There is a tradition among the Pashtuns of being descended from the exiled lost tribes of Israel. This tradition was referenced in 19th century western scholarship and was also incorporated in the "Lost Tribes" literature popular at the time (notably George Moore's The Lost Tribes of 1861). Recently (2000s), interest in the topic has been revived by Jerusalem anthropologist Shalva Weil, who was quoted in the popular press to the effect that "Taliban may be descended from Jews".
The traditions surrounding the Pashtuns being remote descendants of the "Lost Tribes of Israel" is to be distinguished from the historical Jewish community in Eastern Afghanistan or North West Pakistan which flourished from about the 7th to the early 20th century, but which has essentially disappeared due to emigration to Israel since the 1950s.
According to the Encyclopaedia of Islam, the theory of Pashtun descent from Israelites is traced to Maghzan-e-Afghani, a history compiled for Khan-e-Jehan Lodhi in the reign of Mughal Emperor Jehangir in the 16th century. The Maghzan-e-Afghani's Bani-Israel theory has been discounted by modern authorities, due to numerous historical and linguistic inconsistencies.
In his universal history Mirat-ul-Alam – The Mirror of the World – Bukhtawar Khan describes the journeys of the Pashtuns from the Holy Land to Ghor, Ghazni, and Kabul. Similarly, Rahmat bin Shah Alam, in his Khulasat-ul-Ansab and Fareed-ud-Din Ahmad in Risala-i-Ansab-i-Afghana provide the history of the Afghans and deal with their genealogies.
Two of the most famous historical works on the subject are Tarikh-i-Afghana – History of the Afghans – by Nimat Allah al-Harawi, which was translated by Bernard Dorn in 1829, and Tarikh-i-Hafiz Rahmatkhani, by Muhammad Zadeek which he wrote in 1770. "Tawarikh-e-Hafiz Rehmat khani"was later translated and provided with footnotes by Khan Roshan khan. These books deal with the early history of the Pashtuns, their origin and wanderings in general. They particularly discuss the Yusuf Zyes (the Yusefzai, "Sons of Joseph") and their occupation of Kabul, Bajoor, Swat, Peshawar and only some of Charsadda (District of Peshawar).
In his Travels into Bokhara, which he published in 1835, Sir Alexander Burnes wrote: "The Afghans call themselves Bani Israel, or the children of Israel, but consider the term Yahoodi, or Jew, to be one of reproach. They say that Nebuchadnezzar, after the overthrow of Israel, transplanted them into the towns of Ghore near Bamean and that they were called after their Chief Afghan they say that they lived as Israelites till Khalid summoned them in the first century of the Muhammadans. Having precisely stated the traditions and history of the Afghans I see no good reason for discrediting them… the Afghans look like Jews and the younger brother marries the widow of the elder. The Afghans entertain strong prejudices against the Jewish nation, which would at least show that they have no desire to claim – without just cause – a descent from them. (Sir Alexander Burnes, Travels into Bokhara, Vol. 2:139-141.)
Burnes was again in 1837 sent as the first British Envoy to the Court of Kabul. For some time he was the guest of King Dost Mohammad Khan. He questioned the King about the descent of the Pashtuns from the Israelites. The King replied that "his people had no doubt of that, though they repudiated the idea of being Jews".
William Moorcroft traveled during 1819 to 1825 through various countries adjoining India, including Afghanistan. "The Khaibarees," he says, "are tall and have a singularly Jewish cast of features." (Moorcroft, Travels in Himalayan Provinces of Hindustan and the Punjab; in Ladakh and Kashmir, in Peshawar, Kabul, Kunduz and Bokhara, 12)
In his book, An Historical and Descriptive Account of Persia and Afghanistan, which he published in 1843, J. B. Frazer says: "According to their own tradition they believe themselves to be descendants from the Hebrews… they preserved the purity of their religion until they met with Islam." (J.B. Frazer, A Historical and Descriptive Account of Persia and Afghanistan, 298)
Sir Henry Yule (1902 Encyclopædia Britannica, article on Afghanistan) references the tradition:
This story is repeated in great and varying detail in sundry books by afghans, the oldest of which appears to be of the 16th century; nor do we know that any trace of the legend is found of older date. In the version gives by Major Raverty (Introd. To Afghan Grammar
), Afghana is settled by King Solomon himself in the Sulimani mountains; there is nothing about Nebuchadnezzar or Ghur. The historian Firishta says he had read that the Pashtuns were descended from Copts of the race of Pharoah. And one of the Afghan histories, quoted by Mr. Bellew, relates "a current tradition" that previous to the time of Kais, Bilo the father of the Biluchis, Uzbak (evidently the father of the Uzbegs), and Afghana were considered as brethren. As Mahommed Uzbeg Khan, the eponymus of the medley of Tartar tribes called Uzbegs, reigned in the 14th century A.D., this gives some possible light on the value of these so-called traditions.
