THE HISTORY OF AFGHANISTAN’S JEWS
By: Said T Jawad, 2007
The text is an excerpt of the book “Be the Provider of Relief, Not an Inquisitor of Belief” by Said T Jawad, available in Farsi/Dari. This unofficial translation is for information purposes only. Please do not cite.
Incomplete historiography and a triumph free of dependency and attachment, especially when it comes to research about dissident and minority groups, like in any other less developed country in the East, has regretfully been slow in Afghanistan too. While we are aware of the history and civilization of Buddhists in Bamyan, we remain utterly unaware of history and cultural abilities of our Ismailis of the North and the Nouristani minority of the South; this ignorance is rooted in several issues, which will be discussed in this essay.
1. Lack of Antiquities and Historical Documents
The problem of research on the history of Afghanistan’s Jews can be attributed to the difficulty of researching about any dissident or minority group in a closed society, like our country, Afghanistan; and even if a historian is free of discrimination (which is not so in most cases), he will not have easy access to historical documents to shed light on the blurred sides of the history of minority groups in the less developed societies.
- Narrow mindedness and religious rigidity that is usually mixed with legal discrimination and social humiliation, and is followed by economic subordination, has prevented building of glorious religious buildings like Synagogues, Knessets and civil structures like Bazars, Caravanserais, Maddrasas, and Minarets to demonstrate the cultural, artistic and social flourishing of the groups like the Jews of Afghanistan. For today’s researcher, not more than a few broken gravestones are left to research on the history of the Jews of Afghanistan.
- The Jews of Afghanistan have not had access to schools that the Islamic religious maddrasas and governmental organizations had access to; so the written documents including a few messages, Esteftas (request for Fatwa or religious clarifications) of the Jews of Afghanistan with Jerusalem and Babylon, which were spiritual clergy center for Jews, are all written in Hebrew.
- Like the rest of us Afghans in the eighteenth century that fell behind the renaissance because we were busy in negative competitions among ourselves and civil wars, the Jews of Afghanistan also fell behind the enlightenment movements of the nineteenth and twentieth century Jews who lived in Europe. The history of Afghanistan’s Jews is mostly a part of Afghanistan’s less enlightened history than a part of the more dynamic social and political history of Jews outside Afghanistan.
The Jews of Afghanistan have remained loyal to the cabala ritual of the Jews of the East, but were not as much a part of the enlightenment movements and intellectual reforms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of Europe. In the second half of the eighteenth century in Europe, a new season of history of social development of Jews was commenced by intellectuals who followed individualism and rationality, especially in Germany, Poland and Lithuania. This movement was called Haskala in Hebrew (meaning intellect and knowledge), brought religion in the scale with rationality and intellectualism. Those religion loving intellectuals, for the first time, translated Torah from Hebrew to Deutch. Haskala was strongly opposed by Orthodox Rabbis, because in that time, formal Jew clergymen were conservative and believed that learning the new sciences and breeding rationality and intellectualism will destroy religion and will cause blasphemy and infidelity. The hardline rabbis of those times, like the Islamic extremists of today, strongly opposed educating girls and boys in the schools, and thought it will overthrow Judaism and Jews. Haskala supporters reasoned that Judaism does not oppose education, but actually encourages it. They saw learning new sciences a pathway to empower the undeveloped Jewish societies. Haskala truly transformed the European Jewish community.
Despite that, in mid-eighteenth century in East, especially Eastern Europe, a movement called Hasidism arose that is based on the old rituals of mysticism or Cabala. Hasids, who were also called Sediqs (devout or pious in East) paid more attention to the inwards rather than the outwardly matters. They ecstatically sang religious songs and danced. Despite the differences the Sediqs had with the orthodox on many issues, they shared one value strongly, and that was opposing enlightenment and intellectualism. Because Hasids and Sediqs believed that learning the new sciences opposes the teachings of the prophet Moses, they strayed from the Jews of Eastern Europe from the enlightenment movements of the Europe.
