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A wandering Jew pulls away the veil over Pakistan – by Paul Rockower

Interior of Magain Shalome Synagogue Karachi

Editor’s note: We are pleased to cross-post this excellent article by Paul Rockower which he wrote for the Jerusalem Post.  Paul visited Pakistan in 2007 and wrote an article for the Jerusalem Post on Pakistan’s more cosmopolitan side.  Let us not forget that before Partition, Karachi was home to a vibrant Jewish community which was said to number over 2000 people.  This included Solomon David, a Karachi Municipal Corporation official who built the Magain Shalome Synagogue. 

We have posted a surviving photo of the synagogue’s interior.  The Magain Shalome Synagogue, which was at the corner of Jamila Street and Nishtar Road was sadly  demolished in the 1980s to make way for a shopping plaza.  This Taliban-style act of demolishing Pakistan’s Jewish heiritage has failed to erase the memories of one’s own and the Jews of Karachi will live on.

Paul is an editor of the Pakistan Israel Peace Forum (ttp:// ) which aims to build bridges and people to people contact between Israel and Pakistan. In principle, LUBP believes in building dialogue and bridges instead of violence and war. Therefore, we fully support the Pakistan-Israel Peace Forum’s mission statement, which states: “We believe in promoting dialogue and establishing relations between Pakistan and Israel , at the political, cultural, social, and economic levels.”


Pulling away the veil over Pakistan: Kite-flying, lattes and suicide bombers


With great apprehension, I crossed the border from India into Pakistan, and made my way into Lahore. I quickly realized my fears and worries were misplaced, and my preconceived notions of what Pakistan would be like were quickly dispelled. Pakistan was utterly iconoclastic.

I expected to find essentially a “Muslim India,” some combination of Saudi Arabia and India. Rather, most women were dressed either in Western style, or in a vivid display of colored and floral pattern veils and robes. While some were in black, eye-slits only veils, most guarded their modesty in a rainbow of colored ones that loosely covered their hair. Meanwhile, while some Pakistani men looked straight out of the Taliban, others looked straight out of a Pakistani GQ.

Lahore is an utterly cosmopolitan city, with all the trappings of Western life, including McDonald’s, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts and even a Pizzeria Uno. Lahore also has a very developed cafe culture, with locals sipping lattes all hours of the night.

“Fortune favors the bold,” as Jules Verne wrote in Around the World in 80 Days; this applied to my arrival in Lahore, as I came just in time for Basant, a huge spring kite-flying festival that Lahore celebrates with utter glee.

People fly kites, shoot fireworks and party royally. The night was aglow with lights and kites. Music was pulsating and people were dancing on rooftops across the city. Giant fireworks lit up the sky and raced across the purple horizon, and the crack-cracking of celebratory gunfire filled the air.

An Afghan introduced himself to me, and said he hated President Bush. I found similar attitudes among native Pakistanis. A cab driver named Tariq said, “I hate President Bush, but President Clinton was good. Maybe Clinton’s wife will be the next president, and things will be better between America and Pakistan.”

Next I visited Rawalpindi, the twin city of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. While I was there, Vice President Dick Cheney was in Islamabad for a meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharaf.

In the Western press, the meeting was characterized as Cheney pressuring Musharaf to do more in the war on terror. But every Pakistani I met said it was really related to Iran – US designs to attack it and demands for Pakistani support for such a strike.

Pakistanis I spoke with were uniformly critical of the war on terror and America’s invasion of Iraq. One questioned how America could have blundered so badly in Iraq as to turn Saddam Hussein into a symbolic martyr. Moreover, when it came to 9/11, I heard conspiracy after conspiracy theory even from the most educated of Pakistanis.

On a night train from Multan to Karachi, I shared my sleeper berth with a Pakistani couple. We spent the ride discussing the relationship between the Islamic world and the West. They expressed their frustration that the West seems to think that all Muslims are terrorists. “There are fanatics in Christianity and Judaism too, but it seems that the media only wants to portray Muslims as terrorists,” they said practically in unison.

The security situation in Pakistan was always looming in the background during my travels. As I was visiting Islamabad, two suicide bombers attacked the airport and a luxury hotel – far enough away from where I was wandering that I had no idea. I found out about the attacks the following day, noting also that four more suicide bombers in the cell were still on the loose.  Later in my travels, while I was visiting Multan and planning a day trip to another city, a bombing took place against an anti-corruption judge, and the police cordoned off the city, with no one allowed in or out.

