Opinion |

A Pakistani Group Visited Israel. Then Pakistan Erupted

It was unprecedented: Two Pakistani citizens openly visited Israel on their Pakistani passports – and re-entered Pakistan without hindrance, despite a fierce media controversy. So how open is the Pakistani state now to normalization with the Jewish state?

Hamza Azhar Salam
Hamza Azhar Salam
Pakistani social media meme quoting the opposition of 'Father of Pakistan' and first prime minister Muhammad Ali Jinnah to relations with Israel
Pakistani social media meme quoting the opposition of 'Father of Pakistan' and first prime minister Muhammad Ali Jinnah to relations with IsraelCredit: Twitter screenshot
Hamza Azhar Salam
Hamza Azhar Salam

For Muslims, Jews are fellow Ahl e Kitab (People of the Book) and children of Abraham, a religious kinship that, ideally, should translate into warm ties between the world's Muslims and Jews.

But the domination of politics means religious affiliations take a back seat and more potent rhetoric comes into play. Too often, in too many places, Muslims and Jews have been unable to translate their similarities into good ties, falling into the trap of preconceived notions, propaganda and in some cases, blatant hatred and violence.

It’s a sad fact that antisemitism has been accepted in various Muslim-majority countries where their citizens have long been fed a steady diet of gross exaggerations and falsehoods painting Jews in a negative, conspiratorial light.

A common but unsubstantiated belief amongst many Pakistanis is that the Jews control the world’s finance and media industries. Just last year, during an interview with CNN, Pakistan’s former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi alleged that Israel had "deep pockets" and "they control the media."

Supporters of the Pakistani religious group, Jamaat-e-Islami, take part in a rally in support of the Palestinian cause, in Peshawar, Pakistan last yearCredit: AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad

The contention that Israel and/or Jews are obsessively engaged in a long-term plot to destabilize or defang Pakistan (in cahoots with Islamabad’s enemies), and that Pakistan has a foundational, if not sanctified, duty to dismantle Israel, is practically an iron rule of Pakistani grassroots and political discourse.

Supporters of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami rally in Karachi, Pakistan against the United Arab Emirates-Israeli deal to establish full diplomatic tiesCredit: AP Photo/Fareed Khan

A consequence of this constant normalization of prejudice is that many Muslims, not least in Pakistan, consider that Jews deserve our hatred and disdain. Perhaps it is easier to hate, because hatred amplifies our own opinion of ourselves, while positive engagement forces us to appreciate the good in someone else.

But is this hatred based on a lack of understanding? If Muslims and Jews understood each other’s stories, would they still hate each other? How could relations between Pakistani Muslims and Jews, particularly in israel, change? What could relations between Pakistan and Israel, historical twins founded as havens for Muslims and Jews respectively, then look like?

A recent attempt to test exactly this premise has attracted significant controversy – in Pakistan. A 15 member delegation, led by two civil society groups, visited Israel in order to promote interfaith harmony primarily between Muslims and Jews. The trip was organized by the American Muslim and Multifaith Women's Empowerment Council and by Sharaka, an NGO founded in the wake of the Abraham Accords to embed people-to-people normalization between Israel and Muslim-majority states.

American Pakistanis, a British Pakistani, prominent Pakistani journalist Ahmed Quraishi and Pakistani Jew Fishel BenKhald were also a part of this delegation.

Every Pakistani passport includes a warning in bold letters that it is valid for all countries except Israel. Nonetheless, Quraishi and BenKhald entered Israel on their Pakistani passports, making it the first-ever trip of its kind: a Pakistani journalist on a Pakistani passport, and an individual whose Pakistani passport states that he is a Jew, both travelled to Israel and, no less significant, were able to re-enter Pakistan without hindrance.

This trip clearly signals a change in attitudes about Israel and Jews within the Pakistani state.

Quraishi, who works for Pakistan’s state broadcaster, Pakistan Television (PTV), is considered an expert on the Middle East and holds an excellent reputation within powerful civilian and military quarters in Pakistan, reflected in the fact that the previous government appointed him to host a show on PTV and he was one of the commentators in Pakistan Day’s military parade on 23rd March 2022.

Quraishi told me: "All Israelis we met went the extra mile to show us that they have nothing against Muslims, that they respect Muslims, they respect Palestinian Muslims, they respect Muslims from other countries in the world, they would like to make the experience of local Palestinians and visitors from outside who want to visit [Jerusalem’s] Masjid al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock and other holy sites as smooth as possible."

Quraishi also noted how the Chief Rabbis of Israel have consistently forbidden Jews to enter the Haram al-Sharif, which surrounds Masjid al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, a position reiterated by prominent rabbis since the Abraham Accords were signed.

Such testimonials by a Muslim journalist regarding Israeli hospitality greatly influence the perception of Israel within Pakistan, since the number of Pakistanis who have ever had an interaction with any Israeli or any Jew is infinitesimally small.

Anila Ali, who led the delegation, told me that both Islamophobia and antisemitism needed to be combated, and Muslims could learn from Jews how to change hateful attitudes. The delegation also made a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial center, to show solidarity with its victims.

The visit to Yad Vashem is significant because a large number of people in Pakistan engage in Holocaust denial and/or downplay the unimaginable atrocities which took place.

Ali, who is the founder of the American Muslim and Multifaith Women Empowerment Council, told me about her group’s meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

"At the beginning, I thought the president would only give us five minutes, but instead he chose to have a long conversation with us, I presented my father’s book on [the "Father of Pakistan," Mohammed Ali] Jinnah and the president said that he would find time to read it," Anila Ali told me.

Anila also stated that the Israeli president said that Israel would be open to diplomatic ties with all Muslim countries.

