The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is located in South Asia and is the sixth most populous nation. The historic Jewish community in Pakistan likely arrived from India, but today there are less than 200 Jews and only one self-declared Jew.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the largest city, Karachi, had about 2,500 Jews engaged as tradesmen, artisans, and civil servants. Their mother tongue was Marachi, indicating their Bene Israel origin. In 1893, the Jews of Karachi built the Magain Shalome Synagogue. In 1936, one of the leaders of the Jewish community, Abraham Reuben, became the first Jewish councilor on the city corporation.
Under British jurisdiction, the Jews in the area became known as Pakistan and were treated with tolerance. In the early twentieth century, a variety of associations existed to serve the Jewish community: the Young Man’s Jewish Association, founded in 1903, whose aim was to encourage sports as well as religious and social activities of the Bene Israel in Karachi; the Karachi Bene Israel Relief Fund, established to support poor Jews in Karachi; and the Karachi Jewish syndicate, formed in 1918, to provide homes to poor Jews at reasonable rents.
The Jews lived primarily in Karachi, but a small community served by two synagogues lived in Peshawar in the northwest frontier province.
The founding of an Islamic state immediately before the State of Israel was established created a rising feeling of insecurity within the Pakistani Jewish community. After Israel declared independence in 1948, the small Jewish community, which numbered approximately 3,000 Bene Yisrael Jews, became targets of violence. The synagogue in Karachi was set alight, and Jews were attacked. The plight of Jews became more precarious following disturbances and demonstrations directed against the Jews during the Arab-Israel wars in 1948, 1956, and 1967. The persecution of Jews resulted in large-scale emigration, mainly to India, but also to Israel and the United Kingdom. The small community in Peshawar ceased to exist, and the synagogues were closed.
Some Jews converted to Islam, such as the deputy head of Pakistan's mission to the UN in the 1950s, Mohammad Assad. Others kept a low profile.
By 1968, the number of Jews in Pakistan had decreased to 250, almost all of whom were concentrated in Karachi, where there was one synagogue, a welfare organization, and a recreational organization.
Pakistan maintained a hostile stance toward Zionism and Israel. In his address as chair of the Second Islamic Summit in 1974, Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto asserted: “To Jews as Jews we bear no malice; to Jews as Zionists, intoxicated with their militarism and reeking with technological arrogance, we refuse to be hospitable.”
Many influential political figures, including the military chief-of-staff, promoted the theory that the 1991 Gulf War was a “clear manifestation of the anti-Muslim forces at work at the behest of Israel and the Zionist lobby in the United States.” The leader of the main Islamist party, Jammat e-Islami, termed it the “war between the Jews, the worst enemy of Islam, and the Muslims.” The party has strong links with anti-government Islamist forces in Egypt and blames western lobbies, including Zionists, for attacks on religious parties and movements in all parts of the Muslim world.
In 1996 Pakistani officials continued to condemn the Middle East peace process and declared that Pakistan would not establish relations with Israel until Israel fully implemented UN resolutions.
The media in Pakistan have provided extensive coverage of the political and personal career of the cricket star Imran Khan. Since Khan’s marriage in 1996 to Jemima Goldsmith, daughter of a British industrialist and politician, Sir James Goldsmith, Khan was accused of acting as an agent of the “Jewish lobby.” Jemima Khan publicly denied that her parents were Jewish. An Egyptian newspaper distributed in Pakistan accused Khan of receiving large sums of money for his election campaign from the “Jewish lobby.” Following complaints from Khan, the newspaper’s deputy editor retracted the story and published an apology.
Since India established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, the Pakistani media have repeatedly referred to the “Zionist threat on our borders” and occasionally combine both anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. This is particularly common in the Islamist press and occurs in mainstream publications.
The tiny Jewish community in Karachi maintains a low profile. Despite the developments in the Middle East peace process, Pakistan’s hostility toward Israel and Zionism has not waned. The increasing influence of extreme Islamists has further undermined the security of the Jewish community.
