By Aamir Latif
Muslim-majority Pakistan is home to several religious minorities which --- to the surprise of many -- includes Jews.
But this tiny religious community of 200 members which are scattered throughout the country may be on the verge of disappearing.
The country’s Jewish community -- also known as Pakistan’s lost tribe – was thrust into the spotlight earlier this week when a Pakistani Jew was reportedly allowed to undertake a “religious journey” to Israel, a country Pakistan does not recognize due to its illegal occupation of Palestinian land.
Fishel Benkhald, 31, will be the first Pakistani citizen of Jewish faith to officially travel to Israel if he is granted a visa and other required facilities.
Although local media, quoting unnamed officials, have put the figure for the country’s Jewish community between 700 and 800, Fishel -- the only Pakistani who has publicly introduced himself as a Jew and has been very open on social media -- believes they number no more than a couple hundred.
The history of Jews in Pakistan -- home to over 200 million people -- dates back to the 19th century. Most Pakistani Jews belong to India’s Bene Israel community, while some had trickled in from neighboring Afghanistan.
“These figures [of 700-800] are old. This population might be until the 1980s. But now, we are not more than 200,” he said.
“Most of the Jews currently living in Pakistan belong to the first generation. The second and third generations have migrated in the last four to five decades.”
Even most of the senior Jews are dual nationals and shuttle between Pakistan and their second homes, according to Fishel.
“The senior generation still has feelings and affiliation with Pakistan. They regularly visit Pakistan, as they still have homes and other properties here. But when it comes to the second and third generations, they have permanently settled abroad and no longer have any links with this country,” said Fishel, who was registered as a Muslim at birth but got himself registered as a Jew with the National Database Registration Authority in 2016.
“I remained in touch with many Jews in Karachi until 2015 to launch joint efforts for the shrinking community and to protect the Jewish cemeteries. But they merely wished me well and prayed for me, as most of them were old,” he said. “Now, I have lost contact with them”.
Most of the local Jews reside in the capital, Islamabad, in addition to Karachi, Lahore and some other cities.
Karachi was once home to 1,000 to 1,500 Jews until the birth of Pakistan in 1947. But a majority of them migrated to Israel following the creation of the Zionist 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’s southern district in reaction to the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon at the hands of Israeli forces.
According to Arif Hassan, a leading architect and scholar, Jewish architects, especially Moses Somake (1875-1947), have designed a number of Karachi’s landmark buildings.
“You can find Jewish footprints in many parts of Karachi,” Hassan told Anadolu Agency.
Buildings like Mules Mansion, BVS Parsi High School, Khaliqdina Hall, Edward House and the famous Flagstaff House were all designed by Somake, he said.
Also, a few streets are still named after Jews. Solomon David street in Karachi’s Jubilee market area still reminds Karachiites about the “lost tribe”.
Abraham Reuben, a leading member of the local Jewish community, served three terms as Karachi’s mayor after elections in 1919, 1936 and 1939.
According to the official Bureau of Statistics, there were some 12 Jewish government employees in Pakistan in 2003, but the 2006 census of civil servants did not show even a single Jewish employee, suggesting they either left the service or changed their religion.
There had been a huge synagogue called Magen Shalom in the Ranchor Lines neighborhood of Karachi until 1988. A huge commercial building now stands at the site, similar to the fate of scores of other heritage sites that were occupied by land grabbers and later sold to real estate giants in the last four decades.
Another 19th century buff-colored stone building located near the Karachi Press Club was believed to have been used as a temporary place of worship by Karachi’s Jews until 1948.
There is also an old Jewish cemetery located in Karachi’s southern district which consists of nearly 300 graves dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Several foreigners still come to visit these graves every year. But they never disclose who they are. They just thank us for taking care of these graves and sometimes pay some amount for that,” Arif Suleman, a caretaker of the cemetery, which is part of Karachi’s sprawling Mewa Shah Muslim graveyard, told Anadolu Agency.
Fishel, the son of a Muslim father and Jewish mother, took to Twitter to thank the Pakistani government for allowing him to visit Jerusalem.
“I am very excited and waiting for things to be done as soon as possible,” Fishel, whose four brothers practice Islam, told Anadolu Agency, referring to the issuing of a visa and other travel requirements.
He revealed, however, that the matter is not as simple as it seems except for the government’s initial response.
“They [Foreign Ministry] haven’t told me anything definitive – whether I am traveling or not. First, the Foreign Ministry spokesman [Mohammad Faisal] himself encouraged me to share the news on social media. But now, there has been no further response from him or any other official regarding my trip and permission,” he added.
Faisal, while responding to a question during a weekly briefing at the Foreign Ministry, said: “On the question regarding Israel, our position on Israel remains unchanged.”
He later evaded repeated questions on the issue, saying: “I will reiterate yet again what I said earlier: On Israel, Pakistan’s position remains the same.”
Fishel says he does not feel threatened in Muslim Pakistan.
“My friends include Muslims, Christians and Hindus. We simply treat each other as friends. We crack jokes, sometimes argue and sometimes even verbally wrangle but always remain friends,” he said.
“Minor issues are everywhere. But by and large, I enjoy life here.”
But he acknowledged that most Pakistani Jews do not feel like him.
“They live secretly fearing that they may have to pay for what’s happening in the Middle East,” he said, referring to Israeli subjugation of Palestinian land, which is a sensitive issue in Pakistan.
“I believe that Pakistani society is progressing in terms of tolerating people belonging to other religions. This is a very positive sign,” he maintained.
*Islamuddin Sajid contributed to this story from Islamabad