Opinion

Pakistan and Israel: Separated at Birth?

Young Israelis and Pakistanis, in Tel Aviv and Lahore, express the same sense of encirclement in countries still in survival mode amid fears of communal slaughter - and the same sinking feeling about their countries' future

Supporters of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami hold signs decalring 'Death to Israel' at a rally against U.S. President Donald Trump's Jerusalem decision. Karachi, Pakistan, December 17, 2017
REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

As I reached the immigration booth at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport and handed my passport over to the officer in charge of letting me through, the expected happened: having flicked through the pages, her eyebrows rose in suspicion at the sight of my sparkling Pakistani visa.

In spite of a sad attempt at a reassuring smile, I was directed to a nearby office for further interrogation and a string of questions regarding my latest stay in Pakistan, a country with which Israel has been at odds for decades and has no diplomatic relations. After a thorough two-hour check of my credentials through obscure databases, I was finally allowed through.

This hassle, experienced by many travelers on arrival in Israel, echoes the pressing anti-Israel feeling I had observed when visiting Pakistan a few months before.

Children attend a class at the Khushal school that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai used to attend, in her hometown of Mingora in Swat Valley, Pakistan. March 30, 2018
\ FAISAL MAHMOOD/ REUTERS

Although now devoid of any Jewish minority (at independence there were an estimated 1500 Jews living there), Pakistani society is plagued by anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, a sentiment often fanned by politicians and conservative groups who tend to blame their country’s woes on a conspiracy hatched by Israel, a state it doesn’t even officially recognize. Witness to this were the "Death to Israel" graffiti that I had stumbled upon in the most remote villages of Pakistan’s mountainous regions.

Israel, in return, brands itself as the sole democracy in a volatile Middle East and as a Western, polar opposite to states influenced by Islamism. Never had two countries looked so different and irreconcilable, or so it seemed.

And yet a realization took form as my travel in Israel unspooled: the conversations I was having with Israelis started to sound unsettlingly similar to those I had had with Pakistanis.

The many topics in common were, above all, related to paranoia about the survival of their respective nation-states.

As an outsider in both countries, I never quite expected the feeling of encirclement that both people shared, one that translates into a pervading angst about whether their country would still exist in a handful of years. In a way that will sound familiar to Israelis, Pakistan has always felt fundamentally imperiled; be it by India’s looming vicinity or by the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Over the years, its survival narrative has justified the increasing role of the army and intelligence apparatus, while owning the nuclear bomb was deemed a paramount survival tool (this was achieved in 1998).

An Indian Border Security Force soldier stands guard, left, as a Pakistani Border guard, center, patrols at the joint border check post between Indian and Pakistan. Wagah, India. March 30, 2009
AP

A brief look at how the two nations came into existence speaks volumes about their similar psyches. Both states were born out of the same bold dream: to create a homeland for a dispersed religious minority that felt endangered (Jews in the diaspora, Muslims in India).

The driving creed was a new form of religious nationalism, a hybrid ideology by which cultural and sectarian differences would disappear behind the commonality of religion, an ideology crafted by 19th-century thinkers (Theodore Herzl and Mohammed Iqbal) and put into practice by rogue politicians turned nation builders (David Ben-Gurion and Muhammad Ali Jinnah) in the wake of a crumbling British empire, and within just a year of each other. Oxford historian Faisal Devji has gone so far as to refer to Pakistan as the "Muslim Zion." 

The fear of communal slaughter was also a recurring argument among Indian Muslim intellectuals in the 1940s, who feared Muslims in newly-independent India would face the same fate as Jews in Europe. The new homeland would save the minority and empower it by adapting it to - at least political - modernity.

For Palestinians in what would become Israel, as for Pakistan, this came at a dire cost. Communities would be divided in two, borders would be drawn along religious lines. Families that had been settled for generations and lived in relative harmony with their neighbours would be uprooted and compelled to relocate according to their religion or ethnic origin.

In spite of this comparable genesis, regional and political contexts in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent have led Israel and Pakistan to walk different paths. Israel has managed to maintain its democratic regime in the face of war, whereas a peaceful transition of power remains an anomaly in Pakistan.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri shakes hands with his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom in the first public meeting between the two states. Istanbul, Turkey. Sept. 1, 2005.
AP

Their related ideological origin have never prompted the two nations to develop long-lasting diplomatic ties, contending as they were on the Palestinian issue. (There was a brief "Karachi spring" during the Musharraf-Ariel Sharon era, soon after Israel's disengagement from Gaza, when their prime ministers and foreign ministers engaged in public handshake diplomacy.)

However, even today, their current state of affairs still bear uncanny similarities. Both countries are subject to pressures from ultra-conservative religious groups on one hand, and a liberal urban youth on the other, who wants to look forward and away from religious strife. Strident nationalism is a feature of both societies.

In both states, their armies have become omnipotent institutions, tasked with national defense and nation-building, on a scale matched by few other countries, not least because of the need to wage a war of survival at the moment of their respective births as states. In Pakistan, successive military coups have enforced its role; in Israel, the constant military role in the West Bank.

Most of all, notwithstanding their solid patriotism, the young Israelis and Pakistanis I spoke with in Tel Aviv and Lahore shared the same sinking feeling: that their country hadn’t quite lived up to their founding fathers’ expectations of a state that advocated secular values which declared its aspiration to be and inclusive, pluralistic society.

With an almost identical sorrow, they mourned over the fear and incomprehension they had developed towards their neighbors - who now lived on the other side of highly fortified concrete walls or electrified fences.

Paul Gasnier is a French journalist based in Paris. He reports for French television and works with foreign news outlets, with a strong focus on India and Pakistan. Twitter: @P_Gasnier