Karachi’s forgotten Jews

As Pakistan marks its sixtieth birthday, 200 Jews still live secretly in Karachi, all that remains of a community numbering 2,500 at independence.

In this fervently Muslim country, most pass as Parsees. As one member of a Karachi Jewish family observes of his brethren: “They like to keep quiet.”

All except one. A destitute and frail woman of 88, Rachel Joseph is the sole surviving custodian of the community’s synagogue, even though it was destroyed almost 20 years ago. Magain Shalome once stood at the corner of Jamila Street and Nishtar Road. It was demolished in July 1988 by order of President Zia ul-Haq, to make way for a shopping plaza. Ms Joseph is suing the property developers who built it, saying they promised her space for another synagogue, and a flat to live in while she tended it. Meanwhile, she looks after the community’s graveyard, in the Mewa Shah neighbourhood. The shul was built in 1893 by Bene Israel from Maharashtra, who came to work in the civil service, on the railroads and pressing coconut oil, joined by Baghdadi Jews from Bombay.

Quetta, Lahore and Peshawar also had communities, but Karachi’s importance as a Jewish centre was such that the All-India Israelite League convened there in 1918.

But with Partition came pogroms, and Israeli independence in May 1948 saw the Karachi synagogue set on fire. Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto’s father, declared: “To Jews as Zionists, intoxicated with their militarism and reeking with technological arrogance, we refuse to be hospitable.”

“My grandfather went from door to door, from Jew to Jew, to tell them that they had to leave the town,” recounts Rachel Khafi, an American whose grandfather Benjamin Khafi organised the departure of Jews from Peshawar.

The numbers in Karachi halved during the Suez Crisis and again with the Six-Day War, though communal life would continue throughout the 1970s. Over 630 Karachi families now live in Ramla, Lod and Beersheba. Older members still speak Urdu or Marathi. “They are not the most integrated of all communities in Israel,” notes the Hebrew University’s Dr Shalva Weil, an expert on Jews of the subcontinent.

At first they faced discrimination; before 1964 and the recognition of Bene Israel as legitimately Jewish, they also faced difficulty in marrying. Meanwhile in Pakistan, Rachel Joseph, the last openly Jewish member of an extinguishing community, awaits her day in court.

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