A passage to Pakistan

people carry flags and signs during a Freedom March rally on October 6 against  (photo credit: REUTERS)
people carry flags and signs during a Freedom March rally on October 6 against
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The road snakes its way through the silvery white, snow-kissed landscape. The crisp misty air fogs up the car’s windows as our driver presses on past a donkey standing in the middle of the mud-dried mountain pass. Somewhere a dog barks and a car horn honks.
Kashmir – a name that for centuries evoked a special kind of mysticism is cloaked in a simple beauty. It is a place that would be lost in time and geography had the modern world not stumbled upon on it and torn it apart. In the shadows that lurk in the eyes of those who call this home are the wounds that betray its most recent history.
In the past three decades some 70,000 people have been killed here. Thousands are missing. Hundreds more have been blinded by pellet guns. And for almost three months seven million have been trapped in an unprecedented security lockdown.
The day’s first sunrays cast long silhouettes as we slowly descend into the valley wedged between India, Pakistan and China.
For generations, communities of different religions lived peacefully in Kashmir. But the decision in 1947 to divide British-ruled India into two separate states unleashed a bloodbath that left a million people dead. The poison continues to this day.
Lord Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who had never set foot in the area, was given five months to draw the new borders. Using maps, he placed those areas with the majority of Muslims in the newly formed Pakistan, and those with mostly Hindus in India. “It was impossible to undertake the field survey in June because of the heat,” he admitted, and noted that politically, “if aspirations of some people had not been fulfilled, the fault must be found in political arrangements with which I am not concerned.”
As for Kashmir, he’d never even heard of it!
The Radcliffe line was revealed the day before independence, and scenes of celebration were soon replaced with fear and confusion as millions of people woke up on the wrong side of the border. The United Nations failed miserably to keep the peace. A 1949 UN-backed ceasefire split Kashmir into two zones: one controlled by Pakistan and one by India. A referendum in which the locals would decide their future has still to happen.
As I walk around Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, I’m reminded that there is another community Radcliffe never even noticed. As many as 350 towns and villages in Kashmir bear a resemblance to the names of places in the Holy Land, like Pishgah (Mount Pisgah), Bandpoor (similar to Beth Peor), Naboo Hill (similar to Mount Nebo) and Mamre (similar to Mamre).
It lends credence to the belief among many scholars that Kashmiris descend from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel who were exiled in 722 BCE. While solid evidence has still to be unearthed, it is feasible that the ancient Israelites wandered along the historic Silk Road until they settled in this area. Some of the tribes’ names are Asheriya (Asher), Dand (Dan), Gadha (Gad), Lavi (Levi), Abri (meaning “Hebrew”) and Kahana (meaning “Jewish priest”).
Kashmiris believe their valley is the Promised Land, and that 40 years of wandering in the desert covered the ground from Asia to Kashmir. Their Urdu language includes many words of Hebrew, and the name “Israel” is very common among them.
A famous 11th-century Persian Muslim scholar, Al-Biruni, was the first to record this connection. “In the past, permission to enter Kashmir was given only to Jews,” he wrote.
Travelers in later centuries remarked that locals could trace their ancestry to the ancient Israelites, and that they shared similar facial features with Jews including fair skin, prominent noses and head shapes.
Although most Kashmiris today are Muslims, they are sympathetic toward Israel and Jews.
Alex Stein, a British-born Israeli tour guide who traveled to India-controlled Kashmir eight years ago, is still in contact with the family he had lived with. He believes there’s a lot in common between the sides, and was inspired to set up informal meetings between Jews and Kashmiris.
“Every few months someone reaches out to me and I put people in contact with each other,” he notes. “When I traveled to Kashmir, I was very open about my identity. Aside from one or two places in the old city of Srinagar, I didn’t feel particularly unsafe. Until recently, lots of Israelis would visit there and all the signs were in Hebrew. But today there are a lot more Wahhabis in the area.”
To deal with the growing unrest, New Delhi sent reinforcements in early August to beef up the 700 000 troops already stationed in India-controlled Kashmir. It also imposed a curfew, shut down telecommunications and Internet, and arrested political leaders.
