The last Jew in Afghanistan says he will finally leave the country as the Taliban look set to return to power when US forces withdraw this year
- Zebulon Simentov lived through the Soviet invasion and the US-led occupation
- But he’s decided it is time to quit Kabul as the Taliban gains new ground
- Comes amid collapsing peace talks between Afghan government and Taliban
- Experts warn that when US troops leave in Sept., the Taliban will regain power
For decades, Zebulon Simentov refused to leave Afghanistan – surviving a Soviet invasion, deadly civil war, brutal rule by the Taliban and the US-led occupation of his homeland.
But enough is enough for Afghanistan’s last Jew, and the prospect of the Taliban’s return as the US withdraws its troops has him preparing to say goodbye.
‘Why should I stay? They call me an infidel,’ Simentov said at Kabul’s only synagogue, housed in an old building in the centre of the Afghan capital.
‘I’m the last, the only Jew in Afghanistan… It could get worse for me here. I have decided to leave for Israel if the Taliban returns.’
The Taliban is gaining new ground following Joe Biden’s announcement to pull out all remaining troops by September, and peace talks between the Islamists and the government in Kabul have broken down.
The prospect of the Taliban’s return has Zebulon Simentov preparing to say goodbye to Afghanistan
Simentov is now certain he is the last Afghan Jew in the country
Simentov continues to mark the Jewish new year Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays at the synagogue — sometimes even accompanied by Muslim friends
Footage emerged earlier this week showing members of the Taliban flogging a woman for speaking to a man on the phone as dozens of villagers watched on. It served to underline the impotence of the Afghan government throughout much of the country, where the locals turn to Tribal elders to mete out justice.
Footage emerged earlier this week showing members of the Taliban flogging a woman for speaking to a man on the phone as dozens of villagers watched on.
It served to underline the impotence of the Afghan government throughout much of the country, where the locals turn to Tribal elders to mete out justice.
Biden announced earlier this month his plan to withdraw the remaining 2,500 US troops on September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
This appeared to be a unilateral decision which ignored the dates set down by the Taliban and Afghan government in their Doha Agreement in February last year.
It was billed as an ‘agreement for bringing peace’ and stated that US and NATO allies would have to withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months, by May 1, 2021.
Biden’s new timeline to September infuriated the Taliban which has now sought to distance itself from the US-led push for peace.
The group said earlier this month that its delegates would no longer travel to Turkey for a peace conference intended to jump start negotiations.
The news has sparked concerns the Taliban will push its spring offensive, a rise in attacks that usually takes place as the weather gets warmer.
Simentov was born in the 1950s, in the western city of Herat not far from where that harrowing video of the woman being whipped was filmed.
He moved to Kabul during the Soviet invasion in the early 1980s for the capital’s then relative stability.
Jews lived in Afghanistan for more than 2,500 years, with tens of thousands once residing in Herat, where four synagogues still stand – testimony to the community’s ancient presence.
Simentov fears what lies ahead if he stays
Simentov was born in the 1950s, in the western city of Herat not far from where that harrowing video of the woman being whipped was filmed
But they have steadily left the country since the 19th century, with many now living in Israel.
Over the decades, all Simentov’s relatives left – including his wife and two daughters.
He is now certain he is the last Afghan Jew in the country.
Dressed in a traditional Afghan tunic and trousers, a black Jewish kippah and tefillin on his forehead, Simentov fondly remembers the years before the Soviet war as the best time for Afghanistan.
‘Followers of every religion and sect had full freedom at that time,’ said Simentov, who calls himself a proud Afghan.
But events since have made him bitter – particularly the Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, when the Islamists tried to convert him.
‘This disgraceful Taliban regime put me in prison four times,’ he said.
In one incident they ransacked the temple – a large room painted in white with an altar at one end – tore books in Hebrew text, broke Menorahs and took away the antique Torah, he said, still simmering with anger.
‘The Taliban said this is the Islamic Emirate and Jews had no rights here,’ he said.
Still, he refused to leave.
‘I have resisted. I have made the religion of Moses proud here,’ Simentov said, kissing the floor of the synagogue.
He continues to mark the Jewish new year Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays at the synagogue – sometimes even accompanied by Muslim friends.
‘If it weren’t for me, the synagogue would have been sold 10, 20 times by now,’ he said, as he limped across to his living quarters next to the temple.
Simentov, who lives off handouts from friends and relatives, prepares his meals on a small gas stove placed on a red carpet in the room.
The Taliban has threatened the US and NATO with consequences if the promised military withdrawal from Afghanistan is not completed by May 1 after US President Joe Biden said the exit would not be completed until September 11
Taliban representatives attend the opening session of peace talks in Doha, Qatar in February. They have shunned further peace talks in Turkey as experts fear the group is preparing to fill the power vacuum which will be left when US troops leave
On a table in a corner are some books and old photographs of his daughters.
He says when the Taliban were ousted in 2001, he believed Afghanistan would prosper.
‘I thought the Europeans and Americans would fix this country… but that didn’t happen,’ he said.
Simentov’s neighbours will be sorry to see him go.
‘He is a good man,’ said Shakir Azizi, who owns a grocery store in front of the synagogue.
‘He has been my customer for 20 years. If he leaves, we will miss him and his presence.’
But Simentov fears what lies ahead if he stays.
‘The Taliban are still the same as 21 years ago,’ he said. ‘I have lost faith in Afghanistan… there is no more life here.’
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