Zabulon Simentov | The last Jew in Afghanistan

The carpet merchant is ready to leave the country amid fears of Taliban’s return

Born in the 1950s in Herat when Afghanistan was ruled by King Mohammed Zahir Shah, Mr. Simentov’s story is that of persecution, exodus and patriotism. A carpet merchant who had served in the Afghan army, Mr. Simentov left the country briefly in the 1990s when the country was gripped by sectarian violence, but returned against all advice from friends and family. His wife, two daughters and sisters all live in Israel. In 2013, when he was asked by a journalist if he wanted to go to Israel, he said, “What do I want in Israel? This is my home. This is where I belong.” For nearly 16 years, he has been the only known Jew in Afghanistan. He lived alone in Kabul’s Flower Street, next to the city’s lone synagogue. He read Torah alone from the pulpit of the synagogue. And he made his own kosher meat.

The tale of Jews in Afghanistan is one of the many tragedies of the country. Afghanistan’s links with Judaism go back in at least 1,500 years. One of the legends about the origins of the Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in the country, is that they were the offspring of a lost tribe of Israel. The country had some 40,000-strong Jewish community in the mid-20th century, mostly in Herat, Mr. Simentov’s home region. When Israel was created in 1948, many Jews left Afghanistan. The exodus continued in the 1980s, following the 1979 Soviet intervention. Most of the remaining Jewish families left the country during the mujahideen fighting. By the early 1990s, when the communist government of Mohammed Najibullah was battling for its survival, there were hardly 15 Jews left in Kabul. They would also leave during the civil war that followed the fall of Najibullah.

Two-men community

During the Taliban regime, two men made up the country’s Jewish community — Mr. Simentov and Isaac Levy. They lived in the synagogue compound in Kabul, but hardly got along. They accused each other of violating the tenets of Judaism. Levy said Mr. Simentov was trying to send him off to Israel so that he could take over the synagogue. Mr. Simentov said he was concerned about Levy’s health. Their infighting caused a headache even for the Taliban’s anti-minority regime. Levy died in 2005. And since then, Mr. Simentov and the synagogue have been the last vestiges of Judaism in Afghanistan. If he leaves for Israel later this year, the synagogue would likely be closed.

He lost the synagogue’s most important possession, a 15th century Torah, when the Taliban were in power. He blamed the Taliban for the loss. The Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule was infamous for the persecution of religious minorities and women. Many of them, especially Hindus and Sikhs, fled to India. After the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan adopted a Constitution that offered equal rights and protection to the minorities. But the situation on the ground remained grim, and with the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan that targets minorities and the prospect of the return of the Taliban, many started fleeing the country in recent months.

“Peace talks are making people worried that if the Taliban come and if they behave the same as they used to during their regime then people will be worried,” Mr. Simentov said in 2019. His fears are coming true. The U.S. signed an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 as part of which American troops were scheduled to leave Afghanistan by May 1. President Joe Biden delayed the pullout to September 11. And after September, many fear that the Taliban could make rapid advances on the battleground. Mr. Simentov is not staying back to see that. “I will watch on TV in Israel to find out what will happen in Afghanistan,” he says.

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