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6th & I st. Synagogue


Embassy of Afghanistan, Washington DC, 07/27/08


Afghanistan's Jewish Diaspora

Since the time of Alexander the Great, Afghanistan has been known for its diverse population, a complex patchwork of civilizations, ethnicities and religions. Today, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkomen, Hazaras, Sufis, Sunnis, Shiites, Hindus and Sikhs coexist in villages and cities throughout the country. But many people do not realize that Afghanistan was also home to a vibrant Jewish community for hundreds of years. This vital component of Afghan history and culture often escapes the attention of historians of the Middle East an South Asia, and remains a mere footnote in the study of world Jewry.


Despite a shortage of scholarly material in English on the subject, many Afghans fondly remember their former Jewish neighbors, and Afghan Jews—who today live predominately in the United States and Israel—are proud of their Afghan heritage. To those who know the story of Afghanistan’s Jews intimately, the history books cannot be considered complete unless they devote a chapter to the triumphs and struggles of the country’s Jewish citizens.


Jewish migration to greater Persia can be traced back to one of two sources: the deportation of the Israelites from Samaria by the Assyrians Tiglath-Pileser III and Saragon II in the eight century BC, or Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the First Israelite Temple in the middle of the seventh century BC.


The tolerance of the Persian rulers enabled the Jewish community to live without fear of persecution within the Persian empire, and many individual Jews rose to prominent positions at the royal court.

In the mid seventh century AD, the Arab conquest on Persia replaced Zorastrianism with Islam at the state religion, affording Jews protection under the “Covenant of Omar.” Although Jews became successful artisans, shopkeepers, manufacturers and merchants, as dhimmis, they were not equal citizens. Scholars have provided material evidence to indicate a continuous Jewish presence on the territory of Afghanistan since the 8th century CE until the 20th century, although there exists scant archaeological evidence of the earlier Jewish settlements.


The Biblical commentaries of Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon, Karaite Daniel Al Qumisi and Japheth ben Heli identify Khorasan, the eastern Land of the Sun, as the region to which Jews were exiled. El-Hadj Mohammed el-Idrisi, a Muslim historian (c.1099-c.1166), also makes reference to Jewish communities in the cities of Ghaznah and Naisabur in his work on the historical tablets of the Beni-Djellal dynasty. The writings of Benjamin of Tudela (d.1173) on the Jewish communities of Ghaznah and Naisabur also supports these theories; “… Ghaznah - Ghaznah … the great city on the river Gozen, where there are about 80.000 Israelites. It is a city of commercial importance..., Naisabur - to the mountains of Naisabur by the river Gozan…., four of the tribes of Israel dwell, namely the tribe of Dan, the tribe of Zebulun, the tribe of Asher and the tribe of Naphtali, who were included in the first captivity of Shalmanaser, king of Assyria… The extent of their land is twenty days’ journey, and they have cities and large villages in the mountains; the river Gozan forms the boundary on the one side. They are not under the rule of the Gentiles, but they have a prince of their own, whose name is R. Joseph Amarkela the Levite. There are scholars among them. And they sow and reap and go forth to war as far as the land of Cush by way of the desert.”


The Babylonian Talmud and early Muslim sources of the late seventh century CE refer to the presence of Jews in the city of Merv, while Arab geographer Ibn Khurdadhbah describes a Jewish community in Balkh in the same century.  Muslim geographer and cartographer El-Idrisi mentions a community of wealthy Jewish merchants in Kabul, who lived in an enclosed quarter of the city that was locked to outsiders each evening.  Most importantly, the discovery of a Jewish cemetery in the eastern city of Ghur in 1946 testifies to the longstanding existence of Jewish community in Afghanistan. The cemetary’s tombstones are inscribed in Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Persian and date from approximately 752-1249. The tombstones also contain communal titles of judges, rabbis, elders, and other chief functionaries. Tragically, the Mongolian invasion of the beginning of the 13th century brought the flourishing Jewish community of Ghur to an end.


Persia’s Safawid dynasty in the sixteenth century and the Kajar dynasty in the 19th century was a period of insecurity for Persia’s Jewish community, and was categorized by periodic massacres and forced conversions. Approximately 200 Jewish families of Meshhed in Iran fled these forced conversion to Islam and settled in Herat in western Afghanistan during 1839-1840, making Herat one of the modern center of Afghan Jewry.