“I’ve been in fairly frequent contact with the locals I know,” says Stein. “But now I’ve been trying to get a hold of them for weeks through WhatsApp and a landline and I cannot get through!”
Stein’s concern is echoed by the families I meet living on the Pakistani side near the line-of-control that separates the two countries. Iram Tahir, 45, wipes the tears from her eyes as she pages through a faded family photo album. Since the Indian offensive began she has not been able to get in touch with her aunts and uncles who live on the other side.
“Our hearts are bleeding,” she murmurs while rocking herself forward and backward for comfort. “We are dying to know their condition. We can sense something isn’t right!”
Like others who live at the foot of the Himalayas, Tahir fears that New Delhi is trying to alter the demographics of Kashmir before allowing the UN-sanctioned referendum to go ahead. In contravention of the Indian constitution, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently ruled that outsiders can buy property in the area. Unsurprisingly, it has evoked parallels with Israeli settlement building in the West Bank.
“I think they’re planning to build Hindu settlements with high walls and checkpoints all over Kashmir,” local tour guide Farhan Khan tells me. “Why else would Prime Minister Modi be doing these things? Kashmir is the only territory in India with a Muslim majority. He wants the Muslim areas here slowly to become isolated and cut off from one another. In that way he can expand Hindu control. It’s the same thing the Israelis are doing in the Palestinian lands.”
It’s not a new hypothesis. Islamabad has long sought to draw an analogy between Kashmir and the Palestinian conflict, arguing that both peoples share the same struggle for self-determination against colonial occupation, whether it be India or Israel.
Adding credence to the argument is the well-known fact that Indian soldiers receive counter-terrorism and urban warfare training from the Israel Defense Forces, and also regularly employ Israeli technology in Kashmir. It should come as no surprise then that when New Delhi made its recent moves in Kashmir, the Pakistani media was quick to report it was acting on “Israel’s advice.”
But the Israeli assistance is also something Islamabad could benefit from. The Arab world’s refusal to openly back Pakistan’s position on Kashmir while at the same time enhancing relations with India (and in the case of Saudi Arabia, with Israel) has prompted many in the Pakistani security community to speak about the advantages of recognizing the Jewish State. It would also earn Islamabad brownie points in the United States.
But when rumors circulated at the beginning of September that Pakistan was getting ready to recognize Israel, the army was quick to reject the claim as part of a propaganda war against its armed forces. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan insisted there would be no recognition until there was a homeland for the Palestinians. Nonetheless it suggests a debate, albeit quiet, taking place below the surface. Pakistani and Israeli officials have for years met informally.
“Imran Khan wants to make peace with Israel. He knows that Israel can help Pakistan with agriculture, electricity and water but things are complicated,” says Emanuel Matat, a Pakistani Jew living in Israel.
BORN IN Karachi, the first capital of the newly founded Pakistan, 57-year-old Matat immigrated to Israel three decades ago. He and his 10 siblings are the only Jews he knows of who were born in Pakistan. The others came mostly from India. By 1972 there were 500 Jewish families in the city and an offer was made by an American sponsor to provide those who wanted to sail to the United States with free passage. Aside from the Matat family and a handful of elderly Jews, the community left en masse.
“My father, Rehamim, was a big businessman and he didn’t want to leave, he liked Pakistan a lot,” recalls Matat.
“His father, my grandfather, was a rabbi from Afghanistan and he taught my father to be a shochet [ritual slaughterer]. We were more kosher in Pakistan than we are today in Israel. My father and mother used to catch chickens every day and once a month, we’d have lamb and once in three months, beef. We didn’t know how to read Hebrew – we only knew by heart what my father used to pray. He knew the Torah and the tefillin from memory. He had three sefer torahs, which I later brought here to my synagogue in Elad, an Orthodox community in Israel.”
The family was in the carpet industry and Jewish buyers from all over the world would order from them. Whenever they’d visit Karachi, they’d help make a minyan for synagogue prayer as usually there were not enough men to do so.
