Carpet merchant ready to leave country amid fears of Taliban return

He resisted a communist revolution, Soviet intervention, the Mujahedin civil war, the Taliban takeover and the American invasion. When all of his friends and family left Afghanistan as the country went from crisis to crisis, he stayed. But now, with the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the fear of the second rise of the Taliban, Zabulon Simentov, the Jewish community of Afghanistan, is preparing to leave the country for Israel. “After our important festivals [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in September], I will leave Afghanistan, ”he recently told Radio Free Afghanistan. “If the Taliban come back, they will push us outside with a slap in the face.”

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

The story of the Jews in Afghanistan is one of the country’s many tragedies. Afghanistan’s ties to Judaism go back 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 descendants of a lost tribe of Israel. The country had some 40,000 Jewish community members in the mid-twentieth 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 Soviet intervention of 1979. Most of the remaining Jewish families left the country during the mujahedin fighting. In the early 1990s, when the Communist government of Mohammed Najibullah was fighting for its survival, there were hardly 15 Jews left in Kabul. They will also leave during the civil war that followed the fall of Najibullah.

Community of two men

Under the Taliban, two men made up the country’s Jewish community – Mr. Simentov and Isaac Levy. They lived within the compound of the Kabul synagogue, but barely got along. They accused each other of violating the principles of Judaism. Levy said Mr. Simentov was trying to send him to Israel so he could take over the synagogue. Mr Simentov said he was concerned about Levy’s health. Their infighting has caused a headache even for the Taliban 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 will likely be closed.

He lost the most important possession of the synagogue, a 15th-century Torah, when the Taliban were in power. He blamed the Taliban for this loss. The Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001 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 provided equal rights and protection for minorities. But the situation on the ground has remained grim, and with the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan targeting minorities and the prospect of the Taliban returning, many have started to flee the country in recent months.

“The peace talks make people fear that if the Taliban come and behave the way they did during their rule, then people will be worried,” Simentov said in 2019. His fears come true. The United States signed an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 under which American troops were to leave Afghanistan by May 1. President Joe Biden postponed the withdrawal until September 11. And after September, many fear that the Taliban could make rapid progress on the battlefield. Mr. Simentov does not stay behind to see this. “I’m going to watch TV in Israel to find out what’s going to happen in Afghanistan,” he said.