and Palestine, which now Pakistan feels only it can free, makes anyone thinking otherwise liable of treason. In the next 75 years, Pakistan should try and think beyond the prism of religion and where it stands on the world stage without hanging on to the Kashmir and Palestine. But it’s possible, much before us, the next-door Taliban would become part of ‘Abraham Accords’, while we continue cribbing on who went to Israel and why.
The author is a freelance journalist from Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is @nailainayat. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)