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A Pakistani Jew Wants To Travel To Israel


When Fishel Benkhald was growing up in Pakistan, he was intrigued by his mother's traditions.

FISHEL BENKHALD: My earliest memory with my mom is that when she used to keep Shabbat, when she used to lit up the candle once a week and put her hands on her face. I used to do the same thing. And once I asked my mom that I want to live with my friends - and she said no, this is something which - we do it privately inside and you don't share it with your friends.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: His mother, he says, was Jewish, his father Muslim, but they weren't very religious. As he grew up, Benkhald searched for meaning in his life.

BENKHALD: And I believe that every person have a hole in his or her heart, which can only be filled with spirituality, so I started to feel that need to get in touch with God.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Judaism appealed to him, and as an adult he legally registered as a Jew in Pakistan, making him one of a very small minority in that country. I asked him why he made this choice even though it's brought him backlash from within his own family.

BENKHALD: I believe in freedom of religion. This is not a very easy subject to discuss in Pakistan because, as you know, this is an Islamic country, and I used to discuss with my family also, and they used to say that don't talk like this outside. For example, I used to discuss that if, as per the constitution, every religion is equal, and every Pakistani is equal, then why is it so that only non-Muslim can convert to Islam and it's not the other way around? So if under the constitution, if everyone is equal, then every religion's person should have the right to choose any of the religion of their choice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's been the reaction of the community? Have you faced difficulties in the wider Pakistani community because you have been so public about this?

BENKHALD: The good people are always in the majority, and they also support. But their support is soft support, and the the extremist-minded people - they are always in minority. They are few numbers, but they are so loud that they're able to make a heck of a noise. But in general, people do accept the fact that a person should have freedom of religion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are very few people who claim the Jewish religion in Pakistan. You know, many have left or they have converted. Who do you pray with? Who do you gather with?

BENKHALD: There's a news going around that 700 to 800 voters are registered as Jewish. That, I think, is not correct. Up until now I have only met with not more than 10 Jewish people in Karachi. And as far as practicing the religion, I do it privately and occasionally.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You wrote this past week that you wanted to be allowed to travel to Israel for Passover. You described it as a pilgrimage. Why is it important to you?

BENKHALD: The Pakistani Constitution states that every citizen have the equal right to profess religion. And the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah - he also said in his speeches that you are free to go to your mosque. You are free to go to your temples and churches, and et cetera and et cetera, so it is a right of every Jewish - or Jewish Pakistanis to have the freedom to make religious pilgrimage to their most holy site, which is Jerusalem in Israel. Ironically, I mean, the Pakistani passport says that, as you know, that this passport is valid for every country except Israel. So this is a - it's a paradox, it's a conundrum. In order to protest against it - I call myself a guerrillativist. It's a person who himself put themself in the situation to protest. People say that there are other ways around, but why should I? Why should I hide and do it under the darkness of the night? It's my right as per the constitution, so I will do it publicly, and I will do it loudly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Israel has been criticized, as you know, for how it deals with its own religious minorities, restricting the travel of Palestinians. And some have pointed out the similarities between Israel and Pakistan in that regard. What are your thoughts on that?

BENKHALD: Yes, Pakistan and Israel are twin sisters; both, being religious ideologically driven states, have inherited the goods and the bads of being a theocracy. But me, myself being a Pakistani - I'm responsible for Pakistan.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And if you can't go during Passover, for whatever reason, how will you celebrate? And are you raising your children to be Jewish?

BENKHALD: I am raising my children to be Jewish, yes. And mark my words, either Pakistani state allows me or not, I'm going to celebrate Passover next year in Jerusalem, Israel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fishel Benkhald from Karachi, Pakistan, thank you very much.

BENKHALD: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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