Afghanistan’s Last Jew Gets Ready for the Taliban—Again
Zabulon Simentov has seen it all, and now, like all Afghans, he must embrace a future filled with uncertainty and violence.
KABUL—It’s Saturday, and Zabulon Simentov is sitting on a typical Afghan cushion in his small living room watching the news. When the anchor starts to talk about peace talks with the Taliban, Simentov shakes his head, muttering something incomprehensible. Normally, Simentov would offer tea to his guest, but not today. It’s Shabbat. For that reason, Simentov—who is believed to be Afghanistan’s last remaining Jew—must not use his old gas cooker. Of the switched-on television, Simentov says that someone else, a non-Jewish person, turned it on for him. Orthodox Jews would probably disagree with such a practice—observant Jews are not supposed to watch TV at all on Shabbat—but Simentov’s life has been all about defiance of tradition.
Simentov’s life has also been full of upheaval—imprisonment, abandonment, and a yearslong feud with Afghanistan’s only other Jew (now dead), an argument so vociferous that even the Taliban, during their former rule, could no longer stand their bickering and kicked them both out of prison. And now Simentov must contemplate more upheaval as his old antagonists, the Taliban, vie to return to power.
“These people brought a lot of bloodshed and terrorized Kabul and many other parts of the country. I believe that nobody with such a mindset could save Afghanistan,” Simentov told Foreign Policy in an interview earlier this year. With the Taliban now in control of about half of the country and the results of September’s election postponed, Simentov, like many other Kabul residents, fears the worst: a reinstallment of the 1990s Taliban regime. He said he supports current President Ashraf Ghani, a former international technocrat, because he is “against corruption” and “not a thief.” But as with so many Afghans—and as he has done in the past—Simentov appears ready to accept whatever may come and hope for the best, which in this case may be, at best, a slightly more moderate Taliban.
“Everyone wants peace and stability, but many people also don’t want to see the Taliban doing what they did in the past,” he said. “They have to distance themselves from their crimes, especially when it comes to women’s rights.” And Simentov does harbor hopes that the Taliban can change—based not least on his own experience, though he says he was beaten by them. He also hopes that he will, someday, recover his synagogue’s long-lost Torah, which disappeared during the last reign of the Taliban.
Contrary to many other countries, Afghanistan did not lose its Jewish population because of anti-Semitism. In fact, the country’s ruling class, mainly consisting of the Pashtun ethnic group—out of which many Taliban sprang—showed a lot of sympathy toward the Jewish minority. For example, Mohammed Zahir Shah—the last Afghan king, who reigned until 1973—once claimed to be a descendant of the Israelite figure Benjamin and said that Afghan Jews were considered as an important pillar of Afghanistan’s society. The king’s affection could be linked to an old myth claiming that the Pashtuns were offspring of one of the lost tribes of Israel. From a scientific point of view, most of that has not been proved and mainly belongs in the realm of tales, legends, and myths.
Instead, the rise of communism in Afghanistan and the intervention of the Soviet Union were some of the main reasons for the Jewish exodus. “The Red Army committed many horrendous crimes in other parts of Central Asia. They murdered religious people, and we knew that before they entered Afghanistan,” Simentov recalled.
But while most of the Jews fled and immigrated to Israel, the United States, or Europe, Simentov stayed.
Kabul’s Shahr-e Naw quarter is often regarded as one of the more developed, bustling areas of the Afghan capital. One can find dozens and dozens of restaurants serving Afghan, Turkish, Indian, Iranian, and Italian foods, gaudy wedding halls, some modern-looking coffee shops, and many traditional stores and antique shops that have been there for decades, even before the 40 years of war.
In the middle of all that, in the flower district, where roses and tulips are being sold for special occasions and celebrations, Simentov has resided for decades in Afghanistan’s last intact synagogue. The 66-year-old, who always wears his yarmulke, is well known among his neighbors, who tend to find him amusing. “Everyone in these streets knows Zabulon. He is very salient and, sometimes, he is very choleric. But we have fun with him,” one of them told me.
Simentov’s living room is part of the empty synagogue. Sometimes, he rents some of the other rooms to others. In Afghanistan, Simentov is representing a whole religious minority. But while all of his family members left years ago, he would never abandon his country. “My wife, my daughters and my sisters are living in Israel. I visited them there once, but I did not want to stay there. Afghanistan is my homeland,” he said.
To many people, Afghanistan’s Jewish history is rather unknown. Decades ago, Jews used to be an important part of society and lived in many regions of the country, especially in its western and northern parts. Probably, the most important Jewish Afghan city was Herat, Simentov’s hometown, which lies close to the Iranian border. Hundreds of Jewish families used to live in the city, and they built several synagogues during their era. One of these historic monuments was restored by the Aga Khan Foundation a few years ago. (Unfortunately, there are no Jews left to visit it.) In his own synagogue, Simentov recently renovated and painted the prayer room, as he recalled with pride. Every Shabbat, Simentov ascends the small pulpit and recites from the Torah. He is not always alone while doing that. Since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, many journalists from Western countries have visited Simentov, and many of them were Jews who prayed with him before they made him famous as “Afghanistan’s last Jew.”
Simentov has now held that dubious credential for nearly 15 years. During the reign of Mohammad Najibullah—Afghanistan’s last communist president, who led the country until 1992—from 10 to 15 Jews resided in Kabul. They were the last Jewish community of the whole country. While many Afghans continue to have a critical stance toward Najibullah, who used to be the boss of the infamous Afghan communist intelligence service, known as KHAD, before being installed by the Soviets as president, Simentov appears to be one of his sympathizers. “These were good times. We did not have problems. Najib was a good leader. The accusations against him are untrue. Babrak Karmal [who previously led the country] was responsible for all the crimes,” Simentov said.
