Renewed Interest in the Jews of Pakistan
By Shalva Weil
When India and Pakistan were one country, before the partition in 1947, the Jews were treated with tolerance and equality. In the first half of the 20th century, there were approximately 1,000 Jewish residents in Pakistan living in different cities: Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta, and Lahore. The largest Jewish community lived in Karachi, where there was a large synagogue and a smaller prayer hall. There were two synagogues in Peshawar, one small prayer hall in Lahore belonging to the Afghan Jewish community, and one prayer hall in Quetta.
The Jews of Pakistan were of various origins, but most were from the Bene Israel community of India, and came to Pakistan in the employ of the British. In Pakistan, they spoke Marathi, their mother tongue from Maharashtra; Urdu, the local language; and most spoke English. Prayers were conducted in Hebrew.In 1893, a Bene Israel from Bombay, Solomon David Umerdekar, inaugurated the Karachi Magen Shalom Synagogue on the corner of Jamila Street and Nishtar Road, which officially opened in 1912.Until Partition, the Jewish community thrived. A 1941 government census recorded 1,199 Pakistani Jews: 513 men and 538 women. So accepted were the Jews of Karachi in these years that Abraham Reuben, a leader in the Jewish community, became the first Jewish councilor on the Karachi Municipal Corporation. Other Jews in Pakistan were of ‘Baghdadi’ origin, as well as of Persian and Bukharan Jewish origin.
On August 15, 1947, India was partitioned and the Dominion of Pakistan was declared. Partition effectively signaled the end of the British Empire. Fearful of their future in the new Islamic state, Jews began to flee. The Bene Israel community in Lahore fled to Karachi and from there moved to Bombay. Simultaneously, Muslim refugees from India, called Mohajir, streamed into Pakistan and attacked Jewish sites. The situation was exacerbated by the declaration of independence for the State of Israel in May 1948. Many of the Karachi Jews left the city, after rioters attacked the Karachi synagogue during a demonstration in May 1948 against President Truman’s recognition of Israel. Some members of the community emigrated to Israel via India, while others settled in Canada and the United Kingdom. I myself did fieldwork among Bene Israel from Karachi living in the town of Lod in Israel.
Pogroms against Pakistan’s Jews, who remained in that country, recurred during the Suez War in 1956, and during and after the Six-Day War in 1967. Most of the remaining Jews emigrated and, in 1968, the Pakistani Jewish community numbered only 350 in Karachi, with one synagogue, a welfare organization, and a recreational organization. After 1968, there is no record of Jews residing in Pakistan outside Karachi. The Magen Shalom synagogue in Karachi was destroyed on July 17, 1988, by order of Pakistan President Zia-Ul-Haq to make way for a shopping mall in the Ranchore Lines neighborhood of Karachi. In 1989, the original ark and podium were stored in Karachi; a Torah scroll case was taken by an American to the United States.The neglected Karachi Jewish cemetery has not been destroyed, but its last custodian, Rachel Joseph, died on July 17, 2006.
Today, anti-Israel discourse manifests itself in the notion that Israel and Pakistan are ultimately in competition. Pakistan aligns itself with the Palestinian Muslim cause and rejects the United States insofar as it is allied with Israel. In 2002, the journalist Daniel Pearl was killed, probably because he was a Jew, as well as an American.
In 2011, I published an internet article on the Jews of Pakistan for ISN Insights in Zurich. The original piece can be found here.
The reactions I received to this article exceeded comments received in response to any other piece I have ever written.
The reactions were both from Jews and from Muslims the world over. Since I had written that the Jews in Pakistan had not suffered from anti-Semitism till 1947, the Journal of Antisemitism asked me to republish the article in their academic journal.[i] Internet sites started copying my article (sometimes crediting me and sometimes not), and significantly, the Pakistan Defence Forum, and other Pakistani official sites released the article with my name and affiliation; sometimes they later censored the piece. Journalists used the information, which I had researched. Liel Leibovitz, a senior journalist for Tablet Magazine, quoted me after the Pakistan Election Committee in 2013 claimed that there were around 800 Jewish voters in the country.
It is interesting to ponder whether there are indeed 800 persons of Jewish origin still living in Pakistan today, or whether the number is simply a figment of someone’s imagination. It is known that the descendants of the beautiful dancer Lilly Solomon, who converted to Islam and died some years back, reside in Karachi.
After the publication of the ISN article, Muslims wrote to me saying they were missing their old Jewish friends, or asking if I could locate neighbours, for whom they yearned. Jews and Muslims alike wrote to the blog Point of No Return: Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries. As of writing (October 2015), there are 31 comments on the Jews of Pakistan on that blog.
One Jewish reaction came from a young student, Yifat Yaacov, a student at the Hebrew University. I asked to meet her. She knew little about her heritage, but was interested in picking up the pieces. In the blog, she wrote that her great-grandmother Rachael was Jewish; her father was from the Bene Israel community and employed as a jailor in Karachi.
Extraordinary developments followed. In December 2012, journalist Bilal Lakhani reported in Asia Society blog that a group of Karachi students staged a play entitled The Lost Jews of Karachi at the Alliance Francaise in Karachi. (See here.)
The script revolves around two sisters who are parted when one departs for Israel and the other misses the train and remains in Karachi.
In 2013, Fishel Bhenkhald, born in 1987, launched a campaign to restore the derelict Karachi Jewish cemetery. His maternal grandmother was an Iranian Jew and, although he was brought up as a Muslim, fearlessly he now decides to claim his Jewish roots against all odds.
And then, as of July 2015, there is a post on the Point of No Return website, Do you Know Pat from Pakistan? Pat Massey was the daughter of a Baghdadi Jew, who later married a British soldier. Pat’s family took in Alice, now 86 and living in Canada, after she had escaped the Holocaust in Austria and had arrived destitute in Karachi. Alice is still looking for her childhood friend.
Finally, in my opinion, the most amazing follow-up from the original article on The History and Disappearance of the Jewish Presence in Pakistan was the telephone call I received from Voice of America in Karachi. Hearing the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer in Karachi in the background, I was asked if I would be willing to be interviewed on the Jews of Pakistan. The result is a four-part documentary on theJews of Pakistan: “Karachi Walay“. (The link is here.)
The series came out in Karachi in Urdu and has not yet been translated into English. The documentary shows me with no censorship whatsoever being interviewed at my office against a background of Hebrew files at the RIFIE Institute at the Hebrew University (see particularly 04:33 and on in. (See the docu here.)
This is not the end of the story as more Muslims in Pakistan are beginning to identify as Jews. Recently, Muhammad (surname withheld for obvious reasons) wrote to me an email telling me his family’s history and stating: “We are Jews at heart”.
[i] S. Weil, 2011 ‘What Happened to Pakistan’s Jews?’,Journal for the Study of Antisemitism 3(3): 701-703.
Dr. Shalva Weil is Senior Researcher at the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has published over 60 scientific articles on the history, religion and culture of the Jews of India. She edited India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life Cycle (Mumbai, Marg Publications, first published in 2002; 3rd ed. 2009), co-edited with Nathan Katz, Ranabir Chakravarti, Braj M. Sinha, Indo-Judaic Studies in the Twenty-First Century: A Perspective from the Margin (New York: Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2007), and co-edited with David Shulman, Karmic Passages: Israeli Scholarship on India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008).
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