Pakistani Jews and politics

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Naveed Aman Khan

HISTORY of Jews in Pakistan dates at least as far back as 1839, possibly as far as 1,500 to 2,000 years. There were about 1,000 Jews living in Karachi at the beginning of the 20th Century, mostly Bene Israel Jews from Maharashtra, India. A substantial community lived in Rawalpindi. A smaller community of Jews also lived in Peshawar. The Bene Israel Jews from Maharashtra were concentrated in Karachi. Today, the majority of Bene Israel Jews live in Israel, India, Canada and the United States, while modern day Pakistan continues to host a modest Jewish population. According to the National Database and Registration Authority, there are 745 registered Jewish families in Pakistan. A community of Jews fleeing persecution in Mashhad, Persia, settled in Rawalpindi in the Punjab in 1839. The elaborate early 20th century synagogue they built still stands on Nishtar Street in Rawalpindi’s Babu Mohallah neighbourhood, between the Bohra Mosque and a large and elaborate Victorian era church. According to the 1881 census, there were 153 Jews in Sindh. By 1947, there were about 1,500 Jews living in Sindh with the majority residing in Karachi. Most of these Jews were Bene Israel and they lived as tradesmen, artisans, poets, philosophers and civil servants.
In a paper titled “Karachi Ke Yahudi” (Karachi’s Jews), Gul Hasan Kalmatti indicates that Jews arrived in Karachi from Maharashtra in the 19th Century. A variety of Associations existed to serve the Jewish community in Pakistan, including Magain Shalome Synagogue built in 1893 near Ranchore Line, by Shalome Solomon Umerdekar and his son Gershone Solomon. Other accounts suggest that it was built by Solomon David, a surveyor for the Karachi Municipal Committee and his wife Sheeoolabai. The synagogue soon became the center of a small but vibrant Jewish community. A member of this Synagogue, Abraham Reuben, became a councilor in the Karachi City Corporation in 1936.Young Man’s Jewish Association founded in 1903 and whose aim was to encourage sports as well as religious and social activities of the Bene Israel in Karachi. Karachi Bene Israel Relief Fund was established to support poor Jews in Karachi. Karachi Jewish Syndicate was formed in 1918, whose aim was to provide homes to poor Jews at a reasonable rent.
Up to the time of the Partition of India, some 1300 Jews remained in Karachi, most of them Bene Israel Jews observing Sephardic Jewish rites. The first real exodus of Jewish refugees from British India to Bombay and other cities in India came just prior to the creation of Israel in 1948 when Jew hatred spread to Pakistan. When Israel came into being in 1948, many Jews migrated to Israel via India or to several Commonwealth countries, and after the Arab Israel war majority of them had left Karachi. By 1953, fewer than 500 Jews were reported to be in all of Pakistan. From 1971 to present Magain Shalome, the Bene Israel’s only synagogue in Karachi founded under the British Raj, was demolished in 1988 to make way for a shopping plaza with the order of the then President of Pakistan General Zia-ul-Haq shortly after the Bene Israel community in Israel petitioned for its maintenance and use as an historical or other community centre. In July 1988 the synagogue was burnt and brought down by religious zealots where today a building ‘Madiha Square’ stands. Dan Kiesel, a Jew of German origin, was employed as a physiotherapist by the Pakistan Cricket Board from 1995-1999. His appointment brought some controversy, as Pakistani politicians questioned the hiring of an Israeli Jew in the Senate of Pakistan.
The term “Yehudi” and its variants remains a word of serious derision when directed at a Bene Israel or anyone else as noted by Reverend John Wilson, one of the founders of University of Bombay. The Bene Israel’s prayers include intercessions on behalf of Her Majesty as in several Commonwealth countries. In general elections 2013, it was reported that 809 adult Jews were enrolled as voters. The number of Jewish women voters was 427 against 382 men in the community. By 2017, according to the Election Commission of Pakistan around 900 Jews were registered as voters in the country. Rachel Joseph, the last known Bene Israel Jew of Pakistan died and is buried in Karachi. Most of the Karachi Jews now live in Ramla, Israel, Mumbai, India and Toronto, Ontario, Canada with several spread throughout the United States of America and built a synagogue they named Magen Shalome after the Pakistani Synagogue in Ramla. Developments in the Middle East peace process led to the first high level meeting between Israeli and Pakistani Foreign Ministers. The Foreign Ministers of both countries met publicly for the first time in Istanbul, a diplomatic breakthrough brokered by Turkey. By then Khursheed Ahmad Kasuri was Foreign Minister of Pakistan.
Bene Israel maintain Sephardic Jewish rites as modified by several cross-cultural celebrations based on their current locations in the world. Many purport to speak about the state of antisemitism in Pakistan today and in her past. Antisemitism is in decline in Pakistan today. The massive demographic influx of Mohajirs from the Dominion of India upon independence and the creation of Israel and the consequent Arab Israeli conflict worsened Jew hatred as witnessed by the 1948 Muslim occupation and eventual destruction of Karachi’s Magane Shalom synagogue. Before the 1970s, generally there were no anti Semitic feelings towards the Jews of Pakistan. The shocking decapitation of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl is but one example of the types of anti Semitism in Pakistan and its neighbours to the West. The Jewish Bene Israel Graveyard remains in the larger Mewa Shah Graveyard in Karachi. In the present political context the question arises to whom Pakistani Jews will cast their votes in forthcoming general elections. The answer is very simple.
— The writer is political analyst based in Islamabad.

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