With that said, the Pakistanis have an attitude that I would characterize as utterly Israeli when it comes to their security situation: they go about their daily lives and don’t bother dwelling on the insecurities that exist within their society.

When the issue of Israel came up, I heard many different viewpoints. A Pakistani named Jad asked, “What does Israel matter to Pakistan? Has either country ever fired a shot at the other?” Others were more focused on the Palestinian issue – not questioning Israel’s right to exist, but wanting to see the Palestinian issue resolved in a “just” manner.

I’m sure I could have found far more extreme opinions, but I spent a lot of time guarding my own identity and refraining from engaging in political discussions with people other than those I knew or with whom I felt more comfortable. The most ironic thing I heard from the Pakistanis is that they thought Israel to be a very dangerous country in which to live, based on what they saw on TV. I replied that there had been far more bombings in Pakistan during the two weeks I was there than in the last few months in Israel.

I found Pakistanis themselves critical of the situation in their own country. People said it seemed the only institution that really functioned was the army. Meanwhile, they spoke resignedly about the corruption that plagues their society.

Pakistan is a fascinating yet complicated place, filled with unbelievable hospitality and utter contradictions. The images we see of Pakistan are always of the little madrassas in the tribal areas, or anti-American/anti-Israel rallies, and never things like the Basant celebration or the cosmopolitan life of Lahore.

This wandering Jew had a fascinating two weeks there. And in a closing note, I would like to mention that my trip through Pakistan was conducted in honor and in the memory of Daniel Pearl, who will always remind me that “I am Jewish.”

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  • Please also note that the Jamila street was previously known as Patel street until it was Islamised later.

    It is sad indeed that the Jews of Pakistan were forced to leave and the Jewish heritage lost, but what can one say when the Basant the writer witnessed has also been banned and put on track to be lost for ever.

  • I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post, and commend the author on visiting Pakistan and writing this beautiful post.

    One’s identity is always a matter of pride, with values of tolerance, equality and respect for everyone, which clearly is the message of this post.

    Sometimes I wish that departing from rabid anti-Semitism, every Muslim majority country must create an Israel within their own boundaries where they invite their own indigenous Jews as well as foreigners to feel at home to practice their faith and culture without any fear of harassment and persecution.

  • Prospects for normalization of relations between Pakistan and Israel – by Paul Rockower

    About the author: Paul Rockower is a Visiting Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, and a journalist who writes about Jewish communities in far-flung places. His series “Tales of a Wandering Jew” was published in the Jerusalem Post and his articles have appeared in numerous Jewish newspapers. His journalism and traveling endeavors have taken him to nearly 45 countries. Paul previously served as Press Officer for the Consulate General of Israel of the Southwest, directing media and public diplomacy outreach across the five-state region. He was also a research assistant for Harvard University’s “Children of Abraham” project. Paul recently graduated with a Masters of Public Diplomacy from the University of Southern California.

    The present post is based on an extract from the chapter “Dancing in the Dark: Pulling the Veil off Israel-Pakistan Relations” which Paul wrote for a book Muslim Attitudes to Jews and Israel edited by Moshe Ma’oz.


    Following the beginnings of overt contact between Israel and Pakistan [in 2005], Pakistani civil society began reaching out to its Israeli counterpart in a variety of manners. Citizens of both countries began sounding off on internet chats about the prospects of relations between the two nations, and message boards were filled with notes back and forth between Israelis and Pakistanis about the practicability of relations. In the meantime, anecdotes of the behind-the-scenes clandestine links between Israel and Pakistan began slowly filtering out within Pakistan’s media, as pundits and governmental figures debated and discussed the previously closeted links. In a television interview, Foreign Minister Kasuri noted: “As far as this process of engagement (with Israel) is concerned…there had been back-channel contacts for decades and now a lot started appearing in the newspapers as well,” while mainstream newspapers ran stories on previous examples on secret contact.

    In response to the opening of contacts, an unofficial but sanctioned Pakistani delegation visited Israel in November 2005 to discuss bilateral political relations, trade and economic affairs. The delegation consisted of retired generals, bureaucrats, businessmen and religious leaders, and was led by Maulana Ajmal Qadri- the cleric who had previously visited Israel in 1997. Interestingly, Ajmal Qadri is chief of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam party, which is part of the MMA- the Islamist opposition bloc in Pakistan and had led the opposition to the Istanbul meeting. The group made stops in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and visited with top officials in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and Ajmal Qadri led the Friday prayer and delivered a sermon at the al-Aqsa mosque. Calling the visit “fruitful,” Ajmal Qadri reiterated that normalization with Israel would only come with the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

