VIEW: Where have Pakistan’s Jews gone? —Adil Najam
There was once a small but vibrant community of Jews in what is now Pakistan. Most of them left Pakistan decades ago in circumstances that were not comfortable for them and a matter of some shame for us
The front page of last Friday’s Jerusalem Post featured a boxed item headlined “Surprise! There are still Jews in Pakistan.”
The story in The Jerusalem Post was triggered by an email sent to the newspaper’s online edition in a Reader’s Response section by one Ishaac Moosa Akhir who introduced himself thus: “I am a doctor at a local hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. My family background is Sephardic Jewish and I know approximately 10 Jewish families who have lived in Karachi for 200 years or so. Just last week was the Bar Mitzvah of my son Dawod Akhir.”
I remember seeing the mail when it originally appeared middle of last week and wondering whether the writer was, in fact, who he claimed to be or an over-zealous Pakistani trying to make a point behind the Internet’s obscurity. The Jerusalem Post and the experts it interviewed seem to have harboured similar doubts, I think largely because of the tenor of the debate on that discussion board. Some Indian readers seemed bent on proving that Pakistanis are intrinsically anti-Semitic and over-enthusiastic Pakistanis trying to cleanse Pakistan’s international image by pontificating about the connections between Islam and Judaism. It was in this context that Mr Akhir wrote, “I must convey to the Israeli people that Pakistani society is in general very generous and my families have never had any problems here. We live in full freedom and enjoy excellent friendships with many people here in Karachi.” He went on, then, to add: “I have been to India as well, though I found Indian society to be less tolerant, highly emotional and more anti-Semitic. Pakistanis respect people of all faiths because it is a doctrine of their Sufi version of Islam, which is very different from Arab Wahhabism.”
Unlike the readers, The Jerusalem Post had Mr Akhir’s email address (they did not print it). It seems that they wrote back to him and he added some thoughts that were not in his original post. The newspaper reports that Akhir wrote about holding prayer services in his home for the Jews of Karachi and that “although he and his fellow Jews there could practice their religion openly if they wished to” they have chosen to live a life of anonymity. Mr Akhir is quoted as saying that “We prefer our own small world and, since we are happy and content, we never felt there was a need to express ourselves. ... We don’t want to let anyone make political use of us. We enjoy living in this simplicity and anonymity.” He goes on to say that he has no desire to leave Pakistan but would like to visit Israel.
Like the Jerusalem Post, I am still not sure whether this is in fact one of the few remaining members of the Pakistani Jewry. However, even if that is not so, it raises the very interesting question of where are the Pakistani Jews?
There isn’t much reliable information on the subject. The official census reports that 0.07 percent of the population is of ‘other’ religions but does not say how many, if any, are Jews. Various Jewish websites suggest that there were about 2,500 Jews living in Karachi at the beginning of the twentieth century and a few hundred lived in Peshawar. There were synagogues in both cities. Reportedly, the one in Peshawar still exists but is closed. The Magain Shalome Synagogue in Karachi was built in 1893 by Shalome Solomon Umerdekar and his son Gershone Solomon (other accounts suggest it was built by Solomon David, a surveyor for the Karachi Municipality, and his wife Sheeoolabai, although these may be different names for the same people). It soon became the centre of a vibrant Jewish community, one of whose leaders, Abraham Reuben, became a city councillor in 1936. There were various Jewish social organisations, including the Young Men’s Jewish Association (founded 1903), the Karachi Bene Israel Relief Fund, and the Karachi Jewish Syndicate formed to provide affordable homes to poor Jews.
Some Jews migrated to India at the time of partition but reportedly some 2,000 remained, most of them Bene Yisrale Jews observing Sephardic rites. The first real exodus from Pakistan came soon after the creation of Israel, which triggered several incidents of violence against Jews in Pakistan including the burning of the Karachi synagogue. From then onwards most Pakistanis viewed all Jews through the lens of Arab-Israel politics. The wars of 1956 and 1967 only made life more difficult for Jews in Pakistan. The Karachi synagogue became the site of anti-Israel demonstrations, and the Paksitani Jews the subject of the wrath of mobs. Ayub Khan’s era saw the near disappearance of the Paksitani Jewry. The majority left the country, many for Israel but some for India or the United Kingdom. Reportedly, a couple of hundred remained in Karachi but out of concern for their safety many went ‘underground’, sometimes passing off as Parsees. According to a website on Jewish history, many of the Karachi Jews now live in Ramale and have built there a synagogue called Magain Shalome. Much of this was corroborated when I recently ran into a ‘Pakistani Jew’ (my term, not hers) now living in Massachusetts, USA. She told me that her father was a community and synagogue leader of the Karachi Jews. She herself had grown up in Karachi and studied at St Jospeph’s Girls School. Her family had moved to Israel during Ayub Khan’s era.
The Magain Shalome synagogue, in Karachi’s Rancore Lines area, became dormant in the 1960s and was demolished by property developers in the 1980s to make way for a commercial building. The last caretaker, a Muslim, reportedly rescued the religious artefacts (bima, ark, etc). It is not clear where he or those artefacts are now. However, thanks to the tenacity of Rachel Joseph the story of the Karachi synagogue is not yet over. In her late ‘80s, of frail health (hopefully still alive) and living in Karachi in a state of destitution, Ms Joseph is the surviving custodian of the Karachi synagogue and the Jewish graveyard in Mewa Shah suburb of Karachi, parts of which have now become a Cutchi Memon graveyard. Ms Joseph claims that the property developers had promised her and her now deceased brother (Ifraheem Joseph) that they would be given an apartment in the new building and space for a small synagogue. She feels that she was swindled and has been trying (unsuccessfully) to move a court to get what she was promised. In 2003, Kunwar Khalid Yunus from Karachi wrote a moving letter to daily Dawn pleading that she be helped.
What does all this tell us about Mr Akhir. Not much. But it does offer some lessons that we might want to heed as a nation. First, it tells us that there was once a small but vibrant community of Jews in what is now Pakistan and that most of this community left Pakistan many decades ago and in circumstances that were not comfortable for them and a matter of some shame for us. Second, it tells us that despite this mass exodus, a small number of Jews — maybe as many as a few hundred — still remain in Pakistan and are forced to lead a life of anonymity, even camouflage. Mr Akhir may well be who he claims to be. Even if he is not there are likely to be others who have been forced into anonymity for too long and who need to be brought back into the national folds. Whether we ever recognise Israel or not, we need to recognise and make peace with our own Jews (and other minorities). After General Musharraf is done dining with the American Jewry, maybe he should also break bread with the Paksitani Jews, including those who are now spread across the world, Paksitani no more.
Dr Adil Najam teaches international negotiation and diplomacy at The Flecther School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, USA