Such trips featuring interactions between Pakistanis and Israelis are extremely rare, but not entirely unprecedented.

In 2015, Israeli lecturer Ramzi Suleiman, who taught at the University of Haifa’s psychology department, visited Pakistan in a conference sponsored by the University of Punjab, reflecting quiet links between Pakistani and Israeli academia.

According to Anila Ali, Israeli academics have shown an interest in collaborating with Pakistani academics, particularly in the field of agri-tech. The interest is not one-sided: Two Pakistani academics issued a striking call in Haaretz for Pakistan, which will likely be most water-stressed country in its region by 2040, to cooperate urgently with Israel on issues of water scarcity, recycling and agriculture to save Pakistani lives.

She also mentioned that Fiverr, an Israeli company, boasted thousands of Pakistani freelancers who were making billions of rupees every year via the Israeli platform, suggesting that increased cooperation between the two countries could be mutually beneficial.

Even in the realm of sports, we have witnessed the first flowering of Pakistani and Israeli cooperation and partnership. In 2002, Pakistani Tennis star Aisam ul Haq teamed up with Israeli player Amir Hadad during the Wimbledon and U.S. Open tournaments.

Indeed, people-to-people connections between Pakistanis and Israelis have existed for a long time, with or without official sanction or backing, and no amount of overheated political rhetoric can roll that back.

Mehndi ceremony at a Jewish wedding in Karachi, Pakistan in 1959Credit: Wikipedia

Few in Pakistan remember that there was once a thriving Jewish community of thousands, centered around Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta. Jews who left Pakistan still harbor nostalgia for their erstwhile home. Emmanuel Matat, a Jew born in Karachi who left Pakistan around three decades ago for Israel, recalls how he misses Pakistan’s signature biryani dish – and hopes to make a return visit.

Pakistan and Israel have participated in joint military exercises at various times. Pakistan’s military establishment, which is considered to be the dominant player in Pakistan’s foreign relations, is itself opening up to the idea of ties with Israel.

However, senior current and former government officials are wary of a public debate surrounding the contention that it is the powerful military which is pushing for ties with Israel.

Pakistan’s former Human Rights Minister, Shireen Mazari, has conducted an intense campaign on Twitter slamming Qureshi’s participation in the trip to Israel, suggesting that the Pakistani military endorsed the visit, and accusing Pakistan’s recently installed government of pushing for ties, in contrast, she claims, to the solid opposition to such normalization voiced by former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Mazari tagged the Twitter account of the Inter-Services Public Relations (the public relations wing of the Pakistani military), referring to Ahmed Qureshi as "their boy" and threatening to reveal state secrets about alleged Israel-Pakistan intelligence coordination.

Days after this Twitter confrontation, Mazari was arrested by a police anti-corruption unit in Islamabad in relation to a property dispute involving her family dating back 50 years.

Haqeeqat TV on Pakistani visit to Israel: Shireen Mazari warns military not to advance Israel ties

Her daughter, Imaan, filed a petition challenging what she alleged was an "illegal abduction." A few hours later, the Islamabad High Court ordered Shireen's release and a judicial inquiry to investigate the saga. Shireen suggested that among those arresting her was a representative of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence service.

These noisy accusations may be an attempt to deflect the conversation away from credible reports that not only did an Israeli business plane make a short trip to Islamabad in 2018, during Khan’s tenure as premier, and that last year, a senior Khan administration official travelled to Israel for talks with senior Israeli leaders.

According to a report in Israel Hayom, Zulfi Bukhari, a close aide of then Prime Minister Imran Khan, traveled to Israel on his British passport to meet then-Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.

Whilst Bukhari denied the reports, other, credible sources insisted that he had delivered a message from Pakistan to Israel.

In order to circumvent Khan’s government’s attempts to engage with Israel, his party’s leaders and propagandists are blaming the military establishment for calling for ties with Israel. Quraishi is adamant that Imran Khan was ready to establish relations with Israel and used his family relations as a conduit, a reference to Imran’s Khan’s ex-wife Jemima Goldsmith’s family.

Both Ben and Zac Goldsmith have openly come out in support of Imran Khan since his ouster, which led to the British government distancing itself from what it called their interference in Pakistani politics.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has declared a shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy from geopolitics to geoeconomics. That suggests that Pakistan’s geopolitical differences with Israel could be sacrificed in favor of the economic benefits which may be achieved from formal ties with Israel in industries such as agriculture, tech, cybersecurity and the freelancing market.

The fact that a Pakistani journalist working for the state broadcaster could make this trip reflects that the Pakistani state is increasingly open to normalization. It raises the intriguing possibility of a future reciprocal delegation of Israelis visiting Pakistan.

Without at least an overt nudge from powerful quarters, no Pakistani journalist could make this public trip to Israel and return safely, reflecting how attitudes pertaining to Israel have evolved in the world’s only Muslim nuclear power.

With the UAE acting as a leader in the diplomacy of the Muslim world, other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Oman and Qatar are well on their way to recognizing the advantages of normalization and of joining the Abraham Accords.

That the debate within Pakistan about potential ties with Israel is now being debated in substantial rather than purely demagogic terms is a sign of how far this conversation has evolved. It is now far from what was once fantastical in Pakistan’s public discourse to suggest that a Jewish state and a Muslim state have strong reasons to establish diplomatic relations with each other.

Relations with Israel can now be seen as a good fit for Pakistan’s geoeconomic vision: we should see ourselves as a country seeking to build strong trade and economic ties with other countries, for the welfare of our own citizens, no matter how politically complex or misaligned those partners may be.

Hamza Azhar Salam is a Pakistani journalist based in London. He is the co-founder of The Pakistan Daily and Migrant News and has worked as a reporter for Pakistan’s The News International. Twitter: @HamzaAzhrSalam

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