    In Pakistan and in America, groups emerged to further dialogue between Israel and Pakistan. In Pakistan, the Pakistan Democratic Party’s Central Committee member Ghulam Jillani formed the Pakistan-Israel Friendship Association (PIFA). With an office in Faisal Town, the organization was founded to promote relations between Pakistan and Israel.
    In addition, in Washington, DC, Israeli Dror Topf and Pakistani Waleed Ziad formed the Pakistan-Israel Peace Forum, a grass-roots organization designed to promote dialogue and the establishment of relations between Israel and Pakistan at political, cultural, social and economic levels . The organization’s online petition calling for relations and dialogue between the two countries has received nearly 500 signatures, and on its advisory committee sits a former Finance Minister of Pakistan, a current media advisor to the Prime Minister and an influential Pakistani rock musician of the popular band Junoon. As well, in the United Kingdom, the Pakistan-Israel Friendship Society (PIFS) was formed to promote dialogue between Israel and Pakistan. Currently with over 100 members from the political and intellectual classes, the PIFS has held debates and seminars about the issue of Pakistani-Israeli relations, and is set to launch its operations in Pakistan.

    Israeli-Pakistani cooperation took on a new element following the devastating earthquake that rocked Pakistan in October 9, 2005. In the aftermath of the quake that struck Pakistan’s the North-West Frontier Province and Azad Kashmir, both Israel and American Jewish organizations reached out to provide humanitarian aid to Pakistan. Although the aid was accepted via third-party sources and international relief agencies, it was a step in the right direction.
    That Pakistan didn’t erupt in riots at the sight of its foreign minister shaking hands with his Israeli counterpart, or at its president meeting with American Jewish groups or even Israel’s prime minister, is indeed a good sign, and the debate that ensued over the merits of recognition was surely positive. At the same time, it would be imprudent to underestimate the domestic public opinion in Pakistan that is hostile to Israel and intractably opposed to recognition. By way of examining public opinion, part of the research that was undertaken involved examining Pakistani student textbooks. The textbooks used by Pakistani students are indicative of Pakistan’s official political and religious outlooks, and Pakistani textbooks that deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict are a reflection of the long-held public sentiment towards Israel. In dealing with Israel, the textbooks have no balance regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict, lack a context for historical events and possess many inaccuracies and falsehoods. For example, on the creation of Israel, one textbook writes:

    When the danger of Nazism was over, the Jews demanded the right to flood into Palestine in huge numbers. Jewish terrorist gangs such as Irgun were formed and began a nonstop campaign of killing British troops. Boats crammed with illegal Jewish immigrants streamed towards the country despite the British navy’s efforts to stop them. Terrorism was so rampant that in 1947 Britain said that it was withdrawing from the area and that the United Nations must take over. Under strong Zionist pressure in New York, the United Nations divided Palestine into three parts.

    On the Six Day War, the same textbook states:

    Israel was beset by many economic problems: many Jews left the county because of the high unemployment rate. Whether to divert attention from this, or out of fear of the Russian threat [from its alliance to Egypt], Israel attacked Egypt in June 1967 without notice.

    In focusing on Pakistan’s role in the OIC, multiple textbooks note that the organization was formed following “the Zionists (Jews) setting the al-Aqsa mosque on fire,” which is factually incorrect as the fire was set by an Australian Christian named Michael Dennis Rohan. Another textbook relates to the Yom Kippur War as “Israel’s attack on Egypt and Syria.” Other Pakistani textbooks that touch on Pakistan’s foreign policy stress Pakistan’s opposition to Israel at every juncture. Some note that this opposition took place “even after [Israel’s] acceptance by the PLO in 1993.” Textbooks note Pakistan’s support for the Palestinians, Israel’s violation of Palestinian human rights and how the issue of Palestine has been a source of unrest for the Muslim world.

    However, at least one textbook written after President Musharraf brought up the question of recognition of Israel in 2003 takes a more open stance and reflects the growing openness of debate in Pakistan. It notes President Musharraf’s calls to have a debate on the question of recognizing Israel, Israel’s openness towards ties with Pakistan and that Israel does not consider Pakistan an enemy. It cites Foreign Minister Shalom’s statement that Israel would welcome ties with Pakistan. It also states that if the Roadmap between Israel and the Palestinians is implemented, then Pakistan will reassess its position towards recognition.