Jewish men in Afghanistan were identified by a black turban, which has been interpreted as either a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem or a means of distinguishing them as dhimmis. Many Afghan Jews of the period specialized in a dyeing process that used dried bodies of the female cochineal insect and indigo and stained the craftsmen's hands blue. Some accounts point to a common belief that blue hands were a natural characteristic of the Jews of Afghanistan. Although some became wealthy manufacturers, most remained poverty stricken. The Jews of Afghanistan used Hebrew for liturgy and religious studies, while Dari and numerous dialects of Judeo-Persian was the main language for day to day usage.


Many Afghans believe that Pashtun peoples were derived from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Some Pashtuns claim that the name Kabul is derived from "Cain and Abel", and the name Afghanistan from Afghana, a grandson of King Saul. This is the subject of studies by Afzal Khan Khattak Rahmatullah Khan (Tareekh Mersah and Khulasa Nisab) and Shir Mohammad Khan Gandapour (Tareekh Khorshid Jahan). However, DNA testing has shown no link between Pashtuns  and the biblical Israelites. It has also been posited that Afghans were the original builders of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

The size of the Jewish population of Afghanistan at the beginning of the 20th century is widely disputed. Figures of 4,000 - 40.000 persons have been cited by various researchers as living in anywhere from 15 - 60 communities. Kabul and Heart hosted the largest Jewish communities, with smaller communities in Balkh, Gazni and Kandahar.

Until the middle of the 20th century, the Jews of Afghanistan had little contact with modernity. Living in a country that had never been colonized by foreign powers, their links were limited to the neighboring Jewish communities in Iran, Central Asia, and India. Zionist activity was forbidden within Afghanistan, although Afghanistan’s Jewish community was not as predisposed to political Zionism as European Jews. Although many Jews left Afghanistan during the first half of the 20th century to settle in Iran, Central Asia and Israel, it was only in 1950 that the Jews were officially allowed to leave Afghanistan, following a request by Jewish leaders to Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Sardar Mohammad Naim. Afghanistan’s Jewish community, which stood at 5,000 in 1948, was reduced to approximately 300 by 1969. Each of the three main communities still active in Afghanistan after the 1950’s - Kabul, Herat, and Balkh - had a Hevrah (community council), which took care of the needy, dealt with burials, represented the community in matters connected to the authorities and was responsible for the payment of taxes. From 1952 Jews were exempt from military service and had to pay a special tax (har bieah) if they chose not to serve. The exodus that began in the mid-20th century was finalized when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. In 1990 there were only 15 to 20 Jewish families left in Kabul and a handful in Herat; however they soon left for Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and India.


After 9/11, as journalists descended on Kabul seeking stories that would appeal to American readers, they discovered the two Jews remaining in Kabul, who had lived through the Soviet occupation, civil war, and Taliban regime. The two men professed to hate one another and each accused the other of various crimes and illicit behaviors. In 2007, Afghanistan’s Jewish population stands at one, out of 30 millions Afghanis. However, a 1998 report by the International Survey of Jewish Monuments noted fresh Hebraic inscriptions made in pencil on the walls of the Yu Aw synagogue in Herat, suggesting that more Jews may be living in Afghanistan clandestinely.


In 1978, archeological excavations revealed the remains of four synagogues in the Bar Durrani and Momanda sections of Heart’s old city, an area previously known as majalla-yi musahiya, the “neighborhood of the Jews”. The names of the synagogues were Mulla Ashur, Yu Aw and Gul, the fourth was unnamed. The two-story baked brick Yu Aw synagogue of the Momanda neighborhood has been best preserved, but the others have been converted to Mosques and schools following the exodus of Afghanistan’s Jews. The synagogues Torah Ark remains; it was built into its western wall, facing Jerusalem. According to the survey commissioned by the International Survey of Jewish Monuments in 1998, these synagogues are badly in need of repair, and have been partially deconstructed for use as building materials. The organization Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) has also documented the neglect of Heart’s four synagogues and Jewish cemetery. None of the other buildings used by the Jewish community of Herat remain standing. Today there are six Afghan Jewish congregations in Israel and one in the United States, Anshei Shalom in New York.


When contacted by JIMENA in 2006 about the possibility of Jews coming back to Afghanistan, the Embassy in Washington made this statement: “All people--Jews included--have the right to freely worship in Afghanistan,” said an official from the Afghan Embassy in Washington D.C. “A large population of Hindus fled the country during the fighting of the past decades and have returned to start a normal life in Afghanistan. They contribute to Afghanistan’s economy and politics; one member of the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission is a Hindu, and we welcome the continued participation  of all Afghans in public service.