Editor’s Notes: Because there are no Jews in Pakistan…

By David Horovitz September 12, 2008

A trailblazing visitor seeks to enlighten his people about ours

Sometimes, just sometimes, Israeli bureaucracy gets it right.

Earlier this month, a veteran Pakistani television journalist, Khalid Ansari, was filming in the United States for a rare and ambitious project – a major documentary on the Jewish people – to be screened later this year on his country’s widely watched GEO TV network.

If you’re doing a serious program on the Jews, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center reasonably suggested to him, you really ought to go to the Jewish state for some of your footage and interviews.

And lo, it came to pass: Ansari promptly applied for a visa. And within a couple of days, Israel’s New York consulate contacted him to tell him that it had been granted.

Ansari this week thus became probably the first Pakistani journalist to report extensively from Israel for his highly significant home country – the world’s sixth most populous, the second largest Muslim nation (after Indonesia), bordered by India, China, Afghanistan and Iran, and with a nuclear arsenal estimated at anything from 40 to 100-plus warheads.

He interviewed various political leaders, officials and other notables, visited the Knesset, filmed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and absorbed a unique first-hand impression of our country for the benefit of his.

His brief stay here follows a limited, quiet warming of unofficial contacts in recent years under former president Pervez Musharraf, who three years ago shook hands with prime minister Ariel Sharon at a UN reception, organized a meeting in Turkey between his foreign minister and ours, and addressed a landmark dinner of the American Jewish Congress in the presence of Israel’s UN ambassador Dan Gillerman.

But Ansari’s Israeli sojourn is remarkable, nonetheless, and he seems to be quite a remarkable individual; Musharraf was prepared to converse only very briefly with this Israeli journalist at the AJCongress dinner in Manhattan, and his answer to my question about when Pakistan might formally establish contacts with Israel was firmly noncommittal. Reporter Ansari – dapper, immaculate, at once formal and amiable, and bristling with businesslike purpose – is positively blazing the trail.

The original idea for the Jewish people documentary, he told me in a kind of ‘mutual interview’ – he filmed me for his TV show; I asked him questions for this column – was his, a necessary response to a gaping lacuna: ‘The Jews are almost unknown in Pakistan,’ he said simply, ‘because there are no Jews in Pakistan.’

And the decision to take up Cooper’s suggestion and add Israel to the filming itinerary was also his and his alone. ‘I actually came here without the budget,’ he said lightly.

But of course his board had approved the Israel segment now? Well, he confessed with a little shrug, he hadn’t really discussed it with them yet.

ANSARI ASKED me open-minded questions – some apparently well-informed, some more naive, all earnest. The proof, of course, will be in the program.

He wanted to know about the freedom of the press in this country, and our capacity to criticize the government. Were all Israelis Zionists, he wondered? All right, leaving aside the non-Jewish minority, were all Jewish Israelis Zionists? Was it true that some ultra-Orthodox Jews believe the pre-messianic Jewish state to be a blasphemous entity? And yet they live here anyway, even as some of them publicly denounce you to your enemies, he marveled!

He asked me about Israeli achievement – the absorption of immigrants, the revival of Hebrew, scientific excellence, hi-tech innovation. Tell my viewers, he urged.

He wondered whether I was optimistic about the peace process, and told me I should be when I answered that I was not. He listened carefully when I argued that Israel, for all its military strength, feels both demographically and territorially threatened and is unlikely to sanction significant territorial compromise in the absence of a compelling sense that the Palestinians have genuinely internalized our right to sovereignty in this region as a Jewish state. He asked several questions about the ‘right of return’ and gave me as much time as I sought to try to explain why, in much the same way as Israel has built a thriving state by absorbing its refugees, the Palestinians would have to do the same, because Israel would not commit national suicide by taking them in.

I don’t think he was burning with strong objections to what I was saying, but if he was, he kept them to himself. Apparently, he had similar conversations with Deputy Foreign Minister Majallie Whbee and Knesset member Menahem Ben-Sasson (both of Kadima), listening more than he talked. He also met, among others, with law professor Amnon Rubinstein at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, and veteran Diaspora leader and Jerusalem Post columnist Isi Leibler (which is how he got to me).

He was not, Ansari told me with single-minded focus, meeting with Palestinians on this trip. Perhaps next time. This was a documentary about the Jews.

His working title is ‘The Children of Abraham.’ His intended message? ‘That peace and harmony must prevail.’

WHEN HIS camera was off and my notebook was out, he offered a robust defense of Islam, which he insisted is not an extreme religion. You kill, under Islam, only those who are trying to kill you, he said.

Through the centuries, Muslims and Jews had never slaughtered each other, he offered (with unfortunate inaccuracy as regards the former). The way he saw it, the trouble had really only started when Israel was established. And that was why he felt the reporter’s obligation to take the opportunity to come here, and try to understand us.

He didn’t blame Israel for the rise of terrorism in his country, however. That was America’s fault. America, which had asked Pakistan to help fight its wars – against communism in the ’50s and ’60s, and then over Afghanistan in the ’80s. America, which had armed its uneducated people. America, which had made a mess in Pakistan and never bothered to clean it up. America, which had ordered Pakistan’s leaders after 9/11 to send their army to the remote tribal areas, which had previously enjoyed independence, and provoked consequent ‘revenge’ attacks in Pakistan’s cities. America, which called Pakistan an ally even as it concluded nuclear deals with India. ‘America,’ he concluded, ‘needs to understand us better.’

When I told him about Israel’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, and our concerns, too, of what might become of neighboring Pakistan’s nukes if instability deepened in his country, he assured me gravely that Pakistan had never conceived of Israel as a nuclear target and told me a little hesitantly of reports back home that Israel might seek to strike at Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. He looked relieved when I waved away the notion.

But he waved away Israel’s anxieties, too, about extremism in his country and the prospect of those nukes falling into irresponsible hands. Asif Zardari, Pakistan’s new president, has a reputation both for corruption and psychiatric problems. Pakistan has already produced the world’s leading rogue nuclear sales entrepreneur in A.Q. Khan. Meanwhile, al-Qaida in Pakistan is reportedly making notable gains in its battle against the government.

But Ansari insisted that ‘you don’t need to worry. Believe me, I have sometimes been very critical of the army in Pakistan if it intervenes in politics.’ But, he said, he had no such criticism when it came to the army’s control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. ‘They’re in the safest hands.’

And with that, the Jewish state’s unexpected journalistic visitor was on his way – heading home to a country born a few short months before ours was revived; home to the very city, Karachi, where journalist Daniel Pearl was beheaded six and half years ago for the sin of being Jewish; home to tell our people’s story to his people… because there are no Jews in Pakistan.

(BOX) A semi-secret community, even today?

A century ago, by most accounts, there were about 2,500 Jews living in Karachi, and another few hundred in Peshawar, served by synagogues and various communal organizations in both cities.

Most of them left, though – for Israel, India, the UK and elsewhere – amid a series of acts of violence that coincided with the establishment of Israel and subsequent Arab-Israel wars. These included an arson attack on Karachi’s Magen Shalom synagogue. That shul was demolished in the 1980s by property developers; its religious artifacts seem to have disappeared.

Two of Pakistan’s last known Jews, sisters Sara and Rachel Joseph, who lived in Karachi, are thought to have died in the past few years; a third woman, Rachel Joseph, a relative of the Karachi synagogue’s last custodian, was still alive in 2005 and would be about 90 today.

Occasionally, through the decades, however, reports have surfaced suggesting anything from a few individuals to a couple of hundred Jews may still be living in semi-secrecy in Pakistan. A census a few years ago, intriguingly, showed 10 government employees had identified themselves as Jews.

And three years ago, as president Pervez Musharraf was gently warming unofficial Pakistani ties to Israel, The Jerusalem Post wrote about one Ishaac Moosa Akhir, who had e-mailed our paper describing himself as ‘a doctor at a local hospital in Karachi,’ from a Sephardi Jewish background, who personally knew ‘approximately 10 Jewish families who have lived in Karachi for 200 years or so. Just last week was the bar mitzva of my son Dawod Akhir.’

Akhir asserted that while Pakistani tolerance meant this small community could openly practice Judaism if it so wished, the Jews had ‘chosen to live a life of anonymity… We prefer our own small world and, since we are happy and content, we never felt there was a need to express ourselves… We don’t want to let anyone make political use of us. We enjoy living in this simplicity and anonymity.’

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