A Pakistani Jew Steps Cautiously out of the Shadows

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Faisel-Benkhald-fishel-pakistaniNEW YORK/ISLAMABAD, March 1 — Karachi-born Faisal Benkhald is a Muslim by birth is seeking to change that status to embrace his mother’s Jewish faith. It is an apostasy theoretically punishable by death in Pakistan, but he says he wants to pursue his dream.

The young engineer has recently adopted the Yiddish first name “Fishel,” media reported. 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,” wrote The Times of Israel.

He isn’t the only Jewish Pakistani to have a Muslim identity card: Some, like Fishel’s parents, registered their children as Muslims to blend in.

Except Faisal aka Fishel.

In a series of Twitter exchanges and emails in recent weeks with the Israeli paper, Faisal discussed his 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.”

He says his mother would prepare only kosher (halal) 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.

Faisal is all that remains of what was once a small but thriving Jewish community in Karachi. Estimated to have numbered about 2,500 people at the time of partition, Pakistani Jewry consisted mainly of migrants from Iraq. Following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the central synagogue in the metropolis (demolished in 1988) became a focal point for demonstrations against Israel. The majority of Jews left Pakistan for India or Israel around this time. Quite a few of Karachi’s Jews now live in Ramale, Israel, according to one report.

Faisal’s family spent as much time abroad as possible. 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 Faisal 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 maintained their Muslim identity.

As an adult Faisal 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 his birthplace.

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, the paper wrote.

“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,” Fishel told the Israeli paper.

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

Rabbi Angel explained to Faisal that he was 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,” Rabbi Angel told Faisal.

Faisal intends to clean 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, the paper wrote.

According to Fishel, 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,” said Fishel.

Fishel in pursuit of this goal,  has repeatedly emailed and called Pakistan’s National Peace Council for interfaith harmony to gain permission to enter the cemetery. He hasn’t received any response yet, he said.

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.

As part of his quest to help clean the Jewish graves in Karachi, Fishel has taken to Twitter, where he goes by the handle @Jew_Pakistani. It is here that he is searching for help both from sources in Pakistan and the wider Jewish world.

Fishel says he hopes to make Pakistan more tolerant to Jews and promote Pakistani interaction with Israel. Although at first glance these goals might sound insurmountable, there is room for some optimism, said Oxford University expert on Pakistan Dr. Faisal Devji.

“Bizarrely for such an anti-Semitic society, Pakistani school textbooks routinely compare the country to Israel as the world’s only two states founded in the name of religion rather than monarchy, language, ethnicity, etc. So it’s weirdly possible to propagate a pro-Israeli stance there, and indeed there have been a number of public suggestions of recognizing Israel,” says Devji.

Faisal hopes to one day be able to take a trip to Israel, but to do so he’d have to negotiate the obstacle of his Pakistani passport, where it is written, “This passport is valid for all countries of the world except Israel.”  – MAMOSA Report

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