JERUSALEM, Jan. 12, 2010 — -- Don't tell the Taliban, but their ancestors may be Jewish.
Israel's foreign ministry is funding research into whether members of the ethnic tribe from which the Taliban draws its manpower have Jewish ancestors.
Pashtuns are the largest ethnic community in Afghanistan. It is widely believed they are an offshoot of the Pathans whose members are scattered across northern India and Pakistan. Both are today exclusively Muslim. Neither has any sympathy for modern Israel.
Scientists are now trying to determine whether the Pathans themselves are directly descended from the tribe of Ephraim which was exiled from the land of Israel by the invading Assyrians in 721 B.C. Pathan folklore and culture are filled with references to an Israelite past.
The last king of Afghanistan Zahir Shah who reigned in Kabul until 1973 reportedly claimed his family was descended from what he called the tribe of Benjamin.
The Taliban spare no effort in expressing their hatred for Israel. Any genetic link they may have with people of Jewish descent would be a dark irony.
Last year, a Persian blog item set off rumors suggesting that Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is of Jewish descent. Several global news outlets picked up the story and examined the notion of a Jewish Ahmadinejad, rooted in the claim that his original family name of "Sabourjian" links him to weavers of the Jewish prayer shawl.
But Meir Javednafar, an Iranian Jewish scholar on the Middle East, dismissed the idea, telling ABC News that the political vetting process would make it nearly impossible for someone to reach the post of president of the Islamic Republic without solid Muslim credentials.
Until now the supposed link between Pathans and Jews has only been discussed on the fringes of the academic and anthropological worlds. But now Shahnaz Ali, an Indian researcher from the National Institute of Immunohaematology in Mumbai has received a grant from Israel to test the theory with DNA samples she collected from Pathans in India. She will conduct her research at the prestigious Technion Institute in Haifa.
Research Into Taliban's Jewish Roots to Take Months
Dr. Navras Afreedi from the University of Lucknow is himself a Pathan and believes his distant ancestors were Jews from the tribe of Ephraim. He has been studying the link for years.
"It's great news that my research would be analyzed scientifically. I also hope that such effort will have positive ramifications and will bring the Muslims and Jews close and enable them to forget historical animosity," he wrote on his blog.
The Afghan people are a mix of tribes and ethnicities. For years scientists have been investigating a group of Afghans living in the north of the country. They are blonde and are thought to be the descendents of the soldiers of Alexander The Great.
The research into the Taliban's Jewish roots will take many months. Long-lost family reunions are not being planned.
Lara Setrakian contributed to the reporting of this story.