The Afghan Pashtuns and the missing Israelite exiles

Perhaps the “Israelite Spring” is finally upon us. While the path to peace cannot lie solely in defense, it may lie in the active reuniting of roots and dispersed family trees.

A PASHTUN man with his livestock. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A PASHTUN man with his livestock.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Jewish people see themselves as a people alone in the Middle East, but an emerging elephant in the room may change this mentality. How will Jews respond when they hear that the descendants of the 10 exiled tribes of Israel ended up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, today number at least 25 million, and haven’t forgotten who they are? Recently, our organization, iTribe, polled almost 100 Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Almost all responded that they were told by their grandparents that they are called Bani Israel, the Children of Israel.
The Pashtuns have dwelt in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan for thousands of years. Although Muslim today, they live by a code called Pashtunwali which greatly resembles Mosaic law. When Pashtunwali conflicts with the Koran, they follow Pashtunwali. For example, Muslims are permitted to eat camel, but many Pashtuns do not do so. Other Pashtun customs which are not common among Muslims but have a clear parallel in Jewish practice include circumcision on the eighth day, lighting candles on Friday evening, levirate marriage, and many others.
Names of greater Pashtun tribes include the Rubeni, Gadi, Ashuri, Efridi, Shinwari, Lewani and Yousefzai, which clearly resemble the tribes of Reuven, Gad, Asher, Ephraim, Shimon and Yosef. The royal family of Afghanistan traces its origins to the line of King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin.
These facts are not new. The Bible mentions the Assyrians settling the Lost Tribes in Gozan, which is one of the names of the Amu Darya, a major Afghan river, identified as such by Rav Sa’adia Gaon. Medieval writings by Jewish travelers to Afghanistan mentions the Israelite origins of the Pashtuns. In more recent times, the connection between Pashtuns and Israel has been documented and discussed in documentaries by Simcha Jacobovici, as well as books by Rabbi Eliahu Avichail and Israeli president Yitzhak Ben- Zvi. Recently, the Internet has given us the ability to contact Pashtuns directly and do extensive research, which has confirmed the sources above.
Many people are shocked when they first hear of the connection between the Pashtuns and the Jews. They ask two main questions: first, aren’t Afghans radical Islamic terrorists? Second, if they are from the lost tribes, what does that mean? What happens now? Regarding the first question, one of the main issues confronting traditional Pashtun culture is radical Islam. Radical Islam filters into the region from Arabia and Iran, backed by oil money. Many Pashtun tribal elders fear that in a few generations there won’t be a Pashtun nation anymore due to targeted efforts by Wahhabists and other Muslim fundamentalists to erase their Israelite roots. Some of the elders with whom we are in touch are working to educate their clans on their true origins and on the importance of reconnecting with the Jewish people.
As for what happens now, the answer is simple. If a person loses his brother as a child and finds him many years later, the first thing they discuss is not how many times a day each other prays. Rather, they inquire about each other’s well-being, and attempt to help each other. Israel is a world leader in military technologies, medicine and sustainability. If, as it seems, the Pashtuns are our long-lost brethren, we should bring our expertise to bear and help them improve their situation.
We can already see this process unfolding.
Enabled by modern technology, Pashtuns and Jews have already begun to network and dialogue. Daily exchanges are happening between Jews and Pashtuns in various forums, for instance, in a Facebook group titled “The People of Israel’s Jirga – Pashtuns and Jews.” Quiet in-person meetings are happening across the globe. Our organization, iTribe, is currently mapping out all communities connected to the lost tribes, including the Pashtun, in an online social network, to create digital bridges between the dispersed exiles of Israel. And together, iTribe and the organizers of the Jirga are organizing what is hopefully the first of many Unite The Tribes conferences in Jerusalem this Thursday, February 22.
Perhaps the “Israelite Spring” is finally upon us. While the path to peace cannot lie solely in defense, it may lie in the active reuniting of roots and dispersed family trees.
The author is a rabbi and co-founder of the iTribe social network and the Theological Research Institute, which is an online educational platform with college credit recommendations on their courses. TRI is currently hosting a free online course on the Lost Tribes of Israel with Amar’e Stoudemire at www.STAT.Academy.