The Sunday Indian, 4 May - 10 May, 2009
Does Malihabad, a sleepy town 27 kilometres from Lucknow, one that yields some of the sweetest mangoes and even sweeter Urdu poetry, also hold a piece of one of the world's most fascinating puzzles - what haapened to Israel's lost tribes?
One bit of research on the subject, titled The Indian Jewry and the Self-Professed 'Lost Tribes of Israel' in India, authored in 2006 by a 30-year-old scholar called Navras Jaat Aafreedi, that has drawn wide appreciation in Israel, holds that the 600-plus Afridi Pathans of Malihabad (probably like those living in Qayamganj, Farukhabad, 270 kilometres from Lucknow) have descended from the Ephraim, one of the ten tribes driven out of northern Israel by the Assyrians in 721 BC. (The migrations of these 10 tribes went unrecorded and they gradually melted into larger populations and were hence lost).
Citing ancient Persian and Jewish texts and illustrating with existing practices and beliefs among the Afridi Pathans, Aafreedi says they came to India between 1202 and 1761 AD from what is today known as the North West Frontier Province (Pakistan) and from Afghanistan, where the Ephraim had settled after being ejected from Israel. They journeyed as part of the conquering army of Ahmad Shah Abdali and moved to Malihabad, which was home to other Pathans(though not of Israelite descent). To curry favour with India's non Pathan rulers of the time, they kept quiet about their origins, finally losing its knowledge.
That contention, fascinating as it is, is yet to be backed by scientific evidence.
In 2002, a team led by Tudor Parfitt, professor of Modern Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and author of The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth (Phoenix, 2003), collected mouth swabs of 50 paternally unrelated Afridi Pathan males from Malihabad to test them for possible genetic links to Israelites.
While the results of the study are yet to be made public, Parfitt, in an e-mail interview, says of them: "They were neutral, that is, they did not say anything one way or the other."
In October 2008, Shahnaz Ali, a research assistant at the Central Forensic Science Laboratory (CFSL), Kolkata, collected blood samples from 53 subjects from Malihabad. "This is a fascinating subject," says Ali, who is likely to be sponsored by the Israeli government to begin her tests at the Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, in May 2009.
What makes Malihabad and Qayamganj's Afridi Pathans important subjects of study is also the fact that the other, much larger concentration of their kind, in Afghanistan and Pakistan (where they make large parts of the Taliban) is unavailable for any academic inquiry.
Three other groups in India - the Kashmiris, the Benei Menashe of the Northeast and the Benei Ephraim (Madigas) of Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, claim descent from Israel's lost tribes. Of these, the Benei Menashe (Chin, Lushai and Kuki tribes of Mizoram and Manipur) were studied by CFSL, a study that did not make the cut with the Israeli scientific establishment that objected to the gene sequencing methods employed. That makes the Afridi Pathans only the second such group to be scientifically studied.
The search for Israel's lost tribes is much more than a tantalizing secret that has lured the world for centuries. Backing it is a Biblical prophecy that holds that apocalypse will be triggered when the lost tribes return to Israel, while legal sanction is provided by Israel's Law of Return, 1950, that gives every Jew (practicing or otherwise), anywhere in the world, the right to return to Israel and gain Israeli citizenship.
If that were to happen and people of Israelite descent from far flung corners of the world were indeed to return home, the socio-political ramifications would be massive. Aryeh Gallin, Founder and President of the Root and Branch Association Limited, a 27 year old Israel-based volunteer organisation working to better relations between Israel and the world, believes that the research has the potential for "critical and positive impacts on the geo-political situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir and India", besides serving as a "powerful spiritual counterforce and antidote to the Taliban/Deobandi/Salafi/Wahabi poison."
"The reunion of Muslim Pathans and Jews will be a catalyst in reconciliation between Muslims and Jews worldwide, between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Pakistan, and will have as one of many additional side effects a positive influence on relations between Muslims and Hindus in India," says Gallin, who is part of the large and growing band of lost tribe enthusiasts.
Some critics point out that this search is merely a clever trick to lure poor from the world over to feed the growing ranks of soldiers pushed into service for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as to swell the country's pool of cheap labour.
But for Qavi Kamal Khan (93), the oldest living Afridi Pathan of Malihabad, the suggestion that he could be of Israelite descent is simply an abomination. "Bahut burri qaum hai (It is a very bad community)," he says.
His criticism, like those of most other Indian Muslims flows from a strong disapproval of Israel's conflict with Palestine. The fact that Aafreedi, who has made the claim, is Khan's nephew holds for little. "No other authority has said that. I do not want to be a Yehudi (Jew), I am an Afridi Pathan," Khan says with obvious pride for being part of a community that among other greats has produced India's third president Dr. Zakir Husain and Ghaus Muhammad Khan, the first Indian to reach the Wimbledon's quarter finals in 1939.
The possibilities held out by the research have begun to attract tour operators to explore a "Jewish circuit", with Malihabad at its centre.
Aafreedi builds a cautious defense for his research. "No historian can ever say his work will be definitive for all times to come. But all the evidence that we have so far, convinces me." If science were to back that conviction, Malihabad might well be forced out of its slumber.