Afghanistan’s Last Jew Gets Ready for the Taliban—Again

KABUL—It’s Saturday, and Zabulon Simentov is sitting on a typical Afghan cushion in his small living room watching the news. When the anchor starts to talk about peace talks with the Taliban, Simentov shakes his head, muttering something incomprehensible. Normally, Simentov would offer tea to his guest, but not today. It’s Shabbat. For that reason, Simentov—who is believed to be Afghanistan’s last remaining Jew—must not use his old gas cooker. Of the switched-on television, Simentov says that someone else, a non-Jewish person, turned it on for him. Orthodox Jews would probably disagree with such a practice—observant Jews are not supposed to watch TV at all on Shabbat—but Simentov’s life has been all about defiance of tradition.

Simentov’s life has also been full of upheaval—imprisonment, abandonment, and a yearslong feud with Afghanistan’s only other Jew (now dead), an argument so vociferous that even the Taliban, during their former rule, could no longer stand their bickering and kicked them both out of prison. And now Simentov must contemplate more upheaval as his old antagonists, the Taliban, vie to return to power. 

“These people brought a lot of bloodshed and terrorized Kabul and many other parts of the country. I believe that nobody with such a mindset could save Afghanistan,” Simentov told Foreign Policy in an interview earlier this year. With the Taliban now in control of about half of the country and the results of September’s election postponed, Simentov, like many other Kabul residents, fears the worst: a reinstallment of the 1990s Taliban regime. He said he supports current President Ashraf Ghani, a former international technocrat, because he is “against corruption” and “not a thief.” But as with so many Afghans—and as he has done in the past—Simentov appears ready to accept whatever may come and hope for the best, which in this case may be, at best, a slightly more moderate Taliban. 

“Everyone wants peace and stability, but many people also don’t want to see the Taliban doing what they did in the past,” he said. “They have to distance themselves from their crimes, especially when it comes to women’s rights.” And Simentov does harbor hopes that the Taliban can changebased not least on his own experience, though he says he was beaten by them. He also hopes that he will, someday, recover his synagogues long-lost Torah, which disappeared during the last reign of the Taliban.

Contrary to many other countries, Afghanistan did not lose its Jewish population because of anti-Semitism. In fact, the country’s ruling class, mainly consisting of the Pashtun ethnic group—out of which many Taliban sprang—showed a lot of sympathy toward the Jewish minority. For example, Mohammed Zahir Shah—the last Afghan king, who reigned until 1973—once claimed to be a descendant of the Israelite figure Benjamin and said that Afghan Jews were considered as an important pillar of Afghanistan’s society. The king’s affection could be linked to an old myth claiming that the Pashtuns were offspring of one of the lost tribes of Israel. From a scientific point of view, most of that has not been proved and mainly belongs in the realm of tales, legends, and myths.

Instead, the rise of communism in Afghanistan and the intervention of the Soviet Union were some of the main reasons for the Jewish exodus. “The Red Army committed many horrendous crimes in other parts of Central Asia. They murdered religious people, and we knew that before they entered Afghanistan,” Simentov recalled.

But while most of the Jews fled and immigrated to Israel, the United States, or Europe, Simentov stayed.

Kabul’s Shahr-e Naw quarter is often regarded as one of the more developed, bustling areas of the Afghan capital. One can find dozens and dozens of restaurants serving Afghan, Turkish, Indian, Iranian, and Italian foods, gaudy wedding halls, some modern-looking coffee shops, and many traditional stores and antique shops that have been there for decades, even before the 40 years of war.

In the middle of all that, in the flower district, where roses and tulips are being sold for special occasions and celebrations, Simentov has resided for decades in Afghanistan’s last intact synagogue. The 66-year-old, who always wears his yarmulke, is well known among his neighbors, who tend to find him amusing. “Everyone in these streets knows Zabulon. He is very salient and, sometimes, he is very choleric. But we have fun with him,” one of them told me.

Simentov’s living room is part of the empty synagogue. Sometimes, he rents some of the other rooms to others. In Afghanistan, Simentov is representing a whole religious minority. But while all of his family members left years ago, he would never abandon his country. “My wife, my daughters and my sisters are living in Israel. I visited them there once, but I did not want to stay there. Afghanistan is my homeland,” he said.

To many people, Afghanistan’s Jewish history is rather unknown. Decades ago, Jews used to be an important part of society and lived in many regions of the country, especially in its western and northern parts. Probably, the most important Jewish Afghan city was Herat, Simentov’s hometown, which lies close to the Iranian border. Hundreds of Jewish families used to live in the city, and they built several synagogues during their era. One of these historic monuments was restored by the Aga Khan Foundation a few years ago. (Unfortunately, there are no Jews left to visit it.) In his own synagogue, Simentov recently renovated and painted the prayer room, as he recalled with pride. Every Shabbat, Simentov ascends the small pulpit and recites from the Torah. He is not always alone while doing that. Since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, many journalists from Western countries have visited Simentov, and many of them were Jews who prayed with him before they made him famous as “Afghanistan’s last Jew.”

The question for discussion is: Afghanistan used to have a measurably larger Jewish population. Then the Farhud occurred, and Jews were ethnically cleansed, at which time they went to the Jewish homeland. The question for discussion is: Why can’t the people of Afghanistan manage to keep radical Islamists out of power?

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