Pakistan, one of the pillars of the global Islamic community, is probably the last place one would associate with Jewish culture. Since the formation of the state of Israel, Pakistan, in solidarity with most Arab and Islamic nations, has relentlessly savaged the Jewish state, rejecting its very existence. Indeed, in 1974, then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously declared: “To Jews as Jews we bear no malice; to Jews as Zionists, intoxicated with their militarism and reeking [of] technological arrogance, we refuse to be hospitable.”
But Jews once played a significant role in the affairs of Pakistan’s teeming economic capital, Karachi. A Pakistani scholar and activist named Gul Hasan Kalmatti recently delivered a presentation at the International Conference on Karachi where he spelled out some of the contributions made to the city by Jews, as well as by other minorities, including Goan Christians and Parsis (Zoroastrians originally from Iran), who once boasted sizable communities in the metropolis.
In a paper titled "Karachi Ke Yahudi” ("Jewish Karachi”), Kalmatti indicated that Jews arrived in Karachi from Maharashtra (now the state in western India that includes Mumbai) in the 19th century – when, of course, there was no Pakistan, as the British ruled over all of the Indian subcontinent.
The Jews built a synagogue called Magan Shalome on Karachi’s Ranchhor Lane in 1893. One of the principal forces behind the construction of the synagogue, Solomon David Omerdekar, also held some positions in local government. He even had a street named after him (which still exists today under that name). Kalmatti explained that in 1895, Omerdekar added a community hall to the synagogue in honor of his deceased wife, Shegulbai. By the end of World War II, the Omerdekar sons had built a Hebrew school at the site. Alas, in July 1988, long after the Jewish community in Pakistan had largely fled, the Magan Shalome synagogue was burned to the ground by Islamic zealots (in its place, arose a shopping center) under orders from military dictator Zia al-Haq.
Another prominent Karachi Jew, Moses Somake, was a famed architect, responsible for such buildings as the Flagstaff House (also called Quaid-e-Azam House, which now serves as a museum dedicated to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan), the Jafer Faddoo Dispensary (a famous hospital) and Edward House (a historic mansion). Somake also designed such historic Karachi edifices as Mules Mansion in Keamari, BVS Parsi High School and the Karachi Goan Association Hall. Somake died in London in 1947, just a few months prior to partition.
Another significant Karachi Jew, Abraham Reuben, was elected to the Karachi Municipal Corporation (city government) three times between 1919 and 1939, serving as the first Jewish councilor in the city. In 1927, Reuben established a school that still exists.
The Express Tribune newspaper reports that Karachi’s Jewish community largely came from the Bene Israel sect, who had settled in coastal cities of India in the early 19th century and who originated in the Middle East. These Jews primarily worked as tradesman, artisans and civil servants. The Jewish Virtual Library indicated that Jews in Karachi formed such organizations as the Young Man's Jewish Association and the Karachi Bene Israel Relief Fund, among others that served the local Jewish population. A book published in 1947 called "Malika-e-Mashriq" (Queen of the East) by Mehmooda Rizwiya discussed the Jewish community in Karachi. She said in a passage that the Jews were known as "bani (or Bene) Israel” (Children of Israel), and that most were working class, but also well-educated and comfortable.
Dawn, an English-language Pakistani daily, said there were fewer than 500 Jews in Karachi in 1901. By the time Pakistan was created through the partition of British India, the Jewish community numbered about 2,500. However, the formation of Pakistan roughly coincided with the creation of the Jewish state of Israel, prompting many Jews to migrate there as they felt increasingly unsafe in what was designated as a “Muslim state.” Twenty years later, at the time of 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Arab states, the majority of Karachi’s remaining Jewish population immigrated to Israel, as well as to India and the United Kingdom.
Reportedly, many Karachi Jews and their descendants now live in the Israeli town of Ramla, just south of Tel Aviv, as well as Lod and Beersheba. Many of the elderly members of these communities still speak Urdu (the national language of Pakistan) or even Marathi (the language that the Bene Israel adopted in western India centuries ago).
Kalmatti estimated that by 1968 only 250 Jews remained in Karachi. He also suggested that after the synagogue was destroyed in 1988, whatever few Jews were left in the city feared for their lives and pretended to be either Parsis or Christians. Kalmatti lamented that Karachi once stood for peacefulness, tolerance and diversity. Now, ironically as 99 percent of the people are Muslim, “we’re cutting each other’s throats,” referring to the city's chronic sectarian, ethnic and criminal violence.
Karachi is believed to have represented the heart of whatever Jewish community Pakistan (post-1947) ever had, while Quetta and Lahore also hosted a small number of Jews. Intriguingly, a Jewish settlement of a few hundred people also existed in the border city of Peshawar, in the far northwestern mountains of the country, including a synagogue (which still exists, although it is closed). However, it is unclear how many Jews, if any, still live in Karachi or Pakistan as a whole, more than 30 years after Zia al-Haq essentially transformed Pakistan into a theocratic state by introducing harsh laws based on Koranic teachings.
A commenter in Dawn calling himself Zulfeqar wrote: “Yes there were many Jews in Karachi, and I believe there are Jews still living in Karachi, not as Jews, may be as Parsis. I did my apprenticeship from Karachi Port Trust [a government agency that oversees the operations of the Port of Karachi]… at that time the chief mechanical and the assistant chief [mechanic] were both Jews by the name of ‘A.S. Benjamin,’ and there were other fitters who were Jews.”
JVL states that “there is no recognizable Jewish community left in the country,” but contradictorily adds that the “tiny Jewish community in Karachi maintains a low profile. … The increasing influence of extreme Islamists have further undermined the security of the Jewish community.” JVL further noted: “Some Jewish families do 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.” Hence, it is nearly impossible to ascertain conclusively how many Jews, if any, remain in Pakistan.
Shalva Weil, senior researcher at the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote that “rumors” persist in Pakistan that Jews still live in the country, some of whom are doctors and are “passing” for other religions and ethnicities. Sometime in 2005, the Jerusalem Post received an emailed letter to the editor from someone named "Ishaac Moosa (i.e. Isaac Moses) Akhir" who wrote: “I am a doctor at a local hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. 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.” "Akhir" even went on to declare that the Jews in Karachi were safe and that Pakistan was a tolerant nation. (However, the paper could not verify Akhir’s identity, location or account)
The Jewish Chronicle of London reported on Karachi’s Jews as recently as 2007, on the 60th anniversary of the founding of Pakistan. The Chronicle quoted one local Jew as saying of his community, “They like to keep quiet,” and also described the life of an elderly destitute woman named Rachel Joseph, who it said was the “sole surviving custodian” of the Karachi synagogue, despite its destruction 20 years prior.
Whether or not Jews still exist in Karachi, they have apparently not been forgotten. Late last year, the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi produced a play called “The Lost Jews of Karachi,” which told the story of two Jewish sisters living in Pakistan in the late 1950s – their father had just died and their mother immigrated to Israel. Interestingly, the play celebrated the once-diverse nature of Karachi and was widely praised by the audience.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.