Israel is to fund a rare genetic study to determine whether there is a link between the lost tribes of Israel and the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.
Historical and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests a connection, but definitive scientific proof has never been found. Some leading Israeli anthropologists believe that, of all the many groups in the world who claim a connection to the 10 lost tribes, the Pashtuns, or Pathans, have the most compelling case. Paradoxically it is from the Pashtuns that the ultra-conservative Islamic Taliban movement in Afghanistan emerged. Pashtuns themselves sometimes talk of their Israelite connection, but show few signs of sympathy with, or any wish to migrate to, the modern Israeli state.
Now an Indian researcher has collected blood samples from members of the Afridi tribe of Pashtuns who today live in Malihabad, near Lucknow, in northern India. Shahnaz Ali, from the National Institute of Immunohaematology in Mumbai, is to spend several months studying her findings at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa. A previous genetic study in the same area did not provide proof one way or the other.
The Assyrians conquered the kingdom of Israel some 2,730 years ago, scattering 10 of the 12 tribes into exile, supposedly beyond the mythical Sambation river. The two remaining tribes, Benjamin and Judah, became the modern-day Jewish people, according to Jewish history, and the search for the lost tribes has continued ever since. Some have claimed to have found traces of them in modern day China, Burma, Nigeria, Central Asia, Ethiopia and even in the West.
But it is believed that the tribes were dispersed in an area around modern-day northern Iraq and Afghanistan, which makes the Pashtun connection the strongest.
"Of all the groups, there is more convincing evidence about the Pathans than anybody else, but the Pathans are the ones who would reject Israel most ferociously. That is the sweet irony," said Shalva Weil, an anthropologist and senior researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The Pashtuns have a proud oral history that talks of descending from the Israelites.
Their tribal groupings have similar names, including Yusufzai, which means sons of Joseph; and Afridi, thought by some to come from Ephraim. Some customs and practices are said to be similar to Jewish traditions: lighting candles on the sabbath, refraining from eating certain foods, using a canopy during a wedding ceremony and some similarities in garments.
Weil cautioned, however, that this is not proof of any genetic connection. DNA might be able to determine which area of the world the Pashtuns originated from, but it is not at all certain that it could identify a specific genetic link to the Jewish people.
So far Shahnaz Ali has been cautious. "The theory has been a matter of curiosity since long ago, and now I hope a scientific analysis will provide us with some answers about the Israelite origin of Afridi Pathans. We still don't know what the truth is, but efforts will certainly give us a direction," she told the Times of India last year.
Some are more certain, among them Navras Aafreedi, an academic at Luck now University, himself a Pashtun from the Afridi tribe. His family trace their roots back to Pathans from the Khyber Agency of what is today north-west Pakistan, but he believes they stretch back further to the tribe of Ephraim.
"Pathans, or Pashtuns, are the only people in the world whose probable descent from the lost tribes of Israel finds mention in a number of texts from the 10th century to the present day, written by Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars alike, both religious as well as secularists," Aafreedi said.
The implications of any find are uncertain. Other groups that claim Israelite descent, including those known as the Bnei Menashe in India and some in Ethiopia, have migrated to Israel. That is unlikely with the Pashtuns.
But Weil said the work was absorbing, well beyond questions of immigration. "I find a myth that has been so persistent for so long, for 2,000 years, really fascinating," she said.