Jews of Afghanistan: A History of Tolerance and Diversity
Civilians prepare to board a plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 18., 2021.
Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla
By: Amb. Said Jawad
In February 1950, representatives of the World Jewish Congress met with Ambassador Sardar Mohammad Naeem, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United Nations, and petitioned him to ask King Zaher Shah to allow Afghan Jews to migrate freely to Israel. In October of the same year, the tolerant monarch of Afghanistan responded positively to the World Jewish Congress, and almost all of Afghanistan's Jews gradually left Kabul for a more prosperous life, via Kandahar and Herat, to Iran, and from there to Israel. They all kept their Afghan citizenship. Some affluent families remained in Kabul and Herat.
With this wave of migration, we lost another precious gem of the Afghan mosaic of diversity, but this Jewish community kept their love for Afghan culture. Some missed Afghanistan and wrote and published nostalgic poetry about how much they loved Kabul.
When I wrote my first article about Afghan Jews two decades ago, I encountered the challenge of limited resources that most researcher of the history of minorities and small communities in Afghanistan face. Just as we need more resources and enhanced research about the Zoroastrians of Balkh, Buddhists of Bamiyan and Ismailis of Badakhshan, more studies are needed about the heritage and history of Afghan Jews.
A Rich and Tolerant History:
Clearly, the history of Afghan Jews is more of a reflection of the unrevealing political history of Afghanistan. Yet, one fact is very clear, the history of the Afghan Jews is a tale of remarkable tolerance and striking diversity of Afghanistan’s societies. Afghanistan has been remarkably tolerant towards Jews for over a thousand years, and cities such as Herat, Kabul and Maimana were once safe havens for Jews fleeing persecution in Iran and Central Asia. Afghanistan was the only country that allowed Jewish families to immigrate to Israel freely without revoking their Afghan citizenship first.
Furthermore, if we look at the old black and white photographs of Kabul’s Jewish weddings, religious gatherings and bar mitzvah ceremonies, the similarities between non-Jewish Afghans and Afghan Jew is striking. Rabbis' turbans and chapans (stripped gowns) are the same as the Afghan nobles, and the wedding ceremonies are almost identical to elaborate Afghan wedding rituals.
Further evidence of the absence of prejudice is the fact that from the 16th to the 20th century, the Pashtuns of Afghanistan considered themselves to be descendants of the Children of Israel and one of the lost Jewish tribes. Pashtun historians were adamant about this unfounded theory that was popular since the 16th century in the Mughal court.
For instance, the author of “Tabaghat Naseri” writes that within the domain of the Shansab Kingdom in Ghor (near Herat), there is a tribe called Bani Israel. According to him, as well as Pashtun legend, the Bani Israel later accepted Islam, after their leader, Qais, met with Prophet Mohamad in Mecca.
In ”Khazana-i-Afghan”, written in 1613, during the reign of Mughal Emperor Jahangir, Nematullah Heravi extensively discussed the Jewish lineage of Pashtuns and traced their genealogy back to Yahwa and King Saul of the Bani Israel. A similar line of argument is pursued in other major history books, such as "Tarikh-i-Murasaa" by Afzal Khan Khotak, as well as "Khulaasat al-Ansab" by Rahmatullah Khan, and "Tarikh-i-Khurshid-e-Jahan" by Sher Muhammad Khan Gendaapuri. Each of these historians established, with ample detail, (referencing the names and lineages of various Prophets and Jewish kings) that not only are Afghans (Pashtuns) descendants of Jerusalem’s Kings, but they also inhabited the Holy Land, which modern research does not support, and recent DNA tests reject.
Influenced by German Nazis’ and Turkish fascist propaganda, in the early 20th century, the myth of Afghans being descendants of the Bani Israel was officially substituted with the myth of Afghans being Aryan. Professor Hashem Shayeq Afendi wrote that the idea of Afghans being Aryan was coined in the 1920’s by Afghans educated in Turkey. He documented that during a meeting in the court of King Amanullah Khan, Foreign Minister Mahmood Tarzi stated, for the first time, that Afghans were Aryans.
The anti-British political climate and intellectual ties with Turkey and Germany at the time facilitated prompt acceptance of this newly sanctioned theory and laid the foundation for revising the country’s official historiography. Historian Ahmad Ali Kohzad and court writers like Najibullah Khan Torwayana, through associating some names and myths mentioned in Greek and Sanskrit sources, created a relatively sophisticated concept based on a baseless myth, thereby pushing the legend of Afghans being descendants of the Israelites aside.
A Deep-rooted Society:
In their oral history, members of the Afghan Jewish community claim to be the descendants of the those who lived through the Babylonian captivity and the Assyrian assault of Jerusalem in 721 BCE that resulted in the forced migration of the Ten Tribes, now referred to as the Lost Tribes. While Jewish tribes fleeing Assyrian captivity may have made their way eastwards along the Silk Road to settle in what are Afghanistan flourishing cities of Balkh, Kabul and Herat, we need more reliable historical evidence to confirm this assertion.
The earliest records and religious correspondences of the Jews of Afghanistan date back to the 8th century. These documents affirm the existence of thriving and prosperous Jewish communities in Ghazni, Balkh, Maimana, Kabul, Firoz Koh, Herat and Merv. In Ghazni during the reign of Sultan Mahmud, 8000 Jews lived in this metropole; some of them served in administration and supervised mines under the patronage of the Sultan.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Jewish population of the geography that is now Afghanistan was estimated to have reached between 40,000 to 80,000, mostly prosperous traders of gemstones and karakul (sheep pelt). They worked along the trade routes between Afghanistan, Iran, India, China, and Central Asia. These routes were mostly dangerous, crossing along narrow mountain passes, where today Hebrew and Aramaic prayers of the Jewish merchants and travellers can be seen carved in rocks.
In the 12th century, large Jewish communities lived in a separate neighbourhood in Kabul. It is not clear whether the Jews chose to live in a separate quarter for the convenience of accessing kosher food and performing religious rituals or whether they were forced to do so. In the 20th century, Jews in Kabul and Herat lived in mostly the affluent neighbourhoods of Shahar-e Nau and Darwaz-e Iraq.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, tombstones and stone tablets with Hebrew inscriptions (dating from 1115 to 1250) confirmed the existence of a thrifting Jewish community in Firoz Koh, located between Herat and Kabul. This inscription not only provides clear evidence of the deep-rooted history of the Jewish community in Afghanistan, but also, by checking the titles inscribed alongside the names of the tomb occupants, such as Aluf (judge), Tagger (merchant), Malmid (teacher), and Hukam (Rabbi), one can definitely conclude that this community had a complex social fabric with proper institutions, such as a religious court, bazars, places of worship, and schools for children.
Ancient Records of the Afghan Genizah
Genizah is a Hebrew term meaning “storage” or treasure (Khazina in Farsi) and refers to a storeroom in a Synagogue or a cemetery, where books and religious papers are kept or buried, as it is forbidden to throw away writings containing the name of God, in the Jewish faith.
The Afghan Genizah (perceived to be as important as the Cairo Genizah collection of Jewish documents found over a century ago in Egypt) is the most credible and detailed record of Afghan Jewish communities’ presence in today’s Afghanistan, dating back to the 10th century. These records, found a decade ego, in a cave in northern Afghanistan, are written in Judeo-Persian, and documented flourishing Jewish communities on the Afghan part of the ancient Silk Road, a vast trade network of routes connecting China to the Mediterranean Sea. It includes amazing collections of personal letters, commercial correspondence, financial records, and rabbinic clarifications and Biblical interpretations.
As Afghanistan suffered harshly under Genghis Khan’s onslaught, the Afghan Jewish population was equally decimated by the Mongol invasion of 1222. There was a brief revival in the 16th century, when Jews once again became prominent in trade between what is now Afghanistan, India, and the Persian Gulf region. However, as the trade routes began to decline and were gradually replaced by sea routes, Afghan Jews, like the rest of Afghan society suffered.
Although the invasion of Genghis Khan was devastating, the wise and cultured survivors of the Mongols made up for their ancestor’s brutality, as Jews were given important government positions, including the prime ministership in the court of the Mongols.
During the period of Safavids, when bigotry and crisis engulfed the Iranian court, the government frequently treated Jews harshly. They choose to take refuge in Afghanistan, especially a significant number of Jews from Mashhad. Established trade relations with the Jews of Afghanistan allowed for migration to Herat. This brought the Jewish population back up to its former glory of 40,000, and the city of Herat became the heart of this new Jewish community.
Starting in the 19th century, as Afghanistan descended once again into decline and internal strife, the situation for Afghan Jews also deteriorated. In March 1876, Amir Sher Ali Khan killed 13 Rabbis and religious school leaders (called modaris) in Maimana, (a city once known as Yahudia, the Jewish city). By 1927 the Jewish population of Afghanistan had dwindled down to 5,000. King Nadir Shah (1929-33) restored the laws and rights of Afghan Jews, reversed anti-Jewish decrees, and gave Jews equal rights as citizens.
The first wave of extensive migration of Jews from Afghanistan abroad occurred in 1944 when mostly young Afghan and Central Asian Jews arrived in India with the intention of reaching Jerusalem. They faced a tragic fate. The British authorities did not allow them to migrate, accusing them being communist agents. Some committed suicide in Bombay, and others eventually, in 1949, migrated to Israel and established the foundation of Afghan Jews there. At that time, Persian-speaking Jews mostly resided in the Bukhara Quarter of Jerusalem.
The remaining Jewish population left Afghanistan in the 1960‘s and went to Israel, New York and London in search of prosperity. Today over 1,000 Afghan Jews and their children live in Queens, New York. They still trade in gemstones, speak Farsi and are proud of their Afghan heritage. I visited them and their Synagogue, recently.
To conclude, the history of Afghan Jews is a tale of remarkable tolerance. This community is a now a missing gem in the mosaic of diverse Afghan societies. The restoration of such diversity and tolerance is what the Afghans desire considering the present-day misfortunes.
Ambassador Said Jawad is the Former Afghan Ambassador to the United States of America, United Kingdom and Russian Federation.
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The article does not reflect the official opinion of the AISS.