Afghanistan’s last Jew leaves after Taliban takeover

Published September 9, 2021
In this file photo, Zebulon Simentov, the last known Jew living in Afghanistan, lights the candles at the start of Shabbat in the synagogue he cares for in Kabul. — AP
In this file photo, Zebulon Simentov, the last known Jew living in Afghanistan, lights the candles at the start of Shabbat in the synagogue he cares for in Kabul. — AP

KABUL: The last member of Afghanistan’s Jewish community has left the country.

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

Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman who runs a private security group that organised the evacuation, said on Wednesday that the 62-year-old Simentov and 29 of his neighbors, nearly all of them women and children, have been taken to a neighboring country.

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

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

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

Kahana said his group is reaching out to US and Israeli authorities to find a permanent home for Simentov, whose estranged wife and children live in Israel. For years, Simentov refused to grant his wife a divorce under Jewish law, which could open him up to legal repercussions in Israel. Kahana said he persuaded him to grant the divorce and has drawn up the paperwork.

"That was two weeks of being a shrink, a psychiatrist, talking to him like 10 times a day, and his neighbor at the same time to translate,” Kahana said.

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2021

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