By Zeeba T Hashmi
November 13, 2015
With a general lack of recognition of religious identities, the minorities here suffer unchecked verbal and violent onslaught by the puritanical clergy. Such is the story of the Jews in Pakistan, a majority of whom had to go into exile or change their names to Muslim nomenclatures so as to protect themselves from widespread anti-Semitic sentiments here. We cannot ignore the fact that before the 1970s there generally was no anti-Semitic feelings towards the Jews of Pakistan. But thanks to Islamisation policies and the fervour against the Jews in the aftermath of the Israeli military conflict with Palestine in 1967, the state turned a blind eye to the elements that spearheaded campaigns against the Jewish population here. It was a time when the state could have intercepted the radicals’ aggressive anti-Semitism by separating political leanings from the Jewish identity.
What we know a little of the Jewish presence in Pakistan is through their synagogues, cemeteries and prayer halls present in Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore and Quetta. Before partition, Jews also had a presence in Hyderabad, Larkana, Mirpurkhas and Sukkur, and along the coastline from Goa to Gwader. They were represented by the All India Israeli League based in Karachi. There is also some documented proof and narrations of Jewish diasporas based in Israel and other countries that relate to the Jews who had come from the Bani Israel community in India, along with the arrival of Afghan Jews in a pre-partitioned India. At the time of partition of India, it is believed that there were about 1,000-1,500 Jews living in Pakistan but they left in a majority after Israel was created, with an exodus occurring in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Jews of Pakistan had been directly impacted by Pakistan’s foreign policy concerning its relations with the newly formed state of Israel in 1947. Initially, it was believed that since both the states of Pakistan and Israel had similarities in their inception, Pakistan would form relations with Israel. In this regard, the late Sir Zafarullah Khan, Pakistan’s first foreign minister, was approached by Chaim Weizmann, who later became the first president of the state of Israel, with the intention to seek an alliance. However, diplomatic relations could not be established after Zafarullah Khan cancelled his plan to meet him later in 1948. It created an anxious time for the Jews here who had recently suffered at the hands of religious zealots who ransacked their synagogues during migration riots. Pakistan could never ease ties with Israel since then, even though a few politicians had shown an inclination towards this. In 2012, former President Pervez Musharraf, in an interview with the Israeli press, stressed on the need to formalise ties with the state of Israel. However, the right wing and religious parties remained vehemently opposed to the idea.
Rachel Joseph, the last caretaker of the Jewish synagogue in Karachi, relates that there are about 10 Jewish families that are still living in the country while some unconfirmed reports state that there may be about 70 families living in the city. As per the voters’ list of 2013, there were about 809 Jewish registered voters who remain unrepresented. It is also believed that many Jews have taken up the Parsi faith (Zoroastrian) as their identity to avoid societal backlash.
A Jewish welfare body that goes by the name of Bani Israeli Trust shows signs of active participation in the affairs of the Jews here. In March last year, the trust filed a petition in the Sindh High Court to retrieve the land of its Shalom Megan Synagogue, which had been razed by General Ziaul Haq’s administration to make way for a shopping mall without taking due consideration of the need to preserve the cultural heritage that Karachi faintly represents today.
Today, the negative sentiments against Jews have been deeply engraved in society over the religious assumption of distrusting Jews as a whole. There are some Muslim scholars who believe that the particular Quranic verse stating that Jews and Christians are not to be trusted should be understood in the time frame when Jews and Christians were conspiring against the Prophet (PBUH) during the holy wars. The ensuing problem is that clerics in general have fixed their minds over the issue and remain constrained to the literal value of the Holy Quran, hence completely ignoring the historical and political perspectives in which the words of God were revealed. It is indeed verse 60:8 — Allah will bring love between the believers and those who are at enmity with them at present — that most clerics here conveniently ignore. To base the religion of Islam as the platform for peace, it is the responsibility of progressive and liberal scholars here to advocate respect for people of all religions. There is no other way than to convince people on religious terms to undo years of hard-line indoctrinations.
Despite the similarities between Muslims and Jews in religion and lifestyle, the hatred created between them has always been politically motivated. This is a retrogressive trend for society as negative attitudes hamper the economic, cultural and societal development that Pakistan, with minorities leaving the country at a rapid pace, cannot afford. The political views of the Jews are not the same the world over; hence it is wrong to jump to generalisations about them. Religious diversity is indeed important for Pakistan to leave an impact in the world and to earn respect through secular values, not just on the state level but also at the societal level. In order to achieve harmony, the state has the responsibility to propagate a sense of ownership and respect for all its citizens irrespective of their identities and religion. The Jewish citizens of Pakistan need their recognition and their dignity restored. A Jew should not be held responsible for what Israel adopts as its aggressive policies against Palestine. Unless we accept and appreciate the Jews in our own home country, we do not have any moral ground to stand up against the political and social apartheid of Arab Muslims endorsed by the Israeli state.
Zeeba T Hashmi is a freelance columnist