“Shabbat was very strict. On Friday afternoon my father would come home, have a shower and we’d go to the synagogue, minyan or no minyan. Every Saturday a man would come with a horse cart and we’d go again with the cart to synagogue. It would take half an hour to get there. Outside the synagogue there were many horse carts so we’d just take one to get home. We never told them where to take us – they knew – so in that way we didn’t break the Shabbat and we never paid them. The family would spend Shabbat together, playing games,  cards, shesh besh.” 
For the brit milah ceremonies, a mohel would come from Italy. Matza for Passover would be ordered from America. Jews would walk in the streets with a kippa. Once, when a local priest said on radio that Jews were non-believers, Matat’s mother, Rahel, went to the station and hit him with her slippers in anger. The station’s staff later came to the family’s house to apologize. The only thing missing from this idyllic Jewish world were Jewish women to marry when the time came.
“I would not have left Pakistan if it was not for my wife,” says Matat.
“She is Israeli and I came to Israel to meet her. I was 22 and she was 18. She didn’t know English, I didn’t know Hebrew, so we had problems in communicating. I took her back with me to Pakistan but after four years she came back to Israel. So afterwards I came here too.”
Slowly the rest of the family also left for Israel. Today there are no Jews in Karachi and as far as Matat knows, there are no Jewish communities elsewhere in Pakistan. Not even Karachi’s main synagogue, Magain Shalome, has survived. Built in 1893, it was destroyed in 1988 to make way for a shopping plaza. The Jewish cemetery is still there – but with no one to look after it. 
“We never heard about Jews in other parts of Pakistan aside from us. Everybody knew us well and if you’d go to the airport and say ‘I want to go see the Jews,’ the driver would bring you to our home. If there were other families we would’ve known. All the ambassadors at that time were Jewish – the UN, American, German – so for Shabbat they would come to us. All the architects in Karachi were Jews and there were also Jews high up in the government ministries.”
But this would change in the late 1990s with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Until then the society had been quite secular and even after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there was no antisemitism.
“The problems started when the fanatics came into the government. It was good for us that we’d left by then because otherwise we would have had difficulties. Pakistan is not an Arab country; it’s a Muslim country. It was not a religious country and the well-off people did not support the Islamic influence.”
Matat misses his country of birth and says if given the chance, he’d return to live there. For now he’s planning a trip back at the end of this year – the first time in decades he’ll be visiting Karachi. And while it’s not possible to travel to Pakistan on an Israeli passport, it is possible to travel to Israel on a Pakistani passport, so long as you’re a Jewish Pakistani and not Muslim.
THIS IS precisely what Fishel (formerly Faisel) Benkhald is campaigning to do. He has the somewhat unenviable title of being the only Jew today living in a country that is home to more than 200 million Muslims.
Benkhald, a 32-year-old engineer in Islamabad, believes his mother was from a religious Iranian Jewish family that later moved to Pakistan. She died when he was nine, so he was never able to talk to her as an adult. But he remembers her lighting Shabbat candles and preparing kosher food at home.
“I would always pray with my mom,” he smiles. “I remember her saying that we do it privately inside our house and I mustn’t share it with my friends. I believe every person has a hole in his or her heart that can only be filled with spirituality.”
As he got older, Benkhald turned to Judaism for that spirituality, later invoking a campaign to be listed as a Jew on his Pakistani passport. His subsequent request to be granted permission to travel to Israel was turned down three times by the authorities before he succeeded. Now, like all Pakistani passports, his states: “This passport is valid for all countries of the world except Israel.” A few pages later there’s his letter of permission to travel to the Jewish state.
“I am totally open about my Zionism. I believe in the legitimacy and the existence of the State of Israel,” he says.
“I tell people that the British created Pakistan and also Israel. They accept Pakistan so why not Israel? They don’t have a very clear answer on that. The problem today in Pakistan is not only anti-Semitic and anti-Israel feelings, but also anti-Christian and anti-Hindu. It is indoctrinated from the books that are taught in school and the mosques. They talk about the so-called ‘Hind-Jew.’”
Benkhald is hoping to change all that – and is now waiting for the Israeli authorities to grant him permission to visit Israel on his Pakistani passport. If his wish comes true – and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t – he plans to be in Jerusalem for Hanukkah. A somewhat fitting end – or first spark – to a community that has long since been forgotten.