- The scholars in Europe and the United States who shaped the political and social history of the Jews did not have easy access to the historical documents of the Jews of the Eastern Europe, nor did they have any interest in it. This is why it will not help to refer to them to shed light on the history of the Jews of Afghanistan.
- Unfortunately, our historians, due to the status quo in Afghanistan that usually has been malice and scorn towards the Jews, do not provide enough information for us.
Outside Afghanistan, one of the most important books on the Jews or Iran has been published in Iran by the Jew scholar Habib Loi. The book “Jewish History: From Babylon Captivity to Today” has been authored by Parwiz Rahbar in Farsi, has its last chapter about the Persian speaking Jews. I have heard that the Los Angeles Scholars Society Foundation has also published important documents about the Jews of our region, which I unfortunately have not laid my hands on yet. The last, yet the best book about the Jews of Afghanistan is a book by Amnon Natser, Hebrew professor of the Jerusalem University that is called “Contemporary Jewish History” that has information about the Jews of Afghanistan in its fifth chapter. I have not seen more than two essays about the Jews of Afghanistan in English. One is written by J Siberstein, translated to Persian by prominent Afghan scholars, Dr. Dawood Shah Saba Dr. Latif Tabibi, published in the 2nd and 3rd editions of the Mardom Nama-e-Bakhtar; and the second is W.J Fischel’s essay on the Jews of middle ages around Turquoise Mountain, has been published in 85th edition of Journal of American Oriental Society. Regrettably, I do not have access to Hebrew sources.
2. The Myth of Pashtuns being from Israel
What I have described about the lack of historical documents turned too lengthy; now is the time we start our main discussion. But before we discuss the history of the Jews of Afghanistan, it is worth to mention that from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries, we Afghans have considered ourselves one of the 12 lost tribes of the Jews.
The author of Tabaqat Naseri writes that during the Shansab era, there lived a clan in Ghor who were called Bani Israel. Nematullah Heravi in his book “Makhzan-e-Afghani”, probably in the year 1613 during a Mongol kingdom, writes in detail about the Jewish bloodline in Afghans, and traces the bloodline back to Yehuda, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, and Sawal Taloot, king of Bani Israel. This has been discussed in great detail in the valid historical books of Afghanistan, like “Tarikh-e-Murassa” by Afzal Khan Khattak, “Khulasa-tul-Ansab” by Rahmatullah Khan, “Tarikh-e-Khurshi-e-Jahan” by Shir Mohammad Khan Gandapor; each of these historians state that not only is Jerusalem the motherland of Afghans, but it has been built by the Pashtuns; of course these all have been disapproved by recent research.
H.W. Bellew writes in his book “The Afghan Races” that Afghans consider themselves Bani Israel. But there is nothing in the Jew historical documents to show that Pashtuns are one of the twelve lost clans. However, there are vague references to the Jews who have lived in the East, that later was called Khurasan. Islamic encyclopedia writes that the theory of Afghans being Bani Israel started in the sixteenth century during the Mongol era, and was not seen anywhere before. In the Jewish encyclopedia, the word “Afghan” is explained that they consider themselves Bani Israel.
3. The Idea of Afghans being Aryan
In the beginning of the twentieth century that European historians, due to their fascist discrimination, started the concept of Aryans being the better race, and the Saamis as the lower race; the idea that Afghans are Bani Israel also vanished and Afghans being Aryan became famous. It is highly possible that Afghans got familiar with this idea via German, Turkish and Iranian sources.
My father, professor Mir Hussain Shah, once told me that Mr. Hashim Shayeq Afandi has stated that it was him who spread the idea of Afghans (Pashtuns) being Aryan for the first time in a formal meeting of foreign ministers during Amanullah Khan’s kingdom. The political status quo of the time, being opposed to British, and closer to Turkey and Germany, helped for this theory to become the base of historiography in Afghanistan at the time.
