By Akhtar Baloch
There are only remnants now which confirm that a small number of Jews did live in Karachi not so long ago. Until when they lived here, and the reasons why they left this multi-ethnic and multi-religious port city is the subject matter of this blog post.
The first trace of their presence is a Jewish cemetery in Mewa Shah Graveyard. The second is a sign of the Star of David on the Sofia Building in the Ranchhor Line. The year of construction inscribed on this building is 1941.
The speed at which the monumental and historic buildings built by the Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims of Karachi are being demolished, these two traces of Jews will soon disappear just like there is no trace of the Jewish mosque, which I will discuss shortly.
Jews Cemetery,Mewa Shah, Karachi
But first, let’s have a look at Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s speeches mentioning Jews in the political sphere of the subcontinent. It is mentioned in Volume IV of Quaid-e-Azam’s Speeches and Statements that on 23rd January 1946, he said that the Muslim League would support the Arabs in the Middle East in every possible way if the British turned away from the strategy of their White Paper on Palestine. When Jinnah was asked about a news item from the Akhbar Watan regarding the boycott of the Jewish products by Agra traders, he replied, “If this information is true, then the referred action is unintended. The sentiments of Muslims in India are intense in this regard. But the Muslim League has not taken any such decision formally at the party level”. In his response to a question concerning the nature of any such action, if it would ever be considered, he said, “The nature of any action against Jews in India would be limited because the number of Jews in India is relatively small; probably not more than 20,000. However, measures can be taken to boycott the sale and purchase of goods made by Jews”.
It can be seen from the information received from Agra that shopkeepers were refusing to sell cigarettes made by Jews (cited by Khabar, APA – The Dawn, 24 January 1946).
On 24 December 1947, Jinnah wrote the following in response to Imam Yahya’s telegram from Yemen, “I fully share your Majesty’s surprise and shock at the serious lack of judgment shown by UNO by their unjust decision in respect of Palestine. I once more assure you and our Arab brethren that Pakistan will stand by them and do all that is possible to help and support them in their opposition to the UNO decision, which is inherently unjust and outrageous”. This telegram of Jinnah is available in his Speeches and Statements as Governor-General of Pakistan.
His statements and interviews prove that he sympathized with the Palestinian cause. One thing is clear from Jinnah’s words that he stood against supporting oppressors in the name of religion by any state group or global powers for their economic interests.
Now let’s have a look at the presence of Jews in Pakistan after the Partition of India.
Before the partition of the subcontinent, the Jewish population in Karachi was just a few hundred. In his Sindh Gazetteer published in 1907, the well-known historian Aitken quotes the Jewish people in Karachi, “The number of Jews living in Karachi according to the census is only 428”. Another English historian, J. W. Smith, writes in his book, The Gazetteer of Sindh; Karachi District, published in 1919 that according to the census of 1911, the population of Karachi was about 5,21,721, of which 7% were Muslims, 21% were Hindus. The rest of the people included Christians, Parsis, and Jews.
The number of Jews living in Karachi can also be estimated from the number of children studying in various educational institutions. According to the historical data, in 1916, seven Jewish children were studying in NJV High School while a few were also in Sindh Madrasa High School and St. Patrick’s School. There were six students in Church Mission High School and two Jewish children in DJ College.
Mahmooda Rizvia, one of the renowned writers of the early history of Karachi, mentions in her short book about the Jews of Karachi as follows, ‘The Jews live in the Lawrence Quarter. They are wage-earners and are commonly known as Bani Israel (the Children of Israel). They sacrifice animals separately. They are small in numbers. They are educated and very prosperous’.
Before the Partition, along with followers of other religions in the subcontinent, primarily Hindus and Muslims, Jews also took part in India’s liberation movements.
According to a renowned researcher Gul Hassan Kalmati, a delegation of Aligarh University visited Karachi on 18 March 1911 headed by Muhammad Khan, also known as Raja Sahib Mahmoodabad. Hundreds of people, including Sir Haji Abdullah Haroon, Khan Bahadur Sheikh Sadiq Ali, then prime minister of the State of Khairpur, and other public representatives, welcomed the delegation. Abraham Reuben sprinkled flowers on the Raja Sahab’s ride/procession, a local Jewish community leader. The whole carriage was filled with flowers when his caravan reached near the Mosque of the Bani Israel located at Lawrence Road, Karachi.
Flag House Staff/Quaid-i-Azam Museum, Karachi
A famous Jewish cartographer, Moses J. Somak, also designed many of Karachi’s buildings in Karachi. The most famous still exists today with its magnificence and is called the Flag House Staff or Quaid-e-Azam Museum. A plaque bearing his name hangs on the corner of the roof just above the entrance of the building.
