Pakistan's 'last Jew' Fishel Benkhald complains of anti-Semitism

Fishel Benkhald tells DW he has faced immense social discrimination in Pakistan following his registration of Jewish faith, but he will continue to raise voice for the rights of religious minorities in the country.

Dubbed "Pakistan's last Jew," Fishel Benkhald, a resident of the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, was originally registered as a Muslim and was named Faisal Khalid. After several months of bureaucratic struggle and paperwork, he was finally recognized by the Islamic country's authorities as a Jew in March this year.

Fishel Benkhald, ein pakistanischer Jude lebt in Karachi

Benkhald: 'It is my religious right to visit the holy sites in Israel.'

Benkhald claims he was born to a Muslim father and a Jewish mother. The South Asian country's National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) usually does not entertain requests for changing religion on the basis of mother's faith. But the unprecedented decision by authorities to change his religion on the national identity card made the 29-year-old ecstatic. But since then he has been facing hostility in Pakistan, Benkhald told DW.

"When my landlord learnt about my Jewish identity, he asked me to vacate the apartment where I had been living for months," Benkhald said. "Obviously, he did not tell me why he took that decision, but I could sense it was because of my new religious status," he added.

Benkhald lives in Karachi's middle-class neighborhood, Korangi, and works in the mineral ore supply business.

Human Rights | 13.10.2016

"I rented another apartment in the same area because my children's school was in the vicinity. But I had to vacate that place as well, as the new landlord also learnt about my Jewish identity," Benkhald said.

Benkhald noted that his mother and father had met in Karachi and had a love marriage. He claims his maternal grandparents were Jews. "My father was a secular Muslim and he had no objection to my mother's faith. My mother never practiced Islam; however she was registered as a Muslim. In her heart, she was always a Jew. She taught me many things about Judaism."

Read more: Christian couple beaten to death in Pakistan for 'blasphemy'

Watch video
Now live
Watch video
TV | 01.03.2016

Christians living in fear in Pakistan

Disowned by society and relatives

According to Pakistani media reports, there are about 745 registered Jewish families living in Pakistan. At the time of Pakistan's independence from British rule in 1947, the number of Jews, as well as those of Christians and Hindus, was much higher. But the Islamization of the country, especially since the 1980s, forced the members of religious minorities to either convert to Islam or flee the country.

Islamic extremism has increased manifold in Pakistan in the past few years, and religious hardliners often fan anti-Semitic sentiment that is mostly aimed at Israel. Benkhald said he experiences anti-Semitism on a regular basis.

"The society's attitude toward me changed completely after I got myself registered as a Jew," Benkhald told DW.

Related Subjects

"Even my four brothers disowned me and declared me an apostate," he said.

In a report published on March 31 in Daily Pakistan newspaper, Mohammad Iqbal, who claims to be Benkhald's brother, said his brother's claim that their mother was a Jew was false.

"I'm his elder brother working in Saudi Arabia and would like to tell you that he [Benkhald] is… lying. Alhamdulillah [by god's grace], both our parents were Muslims…" Iqbal said.

Benkahlad says he understands why his relatives want to distance themselves from him. "Pakistan is a country where Ahmadis, Christians and Shiites are killed frequently on religious and sectarian grounds. There is immense hatred against the Jews in this country," he claimed, adding that he feared for his life under the present circumstances.

"If my brothers have the right to follow their father's religion, why can't I practice my mother's faith?" Benkhald questioned.

Read more:

Why is Pakistan against its Ahmadi community?

Asia Bibi's appeal against death penalty - A test case for Pakistan

Watch video 03:49
Now live
03:49 mins.
Web-videos | 21.04.2017

#JusticeForMashal: Speaking out against Pakistan’s blasphe...

But didn't he know he would face serious problems in Pakistan for publicly declaring himself a Jew?

"I knew I would face problems but I had made my decision. There was a spiritual void in my life, which I needed to fill. I studied both Judaism and Islam, and I was convinced that I could connect with god through Judaism," Benkhald explained.

When asked if the change of religion was a publicity stunt, Benkhald replied: "Who would risk life for the sake of popularity? I am also an activist and I also want to promote religious freedom in Pakistan."

Protection of Jews and Jewish heritage

The 29-year-old says he wants the international community to preserve Jewish heritage in Pakistan.

"In Karachi, there is still a Jewish cemetery, which is in a shambles. The government must protect and restore it. I appeal to the international community to help religious minorities in Pakistan gain complete religious freedom," Benkhald said.

Under British rule, the areas that comprise Pakistan today had a tiny minority of the Jewish people. They even had a synagogue in Karachi.

"There was a synagogue, which was demolished when the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq was at the helm. My children and I say our prayers at home. I know of many old Jewish families who do the same as we can't pray publicly," Benkhald said.

Read more: Pakistan's disappearing temples and churches

The Pakistani Jew also wants his country to have good relations with Israel. He wants to make a pilgrimage to the holy sites in Israel but the Pakistani government has no diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

"I want to travel to Israel on my Pakistani passport. It is my religious right to visit the holy sites in Israel," he stressed.

Society

Harsh penalties

In Pakistan, it is illegal to drink, eat or even smoke in public during Ramadan. You can be sent to jail, heavily fined, or may even be beaten by vigilantes. Earlier this month, the country's lawmakers introduced stricter penalties that could see people jailed for up to three months for a violation.

Society

'This is not Islam'

Bakhtawar Bhutto, the daughter of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was quick to condemn the latest amendment, dubbing the law "ridiculous." "Not everyone in Pakistan will be fasting - children in school, the elderly, people with medical issues - Should we arrest them for drinking water?" tweeted Bhutto. "People are going to die from heat stroke and dehydration with this ridiculous law."

Society

Obliged to fast

"A person who, according to the tenets of Islam, is under an obligation to fast shall not eat, drink or smoke in a public place during fasting hours in the month of Ramadan," says the Ehtiram-e-Ramadan (Respect for Ramadan) law, which was introduced by the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in 1981.

Society

Austerity and peity

Theologically, Ramadan is about austerity. It teaches Muslims to be pious, to stay away from evil, to fast during the day, and to donate money to the poor. "Zakat" (which means alms-giving in Arabic) is an Islamic tradition in which Muslims give part of their earnings to those in need, particularly during this holy month.

Society

Unbearably hot weather

The Islamic month of Ramadan coincides with sweltering temperatures in most Muslim-majority countries. In 2015, a brutal heat wave killed over 1,250 people in Pakistan - many of them died of dehydration while fasting. Even then, the government did not relax the 36-year-old law. Some clerics did, however, say it was permissible to break the Ramadan fast for health reasons.

Society

No respite

Nearly all restaurants are closed from fajr (dawn) until maghreb (dusk), and shopkeepers only sell takeaway food items. If you are hungry or thirsty the only place for you is home. At offices - both public and private - you are not allowed to eat.

Society

Rising religious extremism

With the war in Afghanistan and growth of Islamist organizations such as the Taliban in the region, things have taken a turn for the worse in the past few years. Religious extremism and intolerance are on the rise in the South Asian Islamic country. At the same time, Ramadan is also an opportunity for extremist and militant outfits to rake in cash through charity donations.

Society

Vigilantism

Incidents of religious vigilantism have spiked in the past few years, with fanatic mobs trying to enforce their own version of Shariah. A number of people have been lynched on unproven accusations of blasphemy. Observers say the existence of various Islamic laws has emboldened radicals to take matters into their own hands and dole out "justice" to what they deem un-Islamic. (shs)