Afghanistan’s Last Jew

Zebulon Simontov Credit: Emilio Morenatti, AP
Until January 2005, Afghanistan’s “Odd Couple” of Yitzhak Levy and Zebulon Simintov lived separately but together in Kabul—in opposite ends of the same synagogue. Consistently at each other’s throats, their Muslim neighbors testified to their ongoing volatile screaming battles, alternately accusing each other of heinous crimes including that of stealing Afghanistan’s only Torah. Both men laid claim to the scroll, which they described as having been written by hand on deerskin and wrapped in silk, some 500 years old and worth $2 million. Each brought charges against the other and the Taliban jailed and tortured them with cables because of this unbending dispute, confiscating the Torah for added measure. Levy’s death has made Zebulon Simintov Afghanistan’s last Jew—a man who refuses to leave the country.

Simintov is the sole heir to the country’s rich 800 year old Jewish history, which featured an estimated 40,000 people strong community in the mid-nineteenth century, in part built up by exiles from Persia. That community began declining in 1870 with the passage of anti-Jewish measures. At the time Israel was established, in 1948, some 5,000 Jews remained in Afghanistan, but were denied the ability to leave the country for Israel. Once the restrictions were lifted in 1951, most Afghan Jews—like their fellow Jews from North Africa to Yemen, to Central Asia—made their way to Israel. By 1969, a mere 300 Jews lived in Afghanistan, and nearly all of them left in 1979 following the Soviet invasion of the country. In 1996, only 10 Jews were left in the country, mostly in Kabul.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Afghanistan history is ripe with varied theories relating to the Lost Tribes of Israel. The Pashtun, the main Afghan ethnic group and Taliban supporters, believe they are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes, and later converted to Islam. Many Pashtun names and customs sound Jewish; the Pashtun also have a custom of a wedding chupah and of circumcising their sons on the eighth day after birth. The Pashtuns claim that the city of Kabul stands for “Cain and Abel” and that Afghanistan is derived from “Afghana,” the grandson of King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin.

Simintov is said to be comfortable studying in his barren synagogue and being the only remaining one in Kabul.The synagogue sits inconspicuously in a far off courtyard behind a busy city filled with dirt and mud-filled streets, sided by corrugated metal shacks and low-rising buildings.The Taliban was said to have ignored the synagogue most likely because of its lonely and confined stature. The synagogue and the mere two-man Jewish community stayed under the Taliban radar until Levy’s and Simintov’s bickering and counter charges brought them to the attention of the Taliban rulers.

With the defeat and ouster of the Taliban in 2001 by US forces, Simintov and Levy were free to resume their tortured life—tortured, not in the Taliban prison, but by and with each other.The two were described by their neighbors as a bickering “married couple” trapped in an “unhappy marriage,” both refusing to leave until Levy’s death caused the separation.

Now that Simintov is alone, he refuses to leave Kabul, declaring himself to be the sole survivor of an historic tradition. Despite pleas from Jewish communities and offers of help from U.S. personnel on the ground, Simintov remains. He has said he has a wife and two daughters in Holon, Israel, whom he had not seen or spoken to since a 1998 a visit there.

A testimony to the survival of a great tradition, Simintov’s continued presence in Afghanistan despite incredible odds shows how even in the most extreme conditions, a Jewish community—even a one-man community—can continue.He survives on donations from Jews from around the world and he says that it is God’s will that he stay to protect ancient volumes. His stubborn determination to remain in Afghanistan is both curious and brave. Under harsh conditions, politically, religiously, and in simple ways of living, Zebulon Simontov hangs on as Afghanistan’s Last Jew.

Cutting Edge human rights analyst Gregg J. Rickman, Ph.D, served as the first U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism from 2006–2009. He is a Senior Fellow for the Study and Combat of Anti-Semitism at the Institute on Religion and Policy in Washington, DC; a Visiting Fellow at The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut; and a Research Scholar at the Initiative on Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.