Pakistani seeks recognition as a Jew

Point of No Return readers will be familiar with Fishel Benkhald’s campaignto clean up the Karachi Jewish cemetery and restore the synagogue. Now Benkhald, who was born to a Jewish mother, is set to become a test case in Pakistan, a state which refuses to recognise Judaism as other than apostasy. Marc Goldberg interviewed Benkhald for The Times of Israel:

  His real name is Faisal Benkhald, though he
has recently adopted the Yiddish first name “Fishel.” He was born in
Karachi in 1987, the fourth of five children born to a Jewish mother and
a Muslim father. Though registered at birth as Muslim, he considers
himself Jewish and is now fighting for state recognition of his chosen
religion — an apostasy.

As
far as the Pakistani authorities are concerned, Fishel is still Faisal,
a Muslim. That’s what’s written on his documentation. But he wouldn’t
be the only Jewish Pakistani to have a Muslim identity card: The Jews of
Pakistan learned to disappear long ago. Some, like Fishel’s parents,
registered their children as Muslims to blend in, and all tried to hide. 

Except Fishel.

In a series of Twitter exchanges and emails in recent weeks, The Times of Israel explored Fishel’s unique story.

His earliest childhood memories include the
aroma of his mother’s challah, baking in the oven every Friday
afternoon. Before dusk he would watch her recite blessings over the
Shabbat candles.

“When she used to put her hands over her eyes
it felt so serene as if she has no worries of worldly life, reciting the
blessing welcoming the holy day. Her lovely eyes and smile looking at
me are engraved in my memory, I always prayed with her.”

Fishel, once known as 'Faisal,' was born to a Jewish mother and Muslim father in Pakistan. (courtesy)

Fishel, once known as ‘Faisal,’ was born to a Jewish mother and Muslim father in Pakistan.

He says his
mother would prepare only kosher food for him at home. She was born to
religious Jewish parents who moved to Pakistan from neighboring Iran. He
knows of his maternal grandparents only through the stories his mother
told him as a boy.

Fishel is all that remains of what was once a
small but thriving Jewish community. Estimated to have numbered about
2,500 people at the start of the 20th century, Pakistani Jewry consisted
mainly of migrants from Iraq ( the community was mainly B’nei Israel – ed). Following Israel’s War of Independence in
1948, the central synagogue in Karachi (demolished in 1988) became a
focal point for demonstrations against Israel. The majority of Jews left
Pakistan for India or Israel around this time.

Fishel’s family spent as much time abroad as
possible to escape from oppressive Pakistan. His father was a mechanical
engineer whose work ensured they spent long stints living in North
Africa. Both parents had died by his 13th birthday.

Once his parents passed away Fishel was sent
to live with an uncle, a period of time he is loath to talk about. He’s
estranged from two of his brothers and the other two have every
intention of ignoring their Jewishness.

Fishel is an anomaly in choosing to reclaim his mother’s heritage.

“After Rosh Hashanah in September 2009, I
remember just feeling sick of hearing the constant anti-Semitic
propaganda and conspiracy theories popping up from the Pakistani
government and media. They are constantly blaming everything wrong on an
imaginary Jewish/Israeli conspiracy. My political side outgrew my fear;
I felt less hesitant to claim my religion more publicly than I would
have before. I couldn’t be silent anymore about my Jewish roots,” says
Fishel.

As an adult Fishel chose the same path as his
father and became an engineer, also taking short-term positions abroad.
Anti-Semitism is the reason, he says, he spends as much time away from
his native Pakistan as he can. But he is about to complete a contract in
Tunisia, and is now preparing to go back to Pakistan.

Fishel's mother as a young girl. (courtesy)

Fishel’s mother as a young girl.

Fishel is not planning to reveal his chosen
religion to his neighbors and colleagues upon his return, but he is
certainly going back with a mission. He intends to enter the National
Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) and change his official
religious status from Muslim to Jew.

If NADRA permits him to do so (which he thinks is unlikely), he will be committing the crime of apostasy, punishable by death.

“It is
dangerous but I will go at least once to record my request to change the
status of my religion from Islam to Judaism so that their response can
be documented,” says Fishel.

In his quest to discover more about his Jewish
identity, Fishel contacted the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals in
New York City. He has been guided by the founder and director of the
institute, Rabbi Mark Angel, ever since. Fishel hopes together they can
unlock more of his heritage.

The Jewish graveyard in Karachi has become a haven for vandals and drugs, says Fishel. (courtesy)

The Jewish graveyard in Karachi has become a haven for vandals and drugs, says Fishel.

Speaking from New York, Angel tells The Times
of Israel
the kind of details he explained to Fishel would help him
prove he is halachically Jewish: “If his mother had siblings who
continued in their Jewishness, or if his mother’s mother/grandmother are
buried in a Jewish cemetery. I don’t think these are easy things for
him to find out, but I believe he’s trying his best,” says Angel.

Perhaps this is why Fishel is intending to
fulfill his dream of cleaning up the old Beni Israel Jewish graveyard in
Karachi. If one of the graves there belongs to a blood relative, he
will have a much better chance of persuading halachic authorities of his
Jewish roots.

Fishel insists, however, that the goal is wider than his own quest for family knowledge.

“My dream for the near future in Pakistan is
to gain some empathy from Pakistani Muslims for cleaning the Jewish
graves. Later I will try to harness it in getting support and help in
the legal process for a small synagogue in Pakistan. After getting that
little piece of paper in my hand stating that legally we are allowed to
have a synagogue, my dream will come true,” says Fishel.

Even from his temporary position in Tunisia,
Fishel has not been idle in pursuit of this goal. He has repeatedly
emailed and called Pakistan’s National Peace Council for interfaith harmony to gain permission to enter the cemetery, though so far with no reply.

Fishel has already snuck into the cemetery on
several previous occasions to document the state of the graves. Upon his
return he plans to step up his campaign to get the Pakistani government
to provide him with the access he needs to clean the Beni Israel
graveyard undisturbed.

The derelict Jewish graveyard is located
within Karachi’s larger Mewa Shah graveyard. According to Fishel, it has
fallen into a state of disrepair and is known as a hangout for drug
addicts and criminals.

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2 Comments

  • Thanks to my friend from India for sharing this. Here is another glimpse of a hidden Pakistani Jew: http://www.sadiashepard.com/tgff/about.html

    One day, when Sadia was thirteen, she made the discovery that Nana, her beloved maternal grandmother, was not a Muslim like the rest of her Pakistani family. Instead, she had begun her life as Rachel Jacobs, a member of a tiny Jewish community in India that believes it is descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel, shipwrecked in India over two thousand years ago.

    Reply

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

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forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.