By Jake Baum
For the Mitzpeh
On March 28, the Pakistani government notified Fishel Benkhald that he would be permitted to identify his religion on his government-issued identification as “Jewish.”
In any other civilized country, this event would be insignificant. But in Pakistan, a nation where over 96 percent of citizens officially identify as Muslim, Benkhald will be the first person to identify as a Jew on his ID card since the 1980s. Due to a plethora of anti-Semitic incidents during that decade throughout the country in response to escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most of the Jewish community moved out of the area.
But that’s not the full story. In 2013, before Benkhald was allowed to identify as Jewish, the Pakistani Election Commission reported that about 800 Jews had voted in the election that year. They had only indicated their religion on their voting record, however. It is dangerous to identify with a religion other than Islam in Pakistan, so these Jews had falsely listed their religion as Islam on their IDs. These IDs are used in an official capacity to identify oneself when applying to universities, obtaining a SIM card, renting a car or taking other official actions. Listing oneself as a Jew opens the door to persecution in any area which would require the use of an ID.
Benkhald made this brave choice after three years of back-and-forth, frustrating correspondence with the National Database and Registration Authority. In March, he finally received his updated identification card. Born to a Jewish mother and Muslim father, he grew up learning about Islam, but never identified with it. He lived with his mother for most of his life, and practiced his Jewish faith privately with her. While defection from Islam is heavily looked down upon by a large majority of the Pakistani public, Benkhald is not seen as a defector because he was always Jewish.
It’s possible that Benkhald’s recent actions could snowball. It seems these hundreds of Jews who identified themselves on election documents do not replicate their actions on their official identification cards out of inconvenience – not shame. Benkhald’s choice to list himself as Jewish on his ID should set a healthy precedent for the country, which is past the anti-Semitic hostility of the 1980s. In light of the newest Pakistani ambassador’s assurance that his government wished to strengthen the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, there is now a real opportunity to push the Pakistani government to enforce the freedom of religion clause in its constitution.
Hopefully, this registration is just the beginning. Now that the door is open for people to be Jewish in Pakistan again, this could potentially be a revival of the small, yet once-sizable, Pakistani Jewish community.
Will this be the spark that lights the fire of Jewish registration in the country? Only time will tell. But it’s a promising start.
Jake is a senior international business major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.