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Pakistan’s Jewish Ghosts

According to the state’s election commission, there are 800 registered Jewish voters. That’s bogus.

Liel Leibovitz
April 04, 2013
People gather at Seaview waterfront to celebrate Pakistan's Independence Day on August 14, 2011 in Karachi, Pakistan.(Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
People gather at Seaview waterfront to celebrate Pakistan's Independence Day on August 14, 2011 in Karachi, Pakistan.(Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

The News, Pakistan’s largest English-language publication, had some stirring political tidbits to share with its readers yesterday: “According to the Election Commission of Pakistan,” the newspaper reported, “there are around 800 Jewish voters registered in Pakistan out of which 427 are women and 382 men.”

Karachi’s campaign managers, however, needn’t polish their Hebrew just yet. Even if there are indeed as many Jews in Pakistan as the election commission claims—which is highly unlikely—the Islamic nation’s relations with its Jews is a long and grim story, one that begins with mere tolerance and ends, famously, horrifically, with the slaying of Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002.

According to a recent history by Hebrew University anthropologist Shalva Weil, as Pakistan slouched toward independence, it had a number of minuscule but thriving Jewish communities in Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta, and Lahore. Some of Pakistan’s Jews belonged to India’s Bene Israel community, others were brought on by the British to fill a host of administrative positions, and still others had trickled in from Afghanistan. By 1941, a government census recorded 1,199 Jews nationwide, sufficiently at home for one of them, a local leader named Abraham Reuben, to become the first Jew elected to Karachi’s city council.

All that soon changed. As India was partitioned in 1947, Mohajir, or Muslim refugees, filed into the newly minted Dominion of Pakistan, often ransacking Jewish synagogues and prayer halls on their way. Many of Pakistan’s Jews, in turn, fled in the opposite direction, settling in India. The following year, with Israel having declared its independence, things grew even tenser when rioters burnt down a Karachi synagogue to protest Harry Truman’s diplomatic recognition of the Jewish state. Wasting little time, Pakistan’s Jews soon began their exodus, scurrying to Israel and elsewhere.

But even if the disappearance of its Jewish population was of little concern to the Islamic republic, the existence of the Jewish state presented far thornier issues: It was difficult to look at the two nations—born within months of each other, each having bloomed, as one scholar put it, as a result of “a religion-based territorial division”—and not notice the striking similarities.

These commonalities encouraged many of Israel’s early leaders to pursue an alliance with Pakistan. In January of 1948, for example, Chaim Weizmann, soon to become Israel’s first president, corresponded with Sir Zafrulla Khan, Pakistan’s eloquent and charismatic foreign minister. “Our small state in Palestine,” Weizmann wrote, “shall soon have to follow you. Many problems will be common to both of us, and it is my earnest hope that it may be possible for us to deal with them together, and in cooperation, for the good of both of our peoples.” Khan was inclined to listen, even meeting with Weizmann in New York later that year. But his advocacy of embracing the Jewish state soon failed. Fashioning itself a champion of Muslims everywhere, and actively involved in supporting the Palestinian cause, Pakistan quickly sided with the Arabs in seeing Israel’s establishment as land theft pure and simple. Khan himself made that argument well, claiming that while Pakistani Muslims have only claimed the regions in which they were a clear majority, the Jews in Palestine did no such thing. “The United Nations,” he thundered, “cannot subscribe to the principle that a racial or religious minority, whether arising from national development or created as a result of immigration, can insist upon the breaking up of a homeland or shatter the political, geographical, and economic unity of a country without the consent and against the wishes of the majority.”

The same logic prevailed for decades to come, intensifying with the political ascent of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. “There were two issues he was strong on,” a friend of Bhutto’s once confessed, “the destiny of Pakistan and a fanatical hatred of Israel.” As host of the Second Islamic Summit Conference in Lahore in 1974, he made his opinions of the Jewish state clearly known: “Any agreement,” he stated, “any protocol, any understanding that postulates the continuance of Israeli occupation of the Holy City or the transfer of the City to any non-Muslim or non-Arab sovereignty will not be worth the paper it is written on.”

And yet, for all his vehemence, Bhutto also insisted that his grievance was with Israel, not with Jews as such. “To Jews as Jews, we bear no malice,” he said shortly after taking office as Pakistan’s prime minister. “To Jews as Zionists, intoxicated with their militarism and reeking with technological arrogance, we refuse to be hospitable.”

The difference between Jews as Jews and Jews as Zionists, however, was often blurred. With each new conflagration in the Arab-Israeli conflict came new waves of anti-Semitic violence. By the time the dust settled in the aftermath of the Six Day War, Weil had found, there were only 350 Jews left in the entire country, all of them in Karachi. Two decades later, in 1988, when President Zia Ul-Hak ordered the razing of the historic Magen Shalom synagogue in Karachi to make way to a shopping mall, there were no more than a handful of Jews present to object.

And with no Jews to witness firsthand, Pakistanis were free to nurture the darkest thoughts about their enemies. After he’d crashed into a parked vehicle and killed its driver four years ago, Nazir Ahmed, the Pakistani-born member of the British House of Lords, gave an interview to a Pakistani television station and, speaking in Urdu, blamed his incarceration on anything but his driving. “My case became more critical because I went to Gaza to support Palestinians,” he said. “My Jewish friends who own newspapers and TV channels opposed this.” He then argued that the judge in his case owed his appointment to a Jewish friend of Tony Blair’s. Ahmed has since apologized for his statements, but his opinions seem to be far from a rare occurrence among Pakistanis. Writing in the New Statesman last month, columnist Mehdi Hasan argued that anti-Semitism was commonplace among Pakistanis and British Muslims of Pakistani descent.

“The truth,” he wrote, “is that the virus of anti-Semitism has infected members of the British Muslim community, both young and old. No, the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict hasn’t helped matters. But this goes beyond the Middle East. How else to explain why British Pakistanis are so often the most ardent advocates of anti-Semitic conspiracies, even though there are so few Jews living in Pakistan?”

Meanwhile, some Pakistani politicians are arguing that normalization of relations with Israel was inevitable. Former President Pervez Musharraf, for example, last year became the first Pakistani official to give an interview to an Israeli newspaper, arguing that his nation had to “keep readjusting its diplomatic stand toward Israel based on the mere fact that it exists and is not going away.” Musharraf is most likely plotting his re-entry to Pakistani politics; too bad he won’t even have 800 Jewish voters in his corner.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.