Words By Olly DeHerrera
The mid-August fall of Afghanistan to Taliban control has prompted concern for the wellbeing of the man popularly dubbed ‘The last Jew in Afghanistan’. 62yr old Zablon Simintov holds the last stand of a region with ancient Jewish history, keeping watch of a solemn, dilapidated synagogue in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city.
Until 2005, Simintov shared this unofficial custody of the synagogue with fellow Afghan Jew, Ishaq (Isaac) Levin. Their relationship was anything but camaraderie, with frequent, fiery arguments and a propensity for calling law enforcement officers on each other during the country’s previous era of Taliban rule. Their feuding even captured the attention of British-Jewish Playwright, Michael J Flexer, who adapted their story for the stage in “My Brother’s Keeper”, at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe. Levin’s passing in 2005 left Simintov alone in the sombre watch of the synagogue and the Jewish legacy of Afghanistan.
In 2019, Simintov was visited by popular travel vlogger, Drew Binsky. In a short documentary featured on Binsky’s YouTube channel, Simintov explained how he keeps observance as the last Jew in Afghanistan. A single Jewish calendar, bought by Simintov’s brother in Israel, allows him to keep observance of Jewish festivals. In 1992 he travelled to Uzbekistan to obtain kosher food training which allowed him to continue kosher practices. Siminitov did temporarily relocate to Turkmenistan as part of the vast numbers of Afghan-Jews fleeing Afghanistan during the 1996 Taliban insurgency, though he would return to Afghanistan in 1998. No stranger to the Taliban himself, Simintov recalls being arrested and beaten several times, as well as having his property stolen by the Taliban who attempted to convert him.
As the last Jew in Afghanistan, Siminitov is not the anomaly but rather the last remnant of a historic and pluralistic Jewish presence in the region. The region that is modern-day Afghanistan features prominently in early Abrahamic religious texts. According to Islamic tradition the city of Balkh was the burial place to Hebrew Prophet Ezekiel, as well as a refuge for the Hebrew Prophet Jeramiah. The region is also acknowledged with great significance in Jewish origin tradition:
“Early biblical commentators regarded Khorasan as a location of the Ten Lost Tribes. Today, several Afghan tribes including the Durrani, Yussafzai, Afridi and Pashtun believe they are descendants of King Saul. They call themselves Bani-Israel, like the Hebrew, B’nai Israel, meaning the children of Israel. Even some Muslim scholars and writers accept this” The Jewish virtual library.
Various archaeological discoveries testify to a continuous Jewish presence in Afghanistan dating back as far as 8th Century CE. The ANU Museum of Jewish People documents the discovery of a Jewish burial site in the city of Ghur in the mountain region of eastern Afghanistan:
“The discovery of a Jewish cemetery in the city of Ghur in 1946 testifies to the existence of a large and flourishing Jewish community there. The earliest tombstones date from 752-753 and the latest date from 1012-1249. The inscriptions on the tombstones are in Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Persian, a language with elements of medieval Persian and containing Hebrew-Aramaic components, written in Hebrew script, and spoken by the members of the local Jewish community”.
Data from the Jewish Virtual Library estimates that, by the time Israel was created in 1948, only approximately 5,000 Jews remained in Afghanistan, unable to legally emigrate. Once the restriction was lifted in 1951, most of the Afghani Jewish community made its way to Israel. By 1969, only 300 Jews lived in Afghanistan, most of whom left in 1979 after the Soviet invasion. In 1996, 10 Jews remained in Afghanistan, nearly all in Kabul.
What caused Afghanistan’s, and indeed the wider regions’, Jewish population to decline so rapidly? Writing for the Jerusleum Post, Chef Dennis Wasko observes: “It is a little-known fact, especially in the West, that many of the countries that are today predominantly Muslim once had very large Jewish populations”.
Islamic-nationalist regimes, many similar in characteristic to the Taliban, saw the persecution of Jews, Christians and other indigenous minority religions in the Middle East – including minority Islamic sects. In the case of Jewish persecution, these sometimes intersected with global trends of antisemitism. Afghanistan’s leaders collaborated with both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the persecution of its own Jewish population. The practice of forced, or pressured, conversion diverged the history of many Jewish communities, as well as pogroms and massacres targeting indigenous Jews; centuries of these practices have much erased the pluralistic ethno-religious setting of the South-West Asia and North Africa (SWANA) region.
Such persecution mirrored trends of indigenous erasure worldwide; under the 1993-1973 reign of Afghanistan’s last king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, a calculated and long-standing campaign to deny Jewish indigeneity to the area saw Jews being declared non-citizens, face restrictions on work, as well as having their property looted. In 1935, a violent anti-Jewish pogrom erupted in the city of Haret in which the local Jewish community experience sexual violence and forced conversion. In 1935, a delegate to the Zionist Congress said that an estimated 40,000 Bukharan Jews (a sub-group of central Asian Jews) had been killed or starved. Today, the largest community of 10,000 Afghan Jews live in Israel as a refugee diaspora.
This trend of antisemitic violence was not limited to Afghanistan; Iran, Syria and other such regions also witnessed violent persecution of Jews under erosive regimes of Islamic nationalism – most of which erupted from post-colonial vacuums which left fertile ground for extremist regimes.
Martin Kramer, author and fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writes in his blog:
“The very geography of imperialism created a potential bond of solidarity between the Algerian and the Syrian, the Egyptian and the Iraqi. In time, a growing number of Egyptians and North Africans began to see themselves as Arabs. Paradoxically, the empires of Britain and France linked together Arabic-speaking lands which had enjoyed few if any organic ties in Ottoman times, inspiring for the first time the idea of an Arab world from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf”.
Groups such as Hamas (Palestine), Hezbollah (Lebanon), Taliban (Afghanistan), as well as various so-called Islamic State (ISIS) factions, enact violent antisemitic policy as part of their effort to establish and galvenize an Islamic state regime. This practice of erasing the pluralistic and non-Islamic legacy of regions was the focus of global attention in 2014 as ISIS destroyed communities, lives and historic sites in Iraq and Syria. Reporting from the National Geographic states, “The group [ISIS] claims the destruction of ancient sites is religiously motivated; its militants have targeted well-known ancient sites along with more modern graves and shrines belonging to other Muslim sects, citing idol worship to justify their actions”.
Simintov’s last-stand in Kabul is testimony to the true expansive loss felt under oppressive and absolutist regimes. At the time of writing this Siminitov has vowed to stay in Afghanistan, despite his fears of the Taliban and international philanthropic offers to aid his escape. As the shadow of the Taliban falls over the last Synagogue in Kabul, the world is reminded of what has, and what will be, lost to the galvanisation of regimes that deny the indigenous and pluralistic realities of our world. In the words of Chama Mechtaly, artist and Moroccan Jew, “When we understand what makes us who we are is a collection of ethnicities and religions that commingled for thousands of years, we automatically become more accepting of difference”.
Update: 18th September 2021.
On 7th September, 2021, Siminitov left Afghanistan. The Jerusalem Post reports he was encouraged by his neighbours to flee and escaped with help from a private security company organised by Israeli-American businessman Moti Kahana.