Faiz Mohammad Kateb, Afghanistan’s magnificent historian writes that Hashim Shayeq Bukhari, in the formal and classic history refers to documents of Pashtuns being Aryan, and their land to the East of Fars, that is today’s Afghanistan. Ahmad Ali Kohzad, and Najibullah Torwayana, used some of the Sanskrit and Greek mythical names in our cities and on our kings and leaders, and thus turned it into an acceptable theory, that washed away the theory of Afghans being Bani Israel, and normalized the idea of Pashtuns being Aryan. Meanwhile, the theory of Afghans (Pashtuns) being Bani Israel was oust outside of Afghanistan too. In this light, Sayed Bahador Shah Zafar Kakakhel in his worthwhile and comprehensive book “Pashtuns in the Light of History” cites from the Torah and writes in detail that Afghans (Pashtuns) are not Bani Israel, they rather are Aryan.
4. Background of the Jews of Afghanistan
The Jews of Afghanistan according to their own oral history, claim that they are the descendants of the Jews who were exiled to Babylon, around 720 BCE. As mentioned before, there are not valid documents to prove this, except for the slight clue to the Jews of the East in Torah.
The oldest Esteftas and religious inquiries of the Jews of Afghanistan is from the eighth century, around 1500 years after the exile to Babylon. These documents tell us about the existence of relatively empowered Jewish communities in Ghazna, Balkh, Maimana, Kabul, Turquoise Mountain, Marw and Herat. During the Sultan Mahmude’s era, eight thousand Jews lived in Ghazni, which some of them enjoyed administrative tasks and looked after mines at the time.
Edrisi (1099-1169) writes that in twelfth century, there was a big Jewish community in Kabul, who lived in a segregated place called Gato; however, it is not clear whether this segregation was to facilitate easier access to kosher food, or they were forced to do so. But in the beginning of the twentieth century, the Jews of Afghanistan lived alongside Muslims, mostly around Deh Afghanan and Shahr-e-Naw areas. I do not agree with Professor Amnon Natser on his belief that the Jews of Afghanistan are the remains of the Jews who escaped from Mashad, Iran, during the Safavid era; because there are documents that prove Jews lived in Afghanistan preceding this event. For instant, in 1946 a written document was discovered from the graveyards of Jews in Ghor that is in Persian.
These gravestones are from the 1100-1250 A.C.E. The last of these gravestones is dated September 19, 1249, that is 27 years after the invasion of the Mongols. It is highly probable that this Jewish community were forced to migrate towards China after the invasion of the Mongols. These gravestones do not only reveal that historically Jews have lived in Afghanistan; but also that they have had a complex social system including religious court, synagogues, and schools; the gravestones for example read as tager (businessman), Malamid (teacher), Hakam (rabbi). It should be stated that the Jews of Afghanistan called their rabbi Khalifa. In Arab countries, they call Khakham or rabbi.
Even though Gengis swept most of our cultural heritage, wise and prudent Mongol traders were accommodating of the Jews. That was why a group of Jews had high government positions with the Mongols, positions as high as prime minister.
The oppression during the Safavid and Qajar regimes in Iran pushed the Jew community to migrate to Afghanistan. Especially the Jew community in Mashad that had good business relations with Afghans, and traded Qaraqol. They settled in Herat, because life for Jews was better in Afghanistan. The Jews who migrated to Afghanistan started immersing themselves in the Afghan culture, and soon considered Afghanistan their homeland. The below document that has come in the book ‘Contemporary History of the Jews’ written by a Jew from Herat named Ibne Amin bin Hazrat Rab Jani, shows Herati Jews’ love and affection for Afghanistan as their home.
“In the Sukkut festival of 1856/57 the Shiite army, because we had sinned so much, overtook the city of Herat. On January 28, of 1857 a decree was issued to punish all the Jewish families who have migrated from Mashad to Herat, in the Sadom and Amora temple (Sadom and Amora are two cities that have been destroyed because of the sins of its inhabitants). On February 1st that there heavy rain and snow, we had to leave the city. A lot of the children and old people lost their lives due to the harshness of the journey, and because there was no food and clothes with us.
The author of this letter hardly arrived in Mashad, and after two years returned back to Herat in good health; and prays that God helps Herat not to fall into the enemies hands again.”
Albeit the Jews of Afghanistan were not safe either. In March of 1876 Amir Shir Ali Khan got angry with the Jews of Afghanistan, and killed 13 rabbis and sheriffs of the Jews of Maimana. (The Jews of Afghanistan call their religious maddrassas ‘madarish’).
The first big migration wave of the Jews of Afghanistan to Europe started in 1944, when a lot of families went to Jerusalem via India. They had grievous destinies. Some of them committed suicide in India, because the British Indian government did not grant them citizenship. Eventually they migrated to Israel in 1949, and started the Afghanistan Jews’ Community there. In those times, the Persian speaking Jews lived in the Bukharian neighborhood of Jerusalem, and compared to the Jews of Europe had lesser economic prospects. They were so poor that once the Ottoman Empire issued a verdict that all the Persian speaking families who did not have proper homes and worked at lowest paying jobs, should be evicted from Jerusalem. However, this verdict was not executed with the intermediation of the European Jews.
After the establishment of Israel, the below Hebrew letter was sent from Kabul to the government of Israel, which had been signed by seventy rabbis and sheriffs:
“Once again, we want to tell you about the miseries we live in. Our Galoot is harder than the Egyptian and the Babylonian Golah/Galut (refers to the Jews living in diaspora, while waiting for the day of resurrection). Aside from the tax on income, the Afghanistan government taxes us additionally without giving us our rights. We neither are allowed to trade, nor to leave the country. We do not have enough strength left to fight for our daily survival. We have sold everything we have had. Jews are not allowed to seek employment in the government or elsewhere. There are not any factories that we can work at either. The government has animosity with us.”
In February 1950, the World Jewish Congress’s representative asked the Afghanistan ambassador at the United Nations, Sardar Mohammad Naem, to let the Jews of Afghanistan to migrate to Israel. In October of that year, the government of Afghanistan sent a positive response to the World Jewish Congress’s request and almost all of the Jews of Afghanistan started migrating to Israel through Iran. However, some middle class Jew families remained in Kabul, Herat, and Maimana.
A New York Times reporter visited the Jewish synagogue in Kabul in 1995, and reported that only an old Jew man is left there, because he wants to protect the synagogue and the Holy Torah there until he is alive. While in 1927, as the British tourists said, more than sixty cities of Afghanistan had Jews living in them. Persian speaking Jews live in Jerusalem, Habran and Hafad. They have their separate synogogues and have not forgotten their love and affection for Afghanistan, like the Afghans who have migrated to the United States.
San Fransico, California
Note from AISS: This translated document is provided for information purposes only. It does not represent the position of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies or any other organization.
- Habib Loi, Iranian Jewish History, three editions, Tehran, 1334-1339
- Parwiz Rahbar, Jew’s History: from the Babylon Exile to Today, Tehran 1325
- Ghafoor Mirzae, Jews Throughout Iran’s History, Rah Award Quarterly, 47th Edition, Summer 1347, California
- Quoting Mohammad Hayat Khan, Hayat Afghani, Ariana printing press, Kabul 1370, First edition, p.169
- Check pages 34 to 46 of Khorshid-e-Jahan book, Shir Mohammad Khan Gandapor, University book agenct, Peshawar, 1311 ed, year of publication?
- H.W. Bellow The Races of Afghanistan, Lahore, p.15, 1979
- Qouting professor Mir Hossain Shah, who studied at the Literature Faculty of Kabul University at the time.
- Faiz Mohammad Kateb, Encyclopedia of the Afghan Races, p. 46, Esmailian printing press, Qom 1372
- Sayed Bahador Shah Kakakhel, Pashtuns in the Light of History, p. 55, University Book Agency, Peshawar, date of publication?
- G.Menalon, Others in the Afghan Identity, Jew Community of Afghanistan in the Middle Ages, translated by Dr. Latif Tabibi and Dr. Dawood Shah Saba, Mardom Nama-e-Bakhtar, 2nd and 3rd edition, Sunbula 1376, Canada
- The same as above
- The same as above
- Amnon Natser, p.270
- The same as above, p.272