Malihabadi Pathan Response to Academic Interest in the Tradition of their Israelite Origins
By Yusra Husain
It was my assignment to visit Malihabad that December afternoon to report the interaction over a very controversial study that has been doing the rounds of Lucknow and Israel for several years. As a journalist, it was my duty to report how the research on finding alleged links between Afridi Pathans and Jews had moved forward after many years of continuous research. When I reached there however, a little late so to say, the tables had clearly turned.
On the foggy Sunday afternoon, the otherwise quiet Malihabad came back to the Pathani vigour, when sitting under the tin shade in the orchard of revolutionary poet, Josh Malihabadi, a group of Afridi Pathans conversed with Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky. What would have otherwise been Ari asking the Afridi Pathans questions about their traditions and history took a turn when he had to face questions from the youth who had been anguished about the constant research on their genetics by scientists and researchers from Israel. The questions were not just limited to what the Afridi Pathans said were “false claims” trying to find their roots to Judaism, but also included the situation between Palestine and Israel.
A day before this scheduled visit to Malihabad, I was informed about the arrival of two scientists. However, on reaching the spot, I only found one man, Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, a healthy man in a grey jacket and cap with grey hair and beard. From underneath his baseball cap, a skullcap was visible every now and then, denoting not just the addition of the word Rabbi to his name, but also his religious bent, which he too accepted in all normalcy.
The other scientist Dr Ari Greenspan, who was to accompany Dr Ari Zivotofsky, was somehow caught up in exploring Lucknow on his own, and was not met by anyone even after dropping the Rabbi off at the airport for their supposed flight together.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky visited Malihabad to study the historical ancestry of Afridi Pathans in the region, after he got interested in previous researches made on the subject. Earlier hypotheses claimed a resemblance between certain traditions revolving around the common Semitic customs of Afridi Pathans that with the Jews. But all that ensued under the calm of the mango trees ended up in Zivotofsky considering it to be a better idea to phrase the research as to finding a link between Afridi Pathans and ancient Israel rather than Jews, which appeared to be an adverse idea to the Pathans.
As I entered the tin shade where the group of Pathan men sat along with their guest, I saw a courageous set of questions being asked in open space. A group of students, locals and the elderly Pathans had decided to come up with a set of questions that they wished to ask their guest, after years of being guinea pigs to a research for which they bore an affliction.
Beginning with a permission to record the meeting on video tape and a request to get answers as true to knowledge of Dr Zivotofsky as possible, one of the locals who could converse in much better English than others, took lead of the situation.
The questions asked by the locals were not just blunt and open, but also ended by surprising the Rabbi, who was clearly not ready to be in such a situation. He perhaps had not seen through the intellect of the people over them being his mere subjects.
When the round of questions started, the anger of the community, of them being forcibly linked to Judaism, of them being forcibly linked to be one of the ten lost Israelite tribes and of them being forcibly part of each and every research of scientists from occupied Palestine (Israel) year after year, as they perceive it, was explicit in the content of the questions. The Pathans were not just averse to the whole idea of the study, which they see as a racist conspiracy, but they were also averse to being falsely dragged in the research.
Many of them seemed to be angry about a particular study in 2002, for which mouth swabs from the clan were collected and then again blood samples were taken in 2008, but none of the results ironically were either made public or even informed to the individuals who had been part of the sample.
With these in particular, and more so for being Muslims and holding the region of Israel and Jews responsible for committing atrocities on innocent Palestinians, as they see them, the group was gravely against finding linkages with Jews of any sort.
The research is being done around the world to look for ten of the twelve Israelite tribes that had been exiled by Assyrian invaders in 721 BC. It is a claim that some might have settled in India. Afridi Pathans, according to the study, have been claimed to be one of them. Rabbi Dr Ari Zivotofsky, a research scholar from the Bar Ilan University of Israel came to know of the theory around 10-15 years back. The trip to India took six months of planning and included Kolkata, Malihabad, Kochi (Cochin), finally culminating in Mumbai. Dr Zivotofsky also writes articles for a Jewish magazine Mishpacha that means family, on issues of history of Jewish groups and also other topics. At some points during the interaction, he introduced himself as a journalist of the magazine and not a researcher, which was also a point of contention between the locals present.
Zivotofsky however was not intimidated by their questions. “I am actually surprised how offended the Afridi Pathans are on this subject and how careful one has to be with an apolitical benign research,” he said.
The young men pointing out the anomalies of previous researches that were carried out by other individuals highlighted that DNA studies done earlier found no conclusive result. Questions on Palestine and Gaza made the Rabbi speechless at points and he answered them by saying that media organizations like the BBC end up showing the Palestinians as victims and that the world is not pro-Palestine but anti-Israel to lay all blames.
The Pathans also claimed that the research might have a political motivation if one of the earlier researches was funded by Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “The points raised here have intrigued me to follow up on the research done back then. If no conclusive results were found probably the researches couldn’t arrive at the expected results so they didn’t publicize them. I would now like to get into those flaws,” said Zivotofsky.
In the old Kothi of Khalid Yusuf, belonging to the earliest families of Afridi Pathans in Malihabad, Dr Zivotofsky was told about an oral tradition passed on through generations. “I remember my grandmother telling me that we belong to Bani Israel (Children of Israel) and Ephraim, however this does not mean that we are Jews. Why do the Israelis want to trace our ancestry to one of the lost tribes of Israel?” said a local, taking Zivotofsky around his hometown.
“With the knowledge that I am taking from here, it looks like the theory of Pathans having a link to Judaism is more of an oral tradition, and collecting blood samples will not be a help anymore. We should look into books now for the research to come together. It could be a better idea to phrase the research as to finding a link between Afridi Pathans and ancient Israel rather than Jews, which appears to be an adverse idea to the people here,” concluded Zivotofsky.
Yusra Husain is a journalist working with the Lucknow edition of The Times of India. She is also a Fellow at the Swedish Institute’s Young Connectors of the Future Program 2015. Yusra has previously assisted the team of Al Jazeera English and Doordarshan on their projects in India. Yusra completed her Masters in Convergent Journalism from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi in 2014.
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