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      'I Love Israel - My Forefathers Were Probably Jews'

      A Pashtun historian from India traces the Lost Tribes - to himself.
      By Alexander Maistrovoy
      First Publish: 4/12/2007, 8:50 AM

      40 years ago, as Israel celebrated its 1967 triumph, an extraordinary event occurred in the Jewish community of India. The President of India, Dr. Zakir Hussain, made a highly surprising visit to the Ohel David Synagogue of Pune, Maharashtra, which was celebrating its centenary. The significance of the event and the title of the guest were unprecedented. Why did he visit?

      Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi has his own explanation:  Dr. Hussain, one of the most famous sons of India, honored with the India's highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, was a member of a Pashtun (Pakhtun; Pathan) tribe known as the Afridi. And the Afridi tribe is identified with Ephraim, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

      Dr. Aafreedi is an Indian citizen, a representative of the Afridi tribe too, and an historian. He isn't 30 yet, but he has a Ph.D. on Medieval and Modern Indian History, and his research paper was entitled: "Indian Jewry and the Self-Professed 'Lost Tribes of Israel' in India." His book of the same title is the third serious major work ever by a Gentile on this subject. Now he is doing his Post-Doctoral Research at Tel Aviv University.
      "Right then I decided that I would explore my probable Israelite roots."

      "Small minorities and marginal groups in all parts of the world have always interested me", he told this reporter. "But I was always more interested in Jews than any other group because of their impressive accomplishments and achievements, in spite of their numerical insignificance, and also because Muslims in my home town Lucknow tended to blame Jews for everything evil in the world. My interest in the Jews further deepened when my late uncle once said to me that our roots were Israelite. I was then 12 years old. Right then I decided that I would explore my probable Israelite roots when I get to the doctoral level.

      "There were no Jews in my home town Lucknow. I only met Jews for the first time when I started researching for my Ph.D. But the more I read about Jews, the more my admiration grew for them. The Jewish saga is a tale of unprecedented heroism and self-sacrifice; Jews were humiliated and mistreated like no other people in history. That despite this, the Jews rose and returned to their ancient homeland (Israel) after two thousand years speaks volumes about the character of these tenacious people. I admire Jews as much for their resilience and courage as for their wisdom and scholarship."

      After getting his Ph.D. from Lucknow University in 2005, Navras won scholarships from the Center for Judaic Studies in Shandong University, China and from the Israeli government. The terms of the Chinese scholarship were more lucrative, but Navras chose Tel-Aviv. "It's only for my love for Israel," he explains.

      Navras began his research of the connection between Afridi Pashtuns from Malihabad in Lucknow district (of the state of Uttar Pradesh) and the Ephraim tribe. Pashtuns settled there in the mid-18th century and they are about 1,200 today. It is a drop in the ocean compared to about 45 million Pashtuns around the world. Pashtun tribes mainly live in the highlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they are divided into 60 tribes and 400 clans.

      The Afridi tribe is one of the largest (about three million) and very martial. They controlled the famous Khyber and the Kohat passes, collected tribute from caravans and became famous for their fearlessness and selflessness in battles with everyone who tried to
      Dr. Aafreedi refers to great Jewish rabbis who mention Afghanistan and Pakistan as the home of "Lost Tribes."
      conquer Afghanistan - from Mughal troops in the 16th and 17th centuries to the British in the 19th and Russians in the 20th centuries.

      For hundreds of years, Afridis have called themselves Bani Israel (Pushto for the Hebrew B'nei Yisrael, meaning "Children of Israel") and believe that they originated from the Ephraim tribe. Lately, the hatred of Jews in the Islamic world made the young generation of Pashtuns give up their beliefs, but Navras quotes a number of Jewish immigrants from Afghanistan who testify to the prevalence of many Jewish rituals and customs among the Afridi Pashtun, such as the lighting of candles on Shabbat, growing long side-locks, wearing shawls resembling the tallit (ritual prayer shawl), circumcision on the eighth day after birth, and Levirate marriage.

      Dr. Aafreedi refers to great Jewish rabbis, such as Saadia Ga'on and Moses Ibn Ezra, who mention Afghanistan and the Pathan territories in Pakistan as the home of Jews descended from the lost tribes. He also notes that a number of medieval Arabic and Farsi texts refer to the same phenomenon. In the 19th century some British travelers and officers, like Sir Alexander Brunes and J.P. Ferrier, wrote about the Israelite origin of Afghan tribes.

      Many Pashtuns don't conceal their descent. For example, Emir Abdul Rahman, the grandfather of the former Afghan Shah Amanullah, stated expressly in his History of the Afghans that the Afghan tribes were of Israelite origin.

      Lately, other and more impressive arguments have been produced by Joshua Benjamin in his book Mystery of the Lost Tribes, the second president of Israel, Yitzchak Ben-Zvi (The Exiled and the Redeemed [1957]), Social Anthropologist from Hebrew University Dr. Shalva Weil (Beyond the Sambatyon: The Myth of the Ten Lost Tribes), Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail (The Tribes of Israel), ex-Director of Archeology Fida Hasnain from Kashmir and others. According to some Jewish and European explorers from the Middle Ages until the present day, the Afridi tribe originates from Ephraim, the Yusufzai tribe from Joseph, the Rabbani from Reuben, the Levani from Levi, the Ashuri from Asher, etc.

      Together with Prof. Tudor Parfitt (SOAS, London University) and Dr. Yulia Egorova (Cardiff University), Navras collected DNA samples of 50 paternally unrelated Afridi males of Malihabad and they are now being analyzed at University College, London.

      Navras sees deep meaning in the fact that the world's only Muslim who teaches Jewish
      Would the time for repatriation of the bellicose and unruly Afridi tribe to Israel ever come?
      theology at a Western university happens to be an Afridi Pathan. She is Prof. Mehnaz Mona Afridi of the Department of Theological Studies in Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. And the only Muslim in the world who has initiated a Jewish-Muslim dialogue with Daniel Pearl's father Judea Pearl, happens to be a Pathan, as well, Prof. Akbar S. Ahmad. And isn't it amazing that he, Navras Jaat Aafreedi himself, was from his very childhood so strongly drawn to Jews, absolutely unfamiliar and alien to him? "It can be a peculiar proof too," my interviewee smiles.

      Would the time for repatriation of the bellicose and unruly Afridi tribe to Israel ever come? "Not today, and not tomorrow, but it is possible. During his recent trip to London, Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail met two Afridi Pathan families who had fled their country during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They spoke about their desire to embrace Judaism, the faith of their supposed ancestors,” Dr. Aafreedi says.

      Alexander Maistrovoy is a journalist with the Russian-language Israeli newspaper Novosty Nedely.