Washington — For most of the world, the recent terrorist murders in Mumbai were a terrible tragedy. But for Jack Rosen there was an additional personal disappointment.
The government of Pakistan, he pointed out, offered no word of condolence regarding the Jewish victims of the attack.
To be sure, Pakistan offered no specific public condolence either to the United States and Great Britain, whose citizens were also especially targeted by the Mumbai terrorists, according to survivors’ accounts. But Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress, has spearheaded Jewish outreach to Pakistan’s leaders through his related group, the Council for World Jewry. And Pakistan’s failure to reach out to Jews, he said, represented a tremendous missed opportunity.
“This will force us to take a step back here,” he said. “It was always a hard sell, and it is a little harder now… It helps reinforce the worst stereotypes and perceptions Americans and many members of our community have of the Pakistanis.”
Calls to the Pakistani embassy for reaction were not returned.
Rosen’s response was not a universal one in the Jewish community. Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and a prominent Conservative rabbi, warned against a Jewish and Israeli inclination to focus too much on the Jewish dimension of the atrocity, calling this a “grave mistake.”
The attack, he said on his blog, was “first and foremost, on India, and on Western civilization. We Jews have something to offer the world, gained from centuries of experience at being hated for no reason other than that we stand up for life and innocence. Now the world is ready to listen to us — but they can only listen to us if we take our eyes off our own navels and engage them, acknowledging that their suffering is as great as ours.”
But Rosen has been focused for years on bringing Pakistan’s relations with Israel and world Jewry closer. Here, the main drawback facing relations between Jews and Pakistan’s 170 million Muslims is not the outburst of deadly violence last month, but broader developments that preceded it — including, ironically, the formal restoration of democracy and departure of Pakistan’s autocratic former president Pervez Musharraf last August.
Under Musharaff, a strong supporter of ties with the Jewish community, contacts between Pakistan and American Jewish and Israeli officials have been going on behind the scenes for more than a decade. For a moment, in late 2005, activists believed ties had reached a turning point.
That year, Musharaff attended a public dinner with Jewish leaders in New York sponsored by Rosen. This was followed by a handshake with the Israeli prime minister and a meeting in Turkey between the foreign ministers of Israel and Pakistan.
But the diplomatic honeymoon was short. Although talks and meetings — conducted mainly by Rosen and a handful of activists from the AJCongress —continued, public gestures were scarce.
This was due in part to increasing pressure from the West to take action against Al-Qaeda, whose leaders are believed to have taken refuge in the country’s Northwest Frontier Province. That led to a fierce domestic pushback by extreme Islamists. Increasingly, the central government feared open ties with Jewish activists and continuation of the courting game with Israel could further destabilize an already shaky regime.
Pakistan agreed to accept assistance from Israel after the 2005 earthquake and, that year, hosted Jewish leaders in Islamabad. But Musharraf, who saw these outreach efforts as part of his “enlightened moderation” approach to Islam, did not try again to showcase these relations.
When Musharaff, under pressure from a grassroots democratic movement, agreed to elections earlier this year, opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, on the eve of her return from self-imposed exile, seemed open to deepening ties when she met with Jewish communal leaders in New York. But Bhutto was assassinated last December, shortly after her return.
The current Pakistani government, led by democratically elected president Asif Ali Zardari and prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani has put the relations on a back burner. During Gillani’s recent visit to Washinton, Rosen was invited to a small dinner in the prime minister’s honor. But visits to Pakistan were put off.
Still, Rosen believes in the future of ties with Pakistan despite his disappointment about the lack of outreach after Mumbai. “It is in our interest as Americans and as Jews to foster good relations with the Pakistanis and to make sure these events don’t distract us,” Rosen said.
But once again, broader developments — specifically, a change of policy in Washington — might make this more difficult. President-elect Barack Obama has stressed during his campaign that he believes America has the right in certain cases to go after terror targets inside Pakistan. For Pakistani leaders battling internal resistance both from extremists and from its own security service, these remarks could result in a stronger urge to distance themselves from the U.S. and the West.
A Jewish businessman, recently returned from Pakistan, said that while there is no doubt about the willingness of Pakistani leadership to maintain ties with the Jewish community and Israel, calls for high-profile engagement could be counter-productive. “They prefer doing things quietly,” said the businessman who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of his ties with Pakistani leadership. ”If you ask for a public gesture, it is a death sentence for Zardari.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.