    The Islamiat textbooks that deal with Islamic history have a bit more nuance dealing with the subject of “Jews.” On more than one occasion, the Islamiat textbook mentions tolerance towards Jews and Christians living within the Muslim state. This sentiment is especially prevalent in regard to the Treaty of Medina agreed between the Prophet Muhammad and the Jews of Medina, which is mentioned in multiple Islamiat books and stresses the tolerance and freedom of worship granted toward the Jews by the Prophet Muhammad.

    Yet in other instances, the Jews are portrayed in an anti-Semitic fashion. Jews are portrayed as being greedy, cruel and deceitful; the Jews are noted as conspiring against Muslims, or termed “enemies of Islam,” while other chapters characterize Jews as double-crossing. As well, the Jews are accused of plotting to murder the Prophet Muhammad, and one chapter contains a passage that states, “The Jews continued to cherish evil designs against the Muslims up to the reign of the second Khalifa Hazrat Umar when they were asked to leave Syria. After that incident, the whole of Arabia was freed from the Jews.” Another chapter related to the Caliph Usman’s purchase of water well from a Jewish owner, the Jew is depicted as being greedy and cruel.

    The issue of recognition of Israel evokes passionate debate in Pakistan, with proponents of recognition painted as enemies of Pakistan and Islam and agents of Israel or India. For years, conspiracy theories of alleged of Jewish and Israeli against Pakistan and the Muslim world have circulated. As well, tales of a “Brahmin-Zionist” nexus that is conspiring against Pakistan have been rife in the Pakistani media for a long time, and only grown as Israel and India’s ties have increased.

    The culmination of decades of behind-the-scenes diplomacy between Israel and Pakistan offers an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the policy of duality. Given a private reality that stands in such stark contrast to public perception, it is hard to determine the interface between the public rhetoric and the private accommodations. Through this dichotomy, Pakistan has been able to further its foreign policy objectives and reach understandings through quietly adopting private positions that have stood in stark contrast to the public opinion. Behind the rhetoric, Pakistan has been able to pursue policies that have furthered its own interests through adopting tacit understanding with Israel.

    As the historical record shows, the lack of formal diplomatic relations has not prevented Israel and Pakistan from conducting contact, dialogue and meetings related to shared national interests. This covert yet open line of communications has led to understanding even in the sensitive realm of nuclear programs. Although Pakistan has not been ready to move forward toward recognition and normalization of relations, the moves by Pakistan’s leadership in Istanbul and New York helped show that even within Pakistani civil society, the question of recognition is not as taboo as previously believed.

    The big question that faces the prospect of Israeli-Pakistani normalization of relations today is not one of “if,” but rather “when.” Yet in wake of events such as the Second Lebanon War, fall of the Musharraf government and increased instability in Pakistan, as well as the ongoing political turmoil in Israel, the efforts for outreach have hit a lull. More recent events like the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008 and the Israeli offensive ”Cast Lead” in Gaza beginning in December 2008 have pushed the respective populations further apart on the desire for normalization and served to create more mistrust and misgivings. Given the multitude of issues facing Pakistan and Israel domestically, it will likely remain that neither side has enough political capital to push through with normalized relations, at least until more progress is made on the Palestinian issue.

    The long history of Israeli-Pakistani relations have shown that the two states are rather comfortable working together behind the scenes, but the next level of relations remain elusive because it is tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The resolution of the Palestinian issue remains the major elephant in the room for Pakistan and Israel to move forward. When Israel and the Palestinians move forward with robust peace negotiations, the Pakistani government gains cover to push forward with its own pursuit of normalization of ties. While the time might not presently be ripe for Pakistan and Israel to move to the next level of ties, the prospect of Israeli-Pakistani relations are not as far off as many in Israel and Pakistan may perceive. Gradual progress in the Palestinian issue will help Israel and Pakistan move forward in the quest for diplomatic relations, and the history of ties, contacts and cooperation will ultimately serve as the foundation for future relations when the time is right.

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    Posted on September 17, 2011 at 10:19 am in Original Article | RSS feed | Respond | Trackback URL | Edit this entry.

    Tags: Dialogue, Israel, Peace
    2 Comments to “Prospects for normalization of relations between Pakistan and Israel – by Paul Rockower”

    Rai Naveed
    September 17, 2011 at 7:08 pm
    I agree with the author. The normalization of relations between Israel and Pakistan is not a question of if but a a question of when. Long live peace!

    Muhammad Kareem
    September 17, 2011 at 7:12 pm
    Paul, you hit the nail on its head when you write that Gradual progress in the Palestinian issue will help Israel and Pakistan move forward in the quest for diplomatic relations.
    Resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict is a key to FULL normalization. Gradual progress to resolution will translate into a gradual progress to normalization.

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