The last Jew to leave Afghanistan is not Zevulun Simentov, but a distant cousin of his, Tova Muradi, aged 83. After receiving threats, Muradi, two children and four grandchildren were flown out in a rescue mission organised by ISRA-AID. Point of No Return has learned that they were part of a group of 167 Afghans evacuated out of the country to the UAE via Tajikistan. They are among some 2,000 refugees taken in by Albania. They are permitted to stay until they obtain visas for their final destinations. Muradi, whose family is more Muslim than Jewish, hopes to join her daughter Khorshid in Canada. However, she intends to visit her five siblings in Israel and her parents’ graves in Jerusalem. ISRA-AID organised a Zoom call so that Tova could see her three sisters and two brothers for the first time in 60 years. It was a tearful event, all the more poignant as another sister, to whom she had been particularly close, had died six months earlier. ISRA-AID had not been able to rescue 25 more members of Tova’s family, but referred them to other relief agencies. They are now safely in the UAE. The Washington Post broke the news of Tova’s rescue :
JERUSALEM — For years, Zebulon Simentov branded himself as the “last