The Jewish community also had a place of worship in Karachi called the Israeli Mosque. Even today, the residents of the Ranchhor Line remember the address of the Yahudi (Jewish) Mosque. Most of them belong to the Salawat community, which migrated from Rajasthan (India) to Karachi. Let’s examine the demolition of the Jewish mosque.
The most famous Jewish place of worship in Karachi was Magain Bani Israel Trust Shalome Synagogue. The older residents of Karachi know it as the Israeli or Jewish Mosque. It was located on the main square of the Ranchhor Line. The multistorey building of Madiha Arcade has now replaced it.
The last trustee of the Israel Trust was a woman named Rachel Joseph, who transferred the building’s power of attorney to Ahmed Elahi, son of Mehr Elahi. They agreed that a commercial building would be constructed, shops would be on the ground floor of the building, and a place of worship would be on the first floor. The shops on the ground floor were built, but now there are residential flats on the first floor instead of a prayer room/worship place. There was also a lawsuit between Rachel Joseph and the parties over the trust’s ownership, which Rachel and her attorney won. When I contacted her lawyer, he informed me that she had moved to London long ago.
Reema Abbasi once quoted an interview with Rachel in an article published in Daily Dawn on May 6, 2007. She mentioned her discussion with Rachel in Karachi regarding the Jewish cemetery, of which she was the last custodian. This proves that she was present in Karachi till 2007. After which, she left.
When I visited the Jewish cemetery on August 14, 2021, I saw two graves on which the year of death was 1980 and 1983. On the epitaph of the grave of 1980, these words can be read:
In Ever Loving Memory of our Dearest
Father Mrneighbours Ellis Joseph, born 9th July 1910, Died 14 December 1980
Bitter grief, a shock severe
To Part with one we loved so Dear
Our loss is excellent will not complain
But hope in The Heaven to Meet Again.
On the epitaph of the second grave, these words were inscribed:
“My Loving Affection at F Sister Died 17/02/1983”
The epitaphs of these graves prove that Jews were present in Karachi till the decade of 1980, and they also used to bury their dead in the Jewish cemetery.
In Mewa Shah Graveyard, the Jewish cemetery is in dilapidated condition. Its caretaker and his family clean the thorny bushes growing in the cemetery from time to time. Still, due to a lack of resources and money, the cemetery is not maintained correctly. The Culture Department and other concerned departments are either unaware of the existence of this cemetery, or they do not want to do anything in this regard.
Jewish Cemetery, Karachi
Now I will examine the reasons that led to the migration of Jews from Karachi. Before the Partition, the support of Quaid-e-Azam for Palestinians was crystal clear. Pakistan has not recognized Israel so far since its inception. But the main problem for Jews living in Pakistan was that they could not travel to their holy places in Israel on a Pakistani passport. Most of their relatives had already migrated to Israel through various means. There is no information of any act of violence against them from the Partition of India to the establishment of Pakistan.
During the creation of Pakistan, many Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims lost the lives of their loved ones. The horrors of the Partition are still evident among poets, writers, and intellectuals on both sides. Journalists on both sides of the Indo-Pak border call their neighbors enemies. Still, it is also a bitter truth that citizens of both countries can visit their relatives on the other side of the divide through visa permission and visit their holy places in the ‘enemy’ country despite mutual animosity. In this regard, devotees are also provided with all possible facilities by both countries, the latest example of Kartarpura.
But what would the Jews do? There was an attack on Muslims and their beliefs worldwide; it was termed a ‘Jewish conspiracy. This has been going on since the establishment of Israel. In the past, whether it was the Suez Canal or the attack on the Kaaba in 1979, it was called a Jewish conspiracy. Israel’s actions are often linked to the Jewish people.
When renowned journalist and writer Muhammad Hanif visited Israel, he met Daniel, a Jew who had migrated to Israel from Karachi.
“I haven’t seen anyone from Karachi since 1968”, he had told Hanif. He continued, “I was studying in an English medium school there. We had our mosque. Ayub Khan had also sent police to protect it during the war of 1967.” Then he put his hand on his heart and said, “we were not in any trouble there. No one has ever abused us. We just saw that all the Jews were going to Israel, so we came here too”.
Shakeel Slawat, a senior journalist, living in the area of the former Jewish Mosque, said: “By the way, there has never been a regular or organized riot against the Jews living in Karachi and their mosque, but sometimes a few random protestors chant slogan in front of the mosque when an incident takes; it place [against Muslims in the West]. There was nothing more than this”.
(Translated by Mujtaba Baig)