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Sections of 1,000 year-old ancient manuscripts written by the Jewish Afghani community are now in the National Library of Israel, after being discovered in caves in Afghanistan. These documents are the first physical evidence of the Jewish community that existed 1,000 years ago in what was then the Persian Empire. Researchers claim that the Afghan Genizah is the greatest antiquities find since the Cairo Genizah, which was discovered in Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue in the late 1800’s.

Genizah is a Hebrew term that loosely translates to storage. It refers to a storeroom that is adjacent to a synagogue or a Jewish cemetery where Hebrew language books and papers are kept. Under Jewish law, it is forbidden to destroy or toss away documents that contain G-d’s name, so such papers are usually buried. The Afghan Genizah offers a rare glimpse into the lives of Jews living in 11th century Persia. The documents of the Afghan Genizah contain writings in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, and the unique Judea-Persian language of that era. According to Haggai Ben Shamai of Israel’s National Library, “It’s the Yiddish of the Persian Jews.”

Haggai Ben Shamai

Ben Shamai claims that the Afghan Genizah mentions distinctly Jewish names and documents Jewish commercial activities along the Silk Road. It also includes a 10th century copy of a yet unseen commentary on the Book of Isaiah by Saadia Gaon, a great Jewish scholar. Ben Shamai asserted, “We’ve had many historical sources on Jewish settlements in that area. This is the first time that we have a large collection of manuscripts that represents the culture of the Jews that lived there. Until today we had nothing of this.” Ben Shamai claimed that the Jewish community in the Persian Empire lived largely like other Jews in the Muslim world, as a dhimmi or “tolerated minority.”

Afghanistan’s Jewish community had as many as 40,000 souls in the late 19th century, after Persian Jews were forced to flee a policy of forced conversion to Islam in neighboring Iran. Nevertheless, while the Afghani regime was more tolerant towards Jews than the Iranian regime of that period, prejudice still remained an issue. Jews still had to pay the jizya (non-Muslim tax) in Afghanistan up until 1919, when King Amanullah declared all Afghan citizens to be equal. In the twentieth century, the plight of Afghan Jews was still not good, nevertheless. Following the assassination of Nadir Shah Durrani, Jews were banished from all cities except Kabul, Bakh, and Herat. Jews were also barred from the import and export trade. No Zionist activity was allowed within Afghanistan.

Afghan Jews

In 1944, there was a huge famine in Afghanistan and about one thousand Jews left and went to British India, with the hope of reaching Israel. Unfortunately, the British prevented them from making Aliyah, resulting in many of them committing suicide out of desperation. In 1947, India sought to order the remaining Afghan Jews’ deportation, but the Afghan Jews were nevertheless permitted to stay in India due to American and European intervention. The ones still alive all left India for Israel in 1949. In 1950, most Afghani Jews immigrated to Israel via Iran. A lone Jewish man remains in Afghanistan today.

By Rachel Avraham