Afghanistan’s last Jew leaves after Taliban takeover

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – The last member of Afghanistan’s Jewish community has left the country.

Zebulon Simentov, who lived in a dilapidated synagogue in Kabul, held kosher and prayed in Hebrew, endured decades of war as the country’s centuries-old Jewish community rapidly shrank. But the Taliban’s takeover last month appears to have been the downfall.

Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman who runs a private security group that organized the evacuation, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that 62-year-old Simentov and 29 of his neighbors, almost all women and children, have been taken. to a “neighboring country”.

Kahana said Simentov, who had previously lived under Taliban rule, was not worried about them. But Kahana warned him that he was in danger of being kidnapped or killed by the far more radical Islamic State group. He said Simentov’s neighbors also pressured him to leave so their children could join him on the bus out.

Israel’s public television station Kan aired footage of the evacuation, showing a bus full of people traveling across what appeared to be Afghanistan, with all faces blurred except Simentov.

They joined an exodus of tens of thousands of Afghans who have fled since the Taliban swept across the country last month. The United States and its allies organized a massive airlift in the last days of the 20-year war, but officials acknowledged that up to 200 U.S. citizens, as well as thousands of Afghans who had helped the war effort, were left behind..

Kahana said his group is contacting U.S. and Israeli authorities to find a permanent home for Simentov, whose estranged wife and children live in Israel. For years, Simentov refused to give his wife a divorce under Jewish law, which could open him up to legal consequences in Israel. Kahana said he persuaded him to grant the divorce and has prepared the papers.

“It was two weeks of being a shrink, a psychiatrist who talked to him 10 times a day and his neighbor at the same time to translate,” Kahana said.

Hebrew manuscripts found in caves in northern Afghanistan indicates that a flourishing Jewish community existed there at least 1,000 years ago. By the end of the 19th century, Afghanistan was home to some 40,000 Jews, many of them Persian Jews, who had fled forced conversion in neighboring Iran. The decline of the community began with an emigration to Israel after its establishment in 1948.

In an interview with The Associated Press in 2009, Simentov said that the last Jewish families left after the Soviet invasion in 1979.

For several years he shared the synagogue building with the country’s only other Jew, Isaak Levi, but they despised each other and quarreled under the Taliban’s previous rule from 1996 to 2001.

At one point, Levi Simentov accused of theft and espionage. and Simentov countered by accusing Levi of renting rooms to prostitutes, a claim he denied, The New York Times reported in 2002. The Taliban arrested both men and beat them, and they confiscated the synagogue’s old Torah scroll, which disappeared after the Taliban had been driven from power during the 2001 US-led invasion.

When his 80-year-old housemate died in 2005, Simentov said he was happy to be free of him.

Journalists who visited Simentov over the years – and paid the exorbitant fees he charged for interviews – found a talented man who loved whiskey who kept a partridge and watched Afghan television. He observed Jewish dietary restrictions and ran a kebab shop.

He was born in the western city of Herat in 1959 and always insisted that Afghanistan was home.

Samir Khan, a neighbor who runs a small grocery store and had known Simentov for the past 10 years, said he disappeared about a week and a half ago. Khan said he first heard about Simentov’s departure when he saw it on social media.

The Taliban, like other Islamic militant groups, is hostile to Israel but tolerated the country’s minimal Jewish community during their previous reign. Aside from the feud, it was the only second time they came knocking when they noticed that Muslim women in all-encompassing burqas could often be seen visiting Levi.

When they briefly arrested Levi, he explained that he had a business selling amulets to women who wanted to get pregnant with sons, or who were against their husbands taking other wives, as permitted by Islamic law.

The Taliban released him.

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Krauss reported from Jerusalem.

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