With dueling allegations of “insanity” and “fear of anti-Semitism,” two Pakistani men have taken to international media to disprove their brother’s beliefs about their deceased mother’s faith.
After a protracted legal fight to be officially recognized as Jewish in Pakistan, based upon claims that his mother was born a Jew, Fischel (Faisal) Benkhald, 29, gained international media attention last week with the announcement that Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADA) will soon issue him a new identification card. It will be the first time in decades that Pakistan registers a citizen as Jewish.
Benkhald, whose story was documented in a 2014 Times of Israel article, maintains a high profile on social media, complete with the Twitter handle @Jew_Pakistani, and has been interviewed broadly about his campaign to preserve Karachi’s old Jewish cemetery.
In the lengthy 2014 interview, Benkhald described his earliest childhood memories of his mother, whom he said was born to an Iranian Jewish family. He recalled the aroma of his mother’s challah baking in the oven every Friday afternoon. He said that before dusk he would watch her recite blessings over the Shabbat candles.
“When she used to put her hands over her eyes it felt so serene, as if she has no worries of worldly life, reciting the blessing welcoming the holy day. Her lovely eyes and smile looking at me are engraved in my memory, I always prayed with her,” he told The Times of Israel.
Learning of the “happy ending” to Benkhald’s protracted legal saga last week from a Pakistani paper, older brother Mohammad Iqbal, a resident of Saudi Arabia, accused his much younger brother of lying and even insanity. He has gone on the offense to clear their mother’s name, calling Benkhald’s story a complete fabrication.
“Our mother and even her parents were born Muslims, and as I understand from [Benkhald’s] campaign, he wanted your [Jewish] communities’ sympathies, and afterward maybe some monetary benefits or asylum visa by pretending his life is in danger in Pakistan by the Muslim community,” wrote Iqbal in an email exchange with The Times of Israel.
Iqbal, who works in high-tech, left Pakistan in 2009 and is 18 years older than Benkhald. Their mother died some 20 years ago, and their father a few years later. Benkhald was raised by an uncle. The brothers’ most recent meeting was in 2012, when Benkhald visited Iqbal in Jeddah.
As proof to his dismissal of their mother’s alleged Jewishness, Iqbal submitted two notarized affidavits, which were also signed by their three other brothers. The documents called Benkhald “insane and in need of mental treatment” and averred that their mother neither practiced Judaism nor hailed from Jewish ancestry.
“I’m not sure of his mental health or motive on his nonsense,” Iqbal told The Times of Israel, saying he and his brothers are working to protect their mother’s “credibility after her death.”
The primary issue is “not what Faisal wants for himself, for me and my brothers the hurting part is, he is falsely using our late mother’s name or her faith, which is a big shame for us in society,” said Iqbal.
Pakistan, where apostasy is a capital crime
Approached by The Times of Israel this week, Benkhald said he was not shocked by the brothers’ repudiation. In Pakistan, the word “Jew” is considered a slur, he said.
“I am surprised that they didn’t do what they’re doing now much earlier. And I am saddened that they are throwing me to the wolves of the apostate lynch mob,” added Benkhald.
‘I am saddened that they are throwing me to the wolves of the apostate lynch mob’
He reiterated the veracity of his story and cast doubt on his brother’s claims that he had only recently learned of his quest for official recognition as a Jew.
“My brothers knew about my views and thoughts about my campaign for the Jewish cemetery and for minority rights along with my openly and publicly professing Judaism as my religion from my mom’s side,” he said, and cited television appearances in Pakistan, as well as his high-profile social media presence.
“My brothers got cold feet fearing an exaggerated anti-Semitic backlash,” said Benkhald.
There are serious consequences in Pakistan for Benkhald’s disavowal of Islam. According to the Pew Research Center, “Blasphemy – defined as speech or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or the divine – is a capital crime in Pakistan.”
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Benkhald has no documentation that his mother was born Jewish. Although she died when he was only 9, he has said he has memories of her Jewish practice and stories as proof.
“Religion is such an intangible thing that it can neither be proved nor disproved except what is in the heart of a person,” said Benkhald. “She was observing Judaism and as a child I got naturally attached to it, and later in my life I grew up to study both Judaism and Islam… I checked them both and made a decision to observe Judaism.”
Is stating you’re a Jew enough to make you one?
According to Israel-based Orthodox conversion activist Rabbi Chuck Davidson, in Jewish practice, Benkhald’s personal claim that he is Jewish was traditionally enough to consider him as such.
“If a person says they’re Jewish, they’re Jewish. Documents, etc. is a new phenomenon, not more than circa 50 years ago,” Davidson said. The idea of taking a person’s claim to Jewishness at face value was supported by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in a legal decision that was published in 1993 in connection to the large wave of Russian immigration to Israel at the time.
Essentially, said Davidson, “unless there is good reason to suspect they are lying,” a person who claims to be Jewish should be treated as such.
In the case of Benkhald and his dissenting brothers, Davidson said it would appear that there is cause to investigate his claims further, although there are no clear halachic guidelines.
Davidson mentioned one modern method of proving Jewish ancestry that was recently put forward by Rabbi Yosef Carmel, the rabbinical dean of Jerusalem’s Eretz Hemdah Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies. Carmel proposed using mitochondrial DNA, which is passed only through the mother, and can exhibit markers of Jewish ancestry.
Davidson, who is against this practice on the grounds that it would “lead to chaos,” said that while the mitochondrial DNA could prove Jewishness, whether the Israeli Interior Ministry would accept it is another matter.
Where Jews are forbidden from travel to Israel
Regardless of whether immigration to Israel is a consideration for him, Benkhald’s Pakistani passport clearly states, “This passport is valid for all countries of the World except Israel.”
According to Noor Dahri, a Times of Israel blogger and the London-based director of the Pakistan-Israel Alliance, “Since both the Muslim Dominion of Pakistan and the Jewish State of Israel emerged on the world map in the late 1940s, the hatred of Jews by Islamists soared in Pakistan and Jews feared for their safety.”
Most Pakistanis have never met a Jew or an Israeli, wrote Dahri in a post, “and yet Pakistanis hate Jews for no apparent reason other than their assumed obligation to support Palestinian Muslims. And besides, they are taught it’s their religious duty to hate Jews, Hindus and all other non-Muslims.”
The Pakistani Jewish community has largely fled, according to Dahri, and either become refugees in India or the West, or immigrated to Israel.
Those who remain in Pakistan, he wrote, have “hid their faith and ethnicity due to persecution in Pakistan.” He cited Benkhald’s case and described a situation in which Benkhald was beaten, “punched and kicked in his face by the Muslim mob.” When the police arrived, Benkhald was arrested, after being blindfolded and handcuffed.
“The Rangers [Pakistan’s paramilitary police] interrogated him and asked for his connection with Israel. They accused and charged him with being an Israeli spy,” wrote Dahri. Benkhald confirmed the veracity of the account.
Despite physical abuse and prejudice from some Pakistani Muslims, and now, the repudiation from his brothers, Benkhald told The Times of Israel, “I have no doubt that they get the same spirituality from God/Allah that I do from Judaism.”
His desire to be Jewish, he said, “is not a crime. It is just a fundamental freedom of religion.”
Marc Goldberg contributed to this report.