“I Have Had Enough”: Zabulon Simintov, the Last-Known Jew in Afghanistan Returns to Israel

Life in Kabul has been extremely dangerous and difficult for Simintov in the past couple of decades.
April 23, 2021
Zebulon Simintov September 18, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

The dawn of a new era where Judaism no longer exists in Afghanistan will begin next month as Zabulon Simintov, the last-known Jew in the country heads back to his roots in Israel. Through the Soviet Invasion in the ‘80s, a horrifying civil war, and the five-year Taliban regime that ended in 2001, Simintov has survived in Afghanistan, running the last functional synagogue and hoping that someday, peace would return.

This month, he told Arab News that the impending exit of the US military from the country will result in more terror as the Taliban will immediately occupy the void.

“I have had enough and plan to leave in the next few months,” said Simintov, an Afghan-born carpet and jewelry seller. “I will watch on TV in Israel to find out what will happen in Afghanistan.”

The history of Jews in Afghanistan dates back nearly two thousand years ago before the socio-political feuds broke out. In 1933, the State of Afghanistan declared a policy to force all Jews out of the country. As of 1948, only 5,000 Jews remained following the creation of the State of Israel in May that year. A mass emigration erupted in the ‘60s and by the Soviet Invasion in 1979, fewer than 300 Jews were left in Afghanistan, mostly concentrated in the city of Herat, where the population had always been largest.

When the Taliban took over in 1996, only ten Jews were left in Kabul, and by 2004, it was just Simintov and Isaac Levy (Ishaq Levin), an 80-year-old man who passed away the next year.

Two distinct Jewish communities had previously thrived in Afghanistan. The Afghan-Jews who were born in the country, Simintov’s group, and the immigrants who came from other regions of Asia. As of 2021, nearly 10,000 Afghan Jews are now part of the community in Israel and the Jewish population is about to be completely wiped from Afghanistan as Simintov has finally lost hope in the return of peace and sanity to the region.

Enduring decades of isolation

The Jews are not the only minority group that has suffered intense hostility in Afghanistan. The Afghan Hindu and Sikh populations have also emigrated heavily in the past decades, including members of these communities that were born and raised in Afghanistan. The numbers have reduced from over 700,000 in the ‘70s to about 7,000 as of 2017. From public harassment to unlawful arrests and social abandonment to violent persecution, minorities have endured remarkable rejection in Afghanistan – a reality that leaves little hope for the future.

Life in Kabul has been extremely dangerous and difficult for Simintov in the past couple of decades. The cultural and political awkwardness of living in Afghanistan as a Jew is evident in many ways, from how Simintov slaughters his own meat (with religious permission) to how he accused the Taliban of stealing his Torah nearly 20 years ago.

Simintov is famed globally as the last-standing Jew in a country that doesn’t recognize Israel as a real state, and sympathetic Jews from all over the world send relief aids to help him survive. During the many occasions when he cannot safely step out of his home into the streets, kind Afghan Muslims offer help and assistance.

Despite the religious isolation, Simintov had persistently refused to be intimidated into shutting down the synagogue.

“I managed to protect the synagogue of Kabul like a lion of Jews here, stood against the mujahideen and the Taliban,” he said.

Founded in 1966, the Kabul Synagogue stands as the last place of Jewish worship in Afghanistan, a reputation that Simintov says will come to a sad end very soon. He remained in the city to keep the synagogue running, maintain a cemetery in the same neighborhood, and preserve the last memories of a once-thriving Jewish community.

“I stay to care for the synagogue,” he says. “If I was not there, the land would have been already sold off.”

For nearly two decades to date, Simintov has worshipped entirely on his own in the constantly empty synagogue, running a kebab restaurant on the second floor to earn maintenance funds and hide in plain sight.

Zero benefits of a turbulent state

Simintov was born and raised in Herat before moving to Kabul in 1980, shortly after the Soviet Invasion. The country suffered uncontrollable violence and more Jews fled back to Israel while many went to North America and Europe.

In 1992 Simintov went to Tajikistan for safety and partly to find a wife. He married a Jewish Turkmenistani woman and returned to his country, but the situation was no better than when he’d left. In 1998, he sent his wife to Israel and she remained in a city close to Tel Aviv with their two daughters.

Simintov said in an earlier interview that he has been left completely alone for many years.

“I went to Israel once for two months in 1998,” he recalls. “After that, I used to talk to my daughters on the phone, but now, my wife doesn’t let me talk to them anymore.”

The only semblance of a family he had in Afghanistan was Isaac Levy, an elderly man who didn’t see eye-to-eye with Simintov. The bad blood between the two men had run so deeply that they had severally turned each other over to the Taliban, and even in death, Simintov never loses a chance to call Levy out on many alleged excesses.

He was old,” Simintov says. “He was a bad person. He wanted to sell the synagogue.”

As he gears up to exit the country, Simintov affirms that every party contributing to the turbulence in Afghanistan is at fault. He admitted that the country was considerably safer during the Taliban regime, but when they return this time, things would be twice as worse.

“If the Taliban return, they are going to push us out with a slap in the face,” Simintov told Radio Free Europe.

He also doesn’t believe in the US mission in South Asia and insists the claims of the military imminently pulling out of the region are false.

“The US makes a mess of the place wherever it goes — Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan are good examples. It is hypocritical, pursues double policies,” he said.

Michael Peres writes for The Jewish Journal, where he covers Middle-Eastern politics, tech, entrepreneurship, and daily events.

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