Pakistan today doesn’t strike one as a place that once served as home for a thriving Jewish community. But from the 19th century until the end of the 1960s, a small number of Jews lived in four main cities in the country: Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta and Lahore. The Jews of Pakistan don’t claim descent from one of the lost tribes of Israel. Most were from the Bene Israel community of India and moved to Pakistan for work during British rule of the country.
Before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, when the region was just a single country, Jews were treated with tolerance and equality; the community numbered more than 1,000 people, according to historian Shalva Weil. The largest Jewish community was in Karachi, which had a large synagogue. Peshawar was home to two small synagogues.
Karachi’s Magen Shalom synagogue was inaugurated in 1893. It was founded by a Bnei Israel immigrant from Bombay, Solomon David Umerdekar. The official name of the lane on which it was built was “Synagogue Street.”
In 1902, the community set up the “Young Man’s Jewish Association” and a “relief fund” to support poorer members of the community. In 1918, the “All India Israelite League” was convened in Karachi. The city became a focal point for Bene Israel life across India/Pakistan. In addition, a separate prayer hall, serving Afghan Jews residing in the city, was opened. (See our write up on the Jews of Afghanistan here.)
In 1941, a government census found that 1,199 Jews lived in Pakistan. (Other reports indicate it may have been as high as 2,500 in 1948.) But even before that, the community’s acceptance was so complete that a leader in the Jewish community, Abraham Reuben, became the first (and only) Jewish councilor on the Karachi Municipal Corporation. He was elected three times between 1919 and 1939.
That tolerance came to an end on August 15, 1947, when the Dominion of Pakistan was declared, signaling the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Now finding themselves living in an Islamic state, the Jews of the new Pakistan became fearful for their safety and began to flee, mostly for India. Jews from Lahore made their way to India by way of Karachi. At the same time, Muslims from India became refugees in Pakistan and began attacking Jewish sites.
The situation was further exacerbated when rioters attacked the main synagogue in Karachi after the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948. Jewish community members left for Canada, the U.K. and Israel. (In Israel they settled mainly in the town of Ramle, which also has a sizable Indian Jewish community). Most of the remaining Jews got out of Pakistan following the Six Day War in 1967; only 350 Jews were left in Karachi by 1968 and there is no record of Jews outside of Karachi after then. The synagogue’s original ark and bima (podium) were put into storage in Karachi; a Torah scroll case was taken to the U.S.
Pakistan’s leaders have fanned the flames of belligerence towards Israel over the years. In 1974, then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared, “To Jews as Jews we bear no malice. To Jews as Zionists…we refuse to be hospitable.”
On July 17, 1988, the Magen Shalom synagogue in Karachi was destroyed on the order of Pakistan’s president Mohammed Zia Ul-Haq in order to build a shopping mall.
A Jewish cemetery remains in Karachi. It has up to 400 graves, but is neglected and now part of the larger Cutchi Memon graveyard, which has a Muslim caretaker. (The last Jewish custodian died in 2006.) Pakistani journalist Akhtar Balouch visited the synagogue and has an extensive report with photos here. A California-based Pakistani journalist visited Karachi in 2011 and produced a video of his visit to the cemetery. Here’s another article.
Are there any Jews in Pakistan today?
Faisal Benkhald was born in Karachi in 1987 to a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. He has memories of his mother, who moved to Pakistan from neighboring Iran, baking challah on Friday afternoons and lighting Shabbat candles. Though registered at birth as a Muslim, he considers himself Jewish and is now fighting for state recognition of his chosen religion – an apostasy theoretically punishable by death. He now goes by the Yiddish first name “Fishel.” Here’s the full story.
In 2013, The News, Pakistan’s largest English-language publication, reported that, “there are around 800 Jewish voters registered in Pakistan, out of which 427 are women and 382 men.” Tablet Magazine suggested in response that “Karachi’s campaign managers needn’t polish their Hebrew just yet” and that the claim by Pakistan’s Election Commission” is “highly unlikely.”
A commentator in the English-language Pakistani newspaper Dawn wrote that he believes there are still “many Jews in Karachi” but that they are living “not as Jews…but as Parsis” (another minority group in Pakistan). The commentator adds, “I did my apprenticeship at the Karachi Port Trust. At that time, the chief mechanic and the assistant chief mechanic were both Jews by the name of A.S. Benjamin, and there were other fitters who were Jews.”
The Jewish Virtual Library estimates the number of Jews who pass themselves off as Parsis at around 200. “The tiny Jewish community in Karachi maintains a low profile [due to] the increasing influence of extreme Islam.”
In 2005, The Jerusalem Post received an email from someone named “Isaac Moses Akhir who wrote, “I am a doctor at a local hospital in Karachi. My family background is Sephardic Jewish and I know approximately 10 Jewish families who have lived in Karachi for 200 years or so. Just last week was the bar mitzvah of my son Dawod Akhir.” However, The Post could not verify anything further about Akhir’s identity, location or account.
The Jewish Chronicle of London reported that there were still Jews in Pakistan but in the words of one local, we “like to keep quiet.” An elderly woman named Rachel Joseph was identified as “the sole surviving custodian” of the Karachi synagogue. She was involved in a protracted legal battle between with the developers of the property where the synagogue once stood. When the synagogue was torn down for a commercial building, the first floor was supposed to be reserved as a place of worship, but it was replaced by residential apartments. Joseph won her case in 2007, but by that time, according to conflicting reports, she had either left Karachi and moved to London, or passed away.
In 2012, a student group in Karachi staged a short play called “The Lost Jews of Karachi.” Performed at the Alliance Francaise, the play tells the story of two Jewish sisters in Pakistan and their decision to leave the country they grew up in after the death of their father. The Pakistani Tribune has a review.
Mehmooda Rizwiya writes about the Jewish presence in Karachi in her book Queen of the East. She describes the cemetery, synagogue and laws of kosher slaughter by Jewish community members.
For a slightly different take on the Jews of Pakistan, this article in The Forward tells the story of the Selzer family, Polish Jews who had moved to Germany and, in 1933, fleeing the Nazis, chose to settle in Lahore, Pakistan rather than Palestine or the West. The Selzers set up a successful medical practice in Lahore. Helen Kahan, who was a child when her parents moved to Pakistan, has put together a presentation called “The Other Pakistan” and is currently “touring” in the U.S. Kahan tells how times were good for the family up until the Six Day War in 1967, when relations between Jews and Muslims had so soured that Kahan and her parents finally left for Israel.
Here’s the video of the visit to the Jewish cemetery: