Although the Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan practice Islam, Nadav Sofy, head of the Association for the Bani Israel from Afghanistan, believes they are descended from the Children of Israel. The Jewish Press recently spoke to him to learn more about the subject and the goals of his organization.
The Jewish Press: Why do you think Pashtuns are really Jewish?
Sofy: Out of the 50 million Pashtuns who live in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, millions believe they are descendants of the 10 tribes of Israel, who were taken to Afghanistan thousands of years ago. One reason to support this claim is the many customs they have in common the Judaism such as lighting candles before Friday evening, washing their hands before eating from a special vessel called a koza, and not eating sea creatures such as lobsters, shrimps, and crabs.
They perform circumcision when a boy is an infant, not necessarily on the eighth day. Many of the men grow peyos and wear small head coverings and a square, four-cornered shawl called a shadaar. It is customary that a man marries his dead brother’s widow if the brother didn’t have children, similar to yibum. They observe many Jewish customs of mourning.
Weddings are conducted under a chuppah known as a dolaye, and among the Pashtuns in Kandahar, the bride or groom breaks a glass. The star of David is a popular symbol in their art, tribal wear, and decoration. They also have names like Yaacov, Israel, Barak, Asaf, Benyamin, Kenan, Tamir, and Shir. The list of shared customs goes on and on.
Another striking sign is their facial features. They look like Jews, indicating they haven’t mixed with other peoples.
A lot of onsite research was conducted concerning the Beta Israel Jews from Ethiopia and the Bnei Menashe from India to verify that these people really are who they say they are. Have you been to Afghanistan to do such research?
No. That’s one of the difficulties in moving forward. Israelis are not allowed into the country, and even if you entered with a foreign passport and started doing investigative work about anything Jewish, it isn’t the friendliest place.
But I have met many Pashtuns in Israel, and their identification with our country and with Judaism is very emotional and real. Rav Baruch Efrati heads the hesder yeshiva Shvut Yisrael in Efrat. His grandfather, Rabbi Shimon Efrati, came from Afghanistan. He told me that his grandfather met the Pashtuns on many occasions and that everyone in their vicinity knew they were Jews who were exiled from Israel in the time of Ashur.
What other reasons do you have to believe that the Pashtuns can be traced back to the Lost Tribes?
Today, even in Afghanistan and Pakistan, many people have Internet. We have a page on Facebook, and we receive many comments from Afghans who trace their lineage back to Yaakov Avinu. They tell us about their customs which have their foundations in Judaism and their longing to form a closer connection to their “brothers and sisters” in Israel.
Not everyone in Afghanistan is a terrorist and an avowed enemy of the Zionists and Medinat Yisrael. A majority among the Taliban are from Pashtun tribes, and many believe they are Bnei Yisrael.
Under the influence of Islamic fundamentalism, others have become politically radicalized, and because of the atmosphere of terror, the identification with Israel is kept carefully hidden among the masses. But we have received a startling number of responses from Afghans and Pashtuns in Pakistan – thousands upon thousands – who welcome our efforts to reach out to them in friendship and who wish to share our common Israelite ancestry.
If not for the environment of fear surrounding their lives because of radical Islam, I am positive that we would be inundated with even more messages from people seeking an active bond with the people of Israel.
Another reason why the numbers are not even greater is the simple fact that not everyone in the mountains of Afghanistan has a computer or a smartphone.
Does their language resemble Hebrew?
No. But neither does the language of the Beta Israel from Ethiopia or the language of the Bnei Menashe Jews in India. Throughout history, Jews throughout the exile adopted the language of the countries where they lived or spoke variations of them like Ladino and Yiddish. The Pashtan language is called Pashto. It sounds like other Afghanistan dialects.
Is there any historical documentation to back up the connection of the Afghan tribes with the Lost Tribes?
Rabbi Binyamin of Todela wrote in the 12th century that there were some 80,000 Jews living in the mountains of Nesbor, located on Afghanistan’s border with Iran, along the river of Gozan. They wore traditional Jewish dress and followed Jewish traditions and considered themselves descendants of Dan, Zevulun, Asher, and Naftali, who had lived in the mountains of Nesbor since the exile of Shalmaneser, king of Assyria.
In the second Book of Kings (18:11) it states that the king of Assyria took tribes to Medes, located in Khorassan, a vast area that included Afghanistan. The History of the Afghans, written in the 17th century, records that lost tribes of Israel settled in the mountainous districts of Ghor, Ghazni, Kabul, and Kandahar.
Also in the 17th century, the Pashtun warrior-poet Khushal Khattak wrote that in “beauty, nobody can surpass Pashtuns because they actually belong to the family of prophet Yaakov.”
More recently, the founder of the Shaare Shamayim yeshiva for kabbalists in Jerusalem, Rabbi Shimon Zvi Horowitz, visited Afghanistan extensively. In his book, Kol Mevaser, he reports meeting with many Pashtun Jews and describes the customs and commandments they preserved dating back to the time following the destruction of the First Temple. Rav Kook wrote a recommendation and blessing for the book, praising his efforts to locate the Lost Tribes and emphasizing its importance for the redemption of the Jewish people.
Given the lack of absolute proof that the Pashtuns have not intermarried with gentiles, have there been discussions regarding the possibility of allowing them to convert like the Beta Israel and Bnei Menashe communities?
Due to the hostile attitudes toward Israel in Afghanistan and Pakistan, conversion is a sensitive and dangerous subject. At this time, it’s not feasible, so we don’t make it an issue. Rather, we promote a closer connection between Pashtuns and the people of Israel on the basis of brotherhood and a common heritage. This itself has great value.
[Seeking to clarify the matter, The Jewish Press investigated the question of conversion and discovered that the former Sephardi chief rabbi, Rav Shlomo Amar, addressed the subject in a letter to Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, who agreed with Rabbi Amar’s conclusion. Rav Amar wrote that Pashtun groups have an unquestionable connection to Am Yisrael and harbor a desire for greater connection to full Jewish life, but must undergo a conversion resulting from doubt – similar to the conversion process of Beta Yisrael and Bnei Menashe.]
What about in the area of diplomatic relations between Israel and Afghanistan. Wouldn’t a treaty like the agreements Israel signed with the UAE and Morocco make your work easier?
No question about it. We hope our efforts will get things rolling in this direction, but serious complications stand in the way. Even though Afghanistan never went to war with Israel, the government is anti-Israel. This hostility has spread to the public who is constantly fed lies about Israel.
Pashtun communities have to maintain a low profile. So efforts to reach out, both on their part and ours, are fraught with difficulty. The Internet is the best tool we have, but like I mentioned, not everyone in the border zones of Afghanistan and Pakistan has access to the web.
Right now, we want to improve our presence on Facebook and greatly expand our membership, which stands at 50,000. We also would like to upgrade our halavi.org website. We also want to put out a song featuring Pashtun and Israeli singers together, and we’d like to initiate a Birthright-like visit Israel project. And we’re searching for an anthropologist who can thoroughly research the subject, which includes visiting the wide range of Pashtun communities.