MOSCOW, Oct. 29 (JTA) — The two Jews now living in Afghanistan are heirs to a 2,700-year-old Jewish presence that may include members of the tribe that makes up the ruling Taliban.
Jews first came to what is now called Afghanistan in the seventh or eighth centuries BCE following the first biblical exile at the hands of the Assyrians.
The inhospitable, mountainous country — which has a harsh climate and is populated by fierce indigenous tribes — long had served as a place where empires dumped their dissidents and established colonies.
According to legend, the 10 tribes of northern Israel were dispersed in 722 BCE.
According to several researchers — including Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi — the Pashtun believe they are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and later were forcibly converted to Islam. The Pashtuns are the main Afghani ethnic group and the main support for the Taliban.
Jewish texts also mention this belief, but there is no conclusive evidence for what happened to the tribes, and they effectively disappeared from history.
Yet there is a fair amount of support for the Pashtun-Israelite connection, Jerusalem-based researcher Rabbi Eliyahu Avihail told JTA.
Dozens of Pashtun names and customs sound Jewish, from the Pashtun tribe names of Asheri and Naftali to the Pashtun custom of a wedding chupah to the circumcising of sons on the eighth day after their birth.
Several years ago Avihail published a book on the issue in Hebrew, “The Ten Tribes of Israel,” which recently was translated into English.
If his thesis is true, the Taliban — who are seen as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel — would be descended from the lost Hebrew tribes.
“It is very unpleasant, but what can we do?” Avihail says.
Other researchers are less sure. Rashid Kaplanov, a leading Moscow-based researcher of Jewish history, calls the Lost Tribe theory a legend, no matter what the Pashtuns may believe.
The history of proven Jewish life in Afghanistan is easier to document.
In the sixth century BCE, Persian Jews who came to this remote part of the Persian empire as exiles, military mercenaries, agricultural colonists or traders enjoyed relative tolerance.
In the common era, that migration picked up steam.
“It is clear that over the centuries lots of Persian Jews came to this territory fleeing the Islamization of the former Persian Empire, which started with the Arab-Muslim conquest” in the seventh and eight centuries, says Alexej Kornilov, a Moscow-based researcher in the history of Persian Jewry with the Russian Academy of Sciences.
This wave of refugees, according to Kornilov, included Jews forcibly converted to Islam who sought a refuge where they could return to Judaism without fear of persecution.
The last mass immigration was in 1839, when thousands of Persian Jews fleeing forceful conversion in the nearby Persian city of Meshed settled in Afghanistan.
At the time, Afghanistan’s Jewish community numbered roughly 40,000, most of whom traded in skins, carpets and antiquities.
The decline came in the 1870s, when a number of anti-Jewish measures triggered a mass exodus to Central Asia, Persia and Palestine, eventually reducing the number of Jews in Afghanistan to roughly 5,000 by 1948.
Nearly all the community made aliyah after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. According to published figures, only 100 to 200 Jews remained in Afghanistan by the mid-1990s.
One of the last Jewish communities in Afghanistan was in the northern city of Mazar-i-sharif, currently the scene of fierce battles between the Pashtun-based Taliban and the Northern Alliance, which is made up mainly of ethnic Tajiks and supported by the United States.
Now, reportedly, only two Jews remain.
In Israel, meanwhile, the number of Jews of Afghani descent is roughly 10,000.