KHAD was known for abducting, torturing, and murdering tens of thousands of people during the communist reign in Kabul. The bodies of many victims are lost to this day. According to many witnesses, Najibullah himself tortured and killed countless prisoners personally. Even Soviet archives described the torturer-turned-patriot president as one of the most brutal men among the Afghan communists. Even so, many older Afghans look back on his rule as the relative calm before the Taliban storm.
Najibullah was publicly hanged by the Taliban in 1996 when they took Kabul. Unsurprisingly, Simentov laments the arrival of the Taliban and their Islamist predecessors, the mujahideen, who conquered Kabul after the collapse of the communist regime and started a bloody civil war. When the Taliban took most of Afghanistan, Simentov spent two months in Israel with his family. But against all advice he decided to return and traveled to Kabul through Herat. When he reached the synagogue, he was not alone. Isaac Levy, another Afghan Jew, was also there.
But their shared faith was not enough to bring Simentov and Levy together. Unable to get along, the two men began a yearslong feud that confounded even the ruling Taliban regime. Both Jews regularly denounced each other. As neighbors recall, Levy repeatedly said that he had converted to Islam and that Simentov did not want to accept this. He also said that his fellow Jew was the owner of a secret brothel where he sold alcohol. Simentov in turn accused Levy of practicing black magic, which is prohibited in both Judaism and Islam. In the end, the Taliban, annoyed by their constant infighting, imprisoned both men. But when their quarrel carried on even inside the Taliban-run prison, they eventually were kicked out by the extremists.
“They [the Taliban] beat me a lot. I was imprisoned a several times because of this charlatan Levy. He wanted to get rid of me to sell the synagogue. But thank God he was not successful,” Simentov told me. Isaac Levy, who was at least a quarter century older than Simentov, died in 2005.
When Khairullah Khairkhwa, who is part of the Taliban’s political delegation in Qatar and participated in recent peace talks with the Americans, was asked about the two Jews, he could not hide his grin. “Yes, I remember them, they caused me a lot of problems,” the Taliban leader said.
In May 2014, Khairkhwa was released with four other Taliban members from the Guantánamo Bay detention camp as part of the deal to free Bowe Bergdahl, a captured U.S. Army soldier. Khairkhwa was imprisoned by the Americans for 12 years. He said his interrogators showed a keen interest in the lost Torah that Simentov seeks, for reasons he did not know—it is believed the large Afghan Jewish emigrant population in New York had also made it an issue with Washington. “They asked me about 40 times,” Khairkhwa recalled while eating a sweet Qatari dish in an air-conditioned hotel in Doha.
The missing Torah, according to Simentov, is a unique scripture written in the 15th century. It was taken from Kabul’s synagogue when the Taliban were busy with Simentov and Levy’s infighting. At the time, Khairkhwa was the Taliban’s minister of interior and, according to Simentov, responsible for the Torah’s disappearance. “Khairkhwa is busy with peace talks, but he should give me back the Torah. It is very important to us,” he said.
When Khairkhwa saw a video of Simentov, filmed by the author of this piece, demanding the Torah, he started laughing.
The Taliban leader, obviously irritated when being asked about the lost Torah in the middle of the Afghan peace talks, said that he did not know anything about its whereabouts. “I was tortured because of that. The Jews took this issue very seriously, so I was regularly asked about it when I was in Guantánamo. But the truth is that I don’t know where the scripture is. All I can remember is that my then-deputy took it,” he said.
Regarding the two Jews’ imprisonment, Khairkhwa said that his group did not have any problems with Jews, because they are considered People of the Book by Islamic jurisprudence. “Apart from the fact that the Jewish religion is based on Abrahamitic monotheism, these people always used to be an accepted minority in Afghanistan. They did not leave because of us [the Taliban]. In this particular case, these two men just could not get along with each other. They hated each other. That was not our business,” Khairkhwa told me.
According to Khairkhwa, his then-deputy minister, another Taliban leading figure named Noor Jalal, brought the Torah to the southern city of Kandahar, which was then the capital of the Taliban emirate. But since then, the holy book seems to be lost.
According to observers, it is safe to assume that the old Torah was long ago sold on the black market. The Israeli state is well known for searching for and buying old scriptures in what it describes as an effort to “bring them home,” but it has not been successful in finding the Afghan Torah. “I think it is very unlikely to find this artifact. Many things from this era are lost. Especially then the Taliban regime collapsed and the Western forces invaded the country, black marketeer benefited from the chaos,” said Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based analyst and former Taliban official.
Zabulon Simentov still believes that the Torah will resurface—and he’ll go on waiting and looking until he dies. “They thought it’s worth millions of dollars, but that’s not true. It’s just very valuable to us Jews,” he said. Whether the holy scripture reemerges or not, there will be at least one Jew waiting for it—and he will continue to stay in Kabul. “I’m a man with no fear. I will never leave Afghanistan because of the Taliban or anyone else,” Simentov said. However, Afghanistan’s last remaining Jew also believes that many of his fellow Jewish brethren would return if peace and stability prevails in the future. “Afghan Jews love their country, and many of them would come back and make investments to rebuild Afghanistan. Our country is the heart of Asia, and we have so many untouched resources. But to do that, we need peace first,” he said.
Correction, Nov. 4, 2019: A previous version of this article mislabeled Hebrew writing on the synagogue wall. The photo caption has been updated.