Meeting the only Jew in Pakistan

  • 20190515_134130
Pakistan is the world’s sixth-most populous country. Out of nearly 215 million people, how many Jews would you guess live there?
by PAULA SLIER | Nov 21, 2019

One.

And he’s a Jew by choice.

He’s also very open about it, so much so that his Twitter handle reads, “Pakistani Jew fighting for Jewish and minority rights for equal citizen rights in Pakistan.”

Fishel Benkhald, formerly Faizel Khalid, is a 32-year-old engineer who lives in Islamabad. He’s currently assisting Pakistani food exporters to reach the international kosher market, and has plans to clean up the old Jewish cemetery in his hometown of Karachi.

While never a large community, most Pakistani Jews originally came from India. In an area which borders Pakistan named Yusmarg (Handwara), there still lives a group that to this day calls itself “B’nei Israel”, meaning children of Israel.

The largest Jewish community settled in the country’s former capital, Karachi, until the early 1970s when an offer was made by an American sponsor to finance their voyage to the United States. Aside from a handful who remained, the community left en masse.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Islamabad, Benkhald says he remembers his mother lighting Shabbat candles and preparing kosher food at home. He’s certain she was from a religious Iranian Jewish family who later moved to Karachi. She died when he was nine years old, so he was never able to corroborate his beliefs with her.

“I would always pray with my mom,” he reflects. “I remember her saying that we do it privately inside our home, and I mustn’t share it with my friends. After she died, I grew up quite far away from religion but as a teenager, I began to question things.”

Searching for answers, he turned to Judaism and Islam. His father was born and raised a Muslim, but lived his life as a secular, agnostic person.

“He was a lovely man with an open mind – a freethinker. He taught us to do good to people, plants and animals, and that they in turn would do good to us. I found that the holes in my heart were not like the moon in Islam, they were more like the Star of David. One of the things I especially liked about Judaism is that it didn’t advocate armed conflict. I felt more comfortable being a Jew.”

When he was 15 years old, Benkhald sought to make it official. He submitted a request to the ministry of interior asking to be listed as a Jew. Apostasy – the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief – is a crime in Pakistan, so it was a bold step to take. But Benkhald felt strongly and used the Pakistani constitution, which upholds freedom of religion, as his defence.

“I was asking for a very logical and ethical thing, but the negotiations were very, very difficult. I kept going back year after year to request it. In the beginning, the official asked me if I was trying to make trouble for Pakistan.”

But eventually they acquiesced.

“I don’t know why they changed their minds. It might just be that I finally got hold of the right person who wanted to listen with an open mind. I believe the decision to recognise me as a Jew was made at the highest levels of government. Obviously they want the international community to see that Pakistan is progressing.”

Then began his next battle, taking on the Islamabad government to grant him permission to travel to Israel on a Pakistani passport. The request was turned down three times before being approved. Like all Pakistani passports, his also states that “this passport is valid for all countries of the world except Israel”. A few pages later, there’s a letter of permission to travel to the Jewish state.

It’s now up to the Israeli government to agree, something Benkhald insists is a mere formality. Once that happens, he’s hoping to be in Jerusalem to celebrate Chanukah by the end of the year.

“There are Jews with Pakistani passports that have expired, living in Israel and other countries. They’ve contacted me and want to help, but they don’t want to come back to Pakistan. I understand. Sometimes they visit Pakistan on another passport to take care of their small properties and businesses here or just to enjoy the place, but their children and grandchildren aren’t ready to return to Pakistan, mainly because of economic reasons.”

It’s tough being the only Jew in Pakistan.

“I try to do the bare minimum. Shabbat is one of the things I try to keep. Most people are tolerant. It is the minority who are quite extreme and because they make so much noise, they’re often the only ones who are heard.”

It hasn’t been easy convincing Pakistanis of his decision to be a Jew and openly Zionist. As a result, he always takes precautions. Once he met a group of people who, after chatting for a while, beat him up badly. Ironically, it gave him the idea to take his fight online, and become even more public about it.

But Benkhald is not naïve, and is quick to admit that anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment are rife in the country.

“There is also a strong movement against Christians and Hindus. Sadly this is indoctrinated by the books that are taught in school and the speeches from the mosques. It also comes from television, where sometimes well-known people talk about the conniving Jews and the Hind-Jew. The Hind-Jew is taught to be against Muslims and Pakistan. They teach it without any proof.”

For a few months already, rumours have been circulating that Pakistan might recognise Israel. But Prime Minister Imran Khan was quick to refute them, saying that there will be no recognition without a resolution to the Palestinian struggle.

“I tell Pakistanis you accept the British Mandate of Pakistan and India but the British also mandated Israel, so why not accept that? They don’t have a clear answer. It’s funny because they accept the rights of Aborigines in Australia, the rights of Native Americans, and the indigenous rights of people in Pakistan, but when it comes to the Jews in the land of Israel, they totally reject it. Instead they believe all Jews should leave. I tell them Jews have a 3 000-year-old connection to the land, so what about that? They can’t answer.”

Still, Benkhald believes that Pakistan will eventually recognise the Jewish state because “Pakistan is dependent on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, and they’ve decided to move forward with Israel, so it’s only a matter of time before Pakistan follows suit.”

I ask him if his mother was alive today what she would make of all this.

He laughs. “She’d probably be proud but at the same time angry with me. Her biggest concern was her children. She’d worry how this would affect me and my brothers.”

His brothers have cut contact with him, and sued him for disgracing the family name.

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