Magen Shalome, built by Shalome Solomon Umerdekar and his son Gershone Solomon, Karachi’s last synagogue, was demolished in the 1980s to make way for a shopping plaza. Most Karachi Jews now live in Ramle, Israel, and built a synagogue they named Magen Shalome. Some Jewish families remain, but they prefer to pass themselves off as Parsis due to the intolerance for Jews in Muslim Pakistan. Their number is estimated to be around 200 persons.
Since 1979, Jews escaping persecution in other Arab lands, such as Iran, used a secret passage from the country through Pakistan to reach India, where Jews enjoy relative peace. The fundamentalist Iranian government, however, discovered and closed the passageway in 2000, halting the exodus of Jews to India via this route.
A citizen of Pakistan was allowed to register as Jewish in March 2017, for the first time since the 1980s. Then 29-year-old Fishel BenKhald was notified on March 28, 2017, that he would finally be allowed to change his official religious status in his National Database and Registration Authority profile from Muslim to Jewish. Fischel, born Faisal, grew up in a Jewish home in Karachi, Pakistan, and had been petitioning the government to let him legally change his religious status since 2014.
Khalid told Israel Hayom, “I don’t disclose my identity to 99% of the people with whom I interact. And when I wear a kippa, I hide it under a baseball cap. But in general, I’m not that concerned, as long as I’m not open about being Jewish.”
Out of Muslim solidarity with the Arab states, Pakistan did not establish any ties with Israel and frequently joined in anti-Israel moves in the United Nations and boycotts initiated by the Arab states. In recent years, the government has been angered by Israel’s burgeoning relationship with India.
The first sign of a thaw was in 2019 when Fishel BenKhald was permitted to visit Israel. That was an exception as Pakistani passports are labeled valid anywhere in the world, “except for Israel.”
In May 2022, BenKhald returned to Israel with 15 other Pakistanis, primarily Americans, who traveled on their U.S. passports. Israeli President Isaac Herzog said, “I must say, this was an amazing experience because we haven’t had a group of Pakistani leaders in Israel ever, on such scope,” Herzog said.
The Pakistani government and the public were furious after learning of the trip. One of the participants, Ahmed Quraishi, a talk show host, was fired when he returned home. Pakistan’s Senate also passed a resolution reiterating its support for the Palestinians and condemning Israel’s “illegal occupation.”
“The good news,” Quraishi said, is “we today have the first, robust and rich nationwide debate in Pakistan on establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. This is huge.”
Pakistani journalist Kunwar Khuldune Shahid noted that discussion of the trip “still betrays Islamist hyperbole and anti-Semitic hysteria,” but “even the hyper-nationalist internet fora in Pakistan have found space for arguments in favor of recognizing Israel.” He added that discussing ties with Israel was once taboo but is now “one of the top-level foreign policy deliberations in Pakistan’s corridors of power.”
Sources: Antisemitism and Xenophobia Today.
Ben Barber, “ Iranian Jews barely hanging on under hard-liners.” The Washington Times, (August 9, 2000).
“Pakistan,” Encyclopedia Judaica.
Email from Miriam Daniels, (June 1, 2005).
Kamal Siddiqi, “In Pakistan’s city of strife, 82-year-old fights for her community’s dead.” Indian Express, (December 17, 2000).
Patrick Belton, “Karachi’s forgotten Jews.“ The Jewish Chronicle, (August 17, 2007).
“Pakistan allows man to register as country’s first Jew in decades,” Times of Israel, (March 30, 2017).
Dean Shmuel Elmas, “‘I am a Pakistani Zionist,’ member of tiny Jewish community says in rare interview,” Israel Hayom, (September 22, 2020).
Hamza Azhar Salam, “A Pakistani Group Visited Israel. Then Pakistan Erupted,” Haaretz, (May 25, 2022).
@SenatePakistan, (May 30, 2022).
Daniel Estrin and Diaa Hadid, “A rare visit by Pakistanis to Israel has caused furor in Islamabad,” NPR, (June 2, 2022)
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, “Thanks to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan's Recognition of Israel Is Now Inevitable,” Haaretz, (Jun. 13, 2022).