Thomas Ledlie wrote in an article in the Calcutta Review in 1989 that "the Afghans [...] claim themselves to be of Bani Israel."
Joseph-Pierre Ferrier wrote his History of the Afghans in 1858 (translated by Capt. W. M. Jesse). Ferrier was disposed to believe that the Pashtuns represented the Ten Tribes of Israel. In support of his view he recorded, among others, a very significant fact: “When Nadir Shah marching to the conquest of India arrived at Peshawar, the chief of the tribe of Yoosoof Zyes (Sons of Joseph) presented him with a Bible written in Hebrew and several other articles that had been used in their ancient worship and which they had preserved. These articles were at once recognized by the Jews who followed the camp. So the presence of Bibles among Pashtuns show their Jewish origin.
George Moore published his work The Lost Tribes in 1861. He gave numerous facts to argue that these tribes are traceable to India. After giving details of the character of the wandering Israelites, he said: "And we find that the very natural character of Israel reappear in all its life and reality in countries where people call themselves Bani Israel and universally claim to be the descendants of the Lost Tribes. The nomenclature of their tribes and districts, both in ancient Geography, and at the present day, confirms this universal natural tradition. Lastly, we have the route of the Israelites from Media to Afghanistan and India marked by a series of intermediate stations bearing the names of several of the tribes and clearly indicating the stages of their long and arduous journey." [George Moore, The Lost Tribes]
Moore goes on to say: "Sir William Jones, Sir John Malcolm and the missing Chamberlain, after full investigation, were of the opinion that the Ten Tribes migrated to India, Tibet, and Cashemire [Kashmir] through Afghanistan." [George Moore, The Lost Tribes]
Major H. W. Bellew went on a political mission to Kandahar and published his impressions in his Journal of a Mission to Kandahar, 1857-8. He then wrote in 1879 his book Afghanistan and Afghans. In 1880 he was sent, once again on another mission to Kabul, and in the same year he delivered two lectures before the United Services Institute at Simla: "A New Afghan Question, or "Are the Afghans Israelites?" and "Who are the Afghans?" He then published another book: The Races of Afghanistan. Finally he collected all his facts in An Enquiry into the Ethnography of Afghanistan, which was published in 1891.
In this work he mentions Killa Yahoodi ("Fort of the Jews") (H.W. Bellew, An Enquiry into the Ethnography of Afghanistan, 34), as being the name of the eastern boundary of their country, and also speaks of Dasht-i-Yahoodi ("Jewish plain") (ibid., 4), a place in Mardan District. He concludes: "The Afghan’s accounts of Jacob and Esau, of Moses and the Exodus, of the Wars of the Israelites with the Amalekites and conquest of Palestine, of the Ark of the Covenant and of the election of Saul to the Kingdom, etc., etc., are clearly founded on the Biblical records, and clearly indicate a knowledge of the Old Testament, which if it does not prove the presence of the Christians at least corroborates their assertion that the Afghans were readers of the Pentateuch." (Ibid., 191)
Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, wrote a book titled Jesus in India (1899) where he argued that Afghans, Pashtuns and Pathans are descendants from the Tribes of Israel. He by giving resources says that Kish had five sons, one of whom was Irmia Jeremia, from whom Afghana had descended .
The "Lost Tribes" tradition has left some traces in the self-perception of both some Pashtuns and of some Jews well into the 20th century, and until the present day. Thus, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, the second President of Israel, in his 1957 book The Exiled and the Redeemed, writes that Hebrew migrations into Afghanistan began: "with a sprinkling of exiles from Samaria who had been transplanted there by Shalmaneser, King of Assyria (719 BC) [...] The Afghan tribes, among whom the Jews have lived for generations, are Moslems who retain to this day their amazing tradition about their descent from the Ten Tribes. It is an ancient tradition, and one not without some historical plausibility... if the Afghan tribes persistently adhere to the tradition that they were once Hebrews and in course of time embraced Islam, and there is not an alternative tradition also existent among them, they are certainly Jewish." (p. 176)
In the 2000s, the "lost tribes" hypothesis was popularized by Shalva Weil, an anthropologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, In 2010, The Observer under the title "Pashtun clue to lost tribes of Israel" claimed that "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" and on a planned study on the ancestry of the Afridi Pashtuns (while noting that "A previous genetic study in the same area did not provide proof one way or the other"), also citing Weil as saying "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".
In his book Abraham's Children, Jon Entine, an American TV News producer and author excludes this possibility .