Beyond Politics: Building Personal Connections between Pakistanis and Israelis

With winds of change blowing across the Middle East, perhaps it is time to initiate more people-to-people contacts to facilitate building bridges between, not just Israel and the Middle East, but countries like Pakistan, as well.

April 2, 2023

It was early Friday morning when my cell phone beeped. It was just an incoming message, but the insolence had already woken me up. I reached out for the phone, inwardly scowling at the sender. The message said, “Juma Mubarak!” I grimaced, even more upset because it was one of the regular Friday messages that had disturbed my sleep. Our constant attachment to our phones meant that every Friday, I had the hassle of receiving (and deleting) several such messages. 


Wait! What? I quicky realized that it was sent by Emanuel Matate – my Jewish friend whose family had lived in Karachi pre-Partition, when he was a young boy. They migrated to Israel in the 80s, but he and his family yearned to return to the city where they had created some beautiful memories. This yearning remains an impossible dream for an Israeli. The reason Emanuel and I became friends was because so many of his memories involved Karachi, my beloved city, and his too. Also, his family seemed to be an enigma – Israeli Pakistanis living peacefully in Israel. We hear of British Pakistanis, American Pakistanis and Australian Pakistanis, but who would think that Israeli Pakistanis existed?


The message from him was a refreshing surprise and I replied instantly with a, "Thank you very much, Matate Bhai — Khair Mubarak".  

Since our childhood, we Pakistanis have grown up seeing horrendous pictures on our television screens. There are the standard Israeli soldiers standing with their guns drawn or butting someone with their rifles, and then there Palestinians, responding back with stones and catapults. These are the only images that come to our mind the moment we hear the word Israel or see its flag. 

So, for a Pakistani like me, who has never had an opportunity to know a Jew beyond my television screen, this simple message from Emmanuel carried the scent of opportunity. An opportunity to open up the doors of communication, that have never been opened for us when it comes to Jews. It was time to explore my prejudices against them and open a door of dialogue - just like I think other Pakistanis and Israelis need to have – people and not government officials. 

I was encouraged to continue my messaging with Emmanuel. I asked him “So which one is your blessed day Brother?”

“We celebrate Shabbat,” he replied.   

"What’s that?” I typed my next question.   

“The Shabbat is the Holy day of the Jews, which begins on Friday evening and continues until Saturday evening,” he explained. 

“We usually wear shalwar kameez and pray at the mosque on Friday afternoon. Then we return home to eat biryani although that’s more tradition than religion,” I said, adding a smile emoji. 

“Aray Janni, I know that”, Emmanuel replied. I could sense the excitement in his next message. “I grew up in Karachi, and I remember everything about Karachi's Fridays and Shabbats.” 

I interjected a new question here, “And what do you do on Shabbat?” 

"On Shabbat, Jews don't use modern gadgets, we don't touch the phone, don't watch TV, don't use the car, don't cook or even turn on the stove, and don't touch the light switch. We do not carry out any worldly work and only perform various prayers throughout the day, he explained.   

I was shocked to hear that such strong restrictions had to be followed on their Blessed Day. I wanted to make sure that it is ok to wish someone Happy Shabbat just like people say, “Juma Mubarak” in Pakistan. I asked him, “So, how do you wish someone Shabbat …?“ 

You say, “Shabbat Shalom", he said. 

Ok, so they do wish each other. I promptly repeated what he had said, “Shabbat Shalom”. 

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel, I have had the opportunity to meet Jewish people in Dubai – my first interactions with Jews since I moved here. Since Emmanuel explained Shabbat to me, I try to send my Jewish acquaintances a, “Shabbat Shalom!” message every Friday evening.  


I have always interacted with people with the belief that direct contact with a person you know nothing about previously, and may be carrying judgments about, may help alleviate many of these misunderstandings. The lack of communication – within a family, government or nations, allows popular media and government spokespersons to create our opinions for us, where we don’t use our minds and just form prejudices and ill-feelings that are fed to us. It is unfortunate that in an era when we have information at the flick of a fingertip, we decide not to connect with people across the globe and continue to live in our tiny pre-defined images. 


Both Pakistan and Israel gained independence on the basis of the two-nation ideology. And yet, we never meet as a people.  Also, sadly, the slogan of, “Boycott Israel”, that has echoed in Pakistan forever, and has resulted in the Muslims of Pakistan having to boycott Masjid Al-Aqsa (the third holiest site for us) too for the last 75 years – because our passport denies us the right to travel there.  


The question is, do we want to continue to live with this burden of hatred for ever? When people are able to travel to India and vice versa, they often return to tell stories of love. They talk about similarities – in food, culture and values. Maybe connections with Jews will result in similar stories of better understanding and even friendships? 


With the recent Abrahamic Accords between the Arab world and Israel, a new chapter of friendship and cooperation has opened in the Middle East. As a strong ally and strategic partner of Arab world, maybe Pakistan can step up to join hands with Bahrain and the UAE to normalise ties with Israel.  

With winds of change across over the Middle East, perhaps it is time to initiate more people-to-people contacts to facilitate building bridges between, not just Israel and the Middle East, but countries like Pakistan, as well. Pakistani expatriates in the Middle East can play a pivotal role in paving the way for building new relationships, as they now have an opportunity to meet Jews. These social media messages of the Blessed Friday and Shalom Shabbat must grow in number.