"The Taliban Have Jewish Roots?"
That was the title of an ABC News story on January 12, 2010. "Don't tell the Taliban," the article begins, "but their ancestors may be Jewish."
The actual basis of the article was a proposed population genetics study aiming to determine whether members of the Afridi Pashtun tribe are descendants of one of the 'Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.' The Pashtun, or Pathan, people have historically comprised the largest contingent of the Taliban; however, as ABC News itself reported in 2006, "Before the Taliban were made up of mostly ethnic Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan. Now, experts say, fighting units are made up of a mix of Afghans, Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks." In fact, many Pathans embrace a traditional notion that they are descended in part from ancient Hebrews. Still, it is probably an understatement to say that most Pathans and Israelis do not see each other in a particularly positive light.
Over 40 million people call themselves Pashtun, with the majority living near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the Afridi Pathan subjects of the proposed ancestry study live in India, numerous international news outlets jumped to the same attention-grabbing angle, beginning when the story first appeared in the Jerusalem Post on January 9, 2010 under the headline: "Are Taliban Descendents of Israelites?"
Beneath the sensationalized coverage, the study in question had indeed been proposed. Shahnaz Ali, a research fellow at the National Institute of Immunohaematology in Mumbai, was granted funding by the Israeli Foreign Ministry to carry out an ancestry study at Technion University in Israel which would compare Afridi Pashtun and modern Jewish blood samples for ancestral links.
However, Ali's advisor at Technion, Karl Skorecki - himself known for claiming identification of a Jewish genetic marker called the 'Cohen gene' - claims that the study never took place. Having picked up a press release from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Jerusalem Post article brought attention to the study. For Shahnaz Ali, the attention was unwanted. According to Skorecki, Ali requested a change of projects because "she found that there was too much controversy in the Pashtun community." While Ali did carry out research for three months at Technion, she focused on medical topics rather than ancestry. "She really asked to be left alone," Skorecki said.
Several years earlier, a British researcher named Tudor Parfitt attempted to conduct a very similar study - collecting DNA from Afridi Pashtuns in India with the intent to prove their descent from ancient Israelites. Dr. Parfitt has spent decades searching for the remnants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, which by biblical accounts were driven from Israel by the invasion of Assyria. Parfitt has visited refugee camps in Ethiopia to meet the Falashas, a Jewish community there, and he is perhaps best known for his work with the Lemba tribe in South Africa, who follow many Semitic traditions and claim Israelite ancestry. DNA tests of the Lemba, commissioned by Parfitt, seem to show some scientific basis for these claims. But after its initial media attention - which, as with Ali's proposed study, arrived before any testing had actually been conducted - Parfitt's DNA study of Pashtuns seems to have faded from the spotlight. Some suggest this is because it failed to produce definitive results, which may be the case. It is certainly true, however, that word of Parfitt's study raised the ire of Pashtuns and the concern of colleagues, some of whom strongly suggested he secure formal permission from the Pashtun community or abandon the study altogether.
Ali and Parfitt's proposed studies made news because of the implication that bitter enemies may turn out to be relatives. What didn't make the news was the controversy that derailed them.
One of the most vocal critics of both studies was Robert R. Khan of the Pashtun Heritage Foundation. "That question - whether or not the Pashtuns are related to ancient Hebrews - is a very valid question," he says. "But it has to be done by a third party or by Pashtuns themselves."
Yet there is also an inherent concern in a study focusing specifically on Pashtun descent from a Lost Tribe - particularly when, as in the case of the more recent proposed study, the research is being conducted in Israel and with funding from the Israeli government. It is a question partly of intent, say Khan and others, and partly of unintended ramifications.
"Focusing on this Israeli connection just makes [the study] a political football," Khan says. "There are people who would want it to be proved true and people who would not want it to be proved true on both sides. Many Pashtuns loathe the idea that they may be in fact heavily related to ancient Israelites; and in Israel there are certainly people who do not want to be told the Pashtuns are descended from Hebrews because it puts them in a fundamental problem: how can they tell the ancient Israelite tribes that they can't come back to Israel?"
Khan is referring to Israel's Law of Return, which grants those of Jewish ancestry the right to Israeli citizenship. Some conservative groups, concerned about the declining Jewish population in Israel, are actively seeking "lost Jews" and helping them "return" to Israel.
One well publicized example of "lost Jews" are the Bnei Menashe, a group of around 9,000 people from northeast India who, like the Lemba of South Africa, claim Hebrew descent. Upon learning of the Bnei Menashe in 1979, an Israeli group called Amishav, dedicated to locating the lost tribes, began efforts to convert the Bnei Menashe to Orthodox Judaism. Through the work of Amishav and its more aggressive offshoot, Shavei Israel (led by right-wing Jerusalem Post columnist Michael Freund), the Bnei Menashe began relocating to Israel.
Yet the intentions of the groups devoted to bringing the Bnei Menashe to Israel began to come into question. Freund himself has suggested that resettlement of the Bnei Menashe and other "lost Jews" will help Israel main- tain a Jewish demographic majority: "I believe that groups like the Bnei Menashe constitute a large, untapped demographic and spiritual reservoir for Israel and the Jewish people." In fact, fact, most of the nearly 2,000 Bnei Menashe brought to Israel found themselves in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, leading Israel's Minister of Science and Technology in 2006 to say the Bnei Menashe were "being cynically exploited for political purposes." Controversy has arisen in India as well, in response to outside groups attempting to convince the Bnei Menashe to leave the country.
Interest in the "Lost Tribe industry" extends beyond religious and government groups, however. The tour company Spirit of India has organized a 'Lost Tribes' tour to visit the Bnei Menashe in India, and the Jerusalem Post has publicized "The Ten Lost Tribes Challenge," a series of "expeditions" in which participants can see the Lost Tribes for themselves. Less publicized: the Lost Tribes Challenge is actually a joint venture of two Israeli tour companies.
But things are different with the Pashtuns. If they expect new migrations to Israel (or, for that matter, new tour destinations) Khan says, "these people - Freund and company - are definitely playing with fire." If a DNA test were to closely link Pashtuns to ancient Hebrews, would the Israeli government really want to open its borders to a group which includes some of the most hard-line Islamists in the world?
Those points may be moot, not only because the latest attempted study has been called off, but because both studies thus far have focused on a small, distinct community of Pashtuns. Despite the news reports suggesting the research would somehow include the Taliban, even if the Afridi Pashtuns were genetically linked to ancient Israelites, it could hardly be scientifically applied to all 40 million Pashtuns worldwide.
The more central problem, say Khan and other Pashtuns, is biocolonialism. "The only people who should be doing this are groups that have Pashtun permission," Khan says. "Pashtuns aren't afraid of a DNA test - we just want to do it under our own auspices."
Sam Anderson is Editor of GeneWatch.