[Islamabad]—Fishel Benkhald, supposedly the only officially recognized Jew in Pakistan, is on a mission. After he won a lengthy legal battle allowing him to convert from Islam to Judaism, he is urging Pakistani authorities to grant Muslims, as well as religious minorities in the predominately Muslim country, the right to participate in pilgrimages to Israel on Pakistani passports.
“I have appealed to the government of Pakistan to allow Pakistani Christians, Jews and Muslims the right to travel to Israel on pilgrimage,” Benkhald told The Media Line. He added that he is planning to meet with lawmakers about the matter.
Benkhald claims his father is a Muslim and his mother is Jewish. His parents met and married in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi. “My father was a secular Muslim. He never objected to my mother’s faith. However, she was also registered as a Muslim. In her heart, she was always a Jew and from her I learned everything I know about Judaism,” Benkhald said.
Born in 1987, the 31-year-old Benkhald was originally registered as a Muslim. However, after several months of bureaucratic struggle and paperwork, he succeeding in registering as a Jew last year.
In November of last year, Benkhald asked then-Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal permission to travel to Israel so he could participate in a pilgrimage. His email to the minister read: “I am requesting official permission to make religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Israel, on a Pakistani passport.” The Interior Ministry did not reply.
An official from the ministry told The Media Line it had not received Benkhald’s application, adding the “issue is sensitive and the ministry is unable to comment on it.”
Currently, citizens of the country cannot travel to Israel on Pakistani passports, which are valid for all countries in the world except for Israel. Pakistan and many other Muslim countries do not recognize the State of Israel.
“I am stuck in a real-life conundrum,” Benkhald told The Media Line. “As a practicing Jew, I want the freedom to perform my religious duties, a right granted to me and other minorities in the country by our constitution. However, the reality is that my Pakistani passport states ‘this passport is valid for all countries of the world, except Israel.’”
He explained that Pakistan’s constitution grants every citizen the right to practice their religion, including religious pilgrimages. “How, then, can the state justify prohibiting not only Jews, but also Pakistani Christians, Messianic Jews, and even Muslims from travelling to Israel? This contradictory sentence that appears on our passports is flawed and incompatible with our constitution. It’s time to challenge this archaic law,” he is quoted as saying in a Pakistani newspaper.
Benkhald also wants the Pakistani government to grant him special permission to travel to Israel so he can observe the Jewish holiday of Passover. “I want to observe the Passover Seder in Jerusalem next year in April. As the situation stands at the moment, I am unable to do so,” he wrote.
He reportedly has three brothers. One of them, a resident of Saudi Arabia, accused Benkhald of lying, saying he was “insane.” He added that his brother’s story was “a complete fabrication.”
“Our mother and her parents were born Muslims, and as I understand from Benkhald’s campaign, he sought the sympathy of the Jewish community so he could receive monetary benefits or asylum. He pretended that his life was in danger in Pakistan,” media reports quoted the brother as saying.
Various estimates suggest that there were between 1,000 to 2,500 Jews living in Karachi at the beginning of the 20th century. After the Partition of India in 1947—when British India was divided into two independent dominions, India and Pakistan—a process of Islamization began. It accelerated in the 1980s and resulted in many Jews either converting to Islam or fleeing the country.
Unofficial reports suggest there are currently about 745 undocumented Jewish families living in Pakistan, with the majority of them residing in Karachi. Many, however, are not open about their Jewish identity out of fear of reprisals from Muslims.
These undeclared Jews live in a city that displays few outward signs of their presence. For example, the Bani Israel Graveyard is the only Jewish cemetery in Karachi and is part of the larger Mewa Shah Graveyard—one of the oldest cemeteries in the city. Over the years, the Jewish cemetery’s area has been reduced.