Throughout history, a great amount of effort has been devoted towards identifying the Lost Tribes of Ancient Israel, descendants of the Northern Kingdom [the Kingdom of Israel] whose inhabitants were deported by Assyrian forces in 722 BCE to lands unknown. One recent example of this search identified the Pashtun people of Afghanistan as likely descendants of these tribes based on their customs.
Among the supporters of this theory is Queens-born Rabbi Harry Rozenberg, who lives in Israel and travels around the world in search of our lost relatives, identifying elements of their culture that appear Jewish. His travels have taken him to places as far as West Africa and Japan on the opposite sides of the globe.
Before I express my skepticism, a couple of corrections should be pointed out. The people of Afghanistan should not be referred to as “Afghani.” That’s the name of their national currency, while the people are known simply as Afghans, who are then divided by ethnicities, tribes, and clans. Secondly, to say that the Taliban are in partnership with Iran oversimplifies the religious differences between them. While they agree on their hatred of Western values and the Jewish state, the Taliban persecutes Shiite Muslims, notably the Hazara ethnic group in Afghanistan.
Rabbi Rozenberg asserts that the Pashtuns “actually love Israel,” but this ethnicity also comprises the majority of Taliban fighters, and this movement has its strongest supporters in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Concerning the list of customs that the Pashtuns have in common with observant Jews, when examining each one, they are simply following the tenets of the Muslim religion. Most Jews know that Islam forbids the consumption of pork, but there are many other “halachos” that it shares with Judaism. Muslims also drain blood from their meat, sleep separately during menstruation, pray according to the lunar calendar, have a written and an oral law, and much more.
If the Pashtuns preserved so many Jewish customs over the centuries, it is admirable because, at the time of the Assyrian deportation, idolatry was popular in the Northern Kingdom, with many of their rulers straying from Judaism, to the dismay of our prophets.
Even if the stringencies of the Pashtuns bear a resemblance to Judaism, should we say that Seventh Day Adventists are a lost tribe because their holy day is the same as ours? How about the undershirts worn by Mormons that resemble the Arba Kanfos? What about African Americans who have a narrative of exile, slavery, and interest in the “Old Testament”? Perhaps they are also a lost tribe, as claimed by the Black Israelite movement?
The prevalence of biblical names among Pashtuns as proof of Jewish ancestry also fails to convince this skeptic. The pilgrims who landed in New England also carried biblical names and referred to their churches as meeting houses (a translation of batei k’neses), and they’re certainly not a lost tribe. If we are to assume that all Yusufzai are descended from Yosef HaTzadik, then is every Davidson an heir to David HaMelech?
As the royal family of Afghanistan claims descent from Shaul HaMelech, there’s also the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia who speak of Shlomo HaMelech as their namesake. Absent convincing evidence, such claims were created to lend legitimacy to their respective thrones on the argument that their divine right to rule is older than the founders of the Christian and Muslim faiths. Rabbi Rozenberg’s claim that the Pashtuns have their own army is also difficult to accept as the Afghan army shamefully dispersed in the face of the more motivated Taliban. Why aren’t they fighting for a better Afghanistan? Why didn’t they restore their royal family to a meaningful leadership role after they were liberated in 2001?
Likewise with Israelite ancestry, the Pashtuns can argue that they were monotheists long before the Hazaras, Baluch, Tajiks, Uyghurs, and other neighboring ethnicities adopted this concept.
Genetically, there is no evidence that the Pashtuns migrated from the Middle East, and linguistically their language has no connection to Hebrew, with the only Semitic terms in Pashto and Dari coming from Arabic, the language of Muslim prayer. In contrast to the Beta Israel of Ethiopia and Bnei Menashe of northeast India, the Pashtuns were never treated as strangers or outsiders by the rulers and people of India and Pakistan. They’ve felt at home in the Hindu Kush mountains, rather than pining for another ancestral homeland.
The Pashtuns do not wish to return to Judaism. As devout Muslims, they believe that theirs is the successor faith with the accurate message given by its final prophet. In this regard, there are some Palestinian Arabs who also speak of Jewish and Samaritan ancestry, who are often the biggest supporters of violence against Israel, and their claim to the land is that their families never departed from it.
Rabbi Rozenberg also supports the tribal claims of the Igbo people of Nigeria, who have many cultural practices similar to Judaism. Likely with their adoption of Christianity in the 19th century, they picked up on what they practiced and what they read in scripture. Having a biblical origin gave them a sense of pride at a time when their colonial rulers regarded Africans as uncivilized. Among the Igbo there is a movement to secede from Nigeria and create the nation of Biafra, which briefly existed in the late 1960s.
Mistakenly assuming that he was supporting their insurgency, Nigerian authorities arrested Israeli filmmaker Rudy Rochman earlier this summer as he was visiting Igbo communities to examine their claims to Judaism. Until they are recognized as Jewish according to halachah, I am not sure if it was proper of Rochman to donate to them a sefer Torah. Rather than campaign for aliyah, Biafran activists have a homeland and are simply seeking Israeli support for it – which is unlikely, as Israel has diplomatic relations with Nigeria.
Across Africa there are communities that have adopted Jewish practices and are seeking recognition as Jews, such as the Abayudaya of Uganda and the Sefwi of Ghana. Their aspirations have the support of Conservative and Reform organizations, which results in confusion about their status as Jews because only Orthodox conversions conform to halachah and are recognized by the Israeli government. Orthodox organizations should educate these communities about authentic Judaism and the unlikelihood of the Lost Tribes reaching West Africa.
Rabbi Rozenberg’s motive for identifying lost tribes is pure, as he seeks to strengthen our people and reconnect them to their spiritual purpose on earth, but with so many bona fide Jews being lost to Yiddishkeit and plenty of sincere potential converts across the world seeking to join our people, perhaps it is futile to spend time at Khyber Pass when there is a need for kiruv closer to home and in the land of Israel itself. On this note, Afghans and Jews live next to each other in Kew Gardens Hills. But with little interaction between the two peoples, it is an apparent coincidence that they’ve settled in the same neighborhood.
As we get closer to the arrival of Mashiach, long-dormant concepts in Jewish life are being revived: Jewish sovereignty, research into t’cheiles, observance of Sh’mitah, a movement of baalei t’shuvah, an increase in the number of geirim, the importance of the Har HaBayis, and the return of the Lost Tribes. I pray that over time, all of these controversies will be resolved with siyata diShmaya by our poskim, and we will again speak with one voice as we did at Sinai.
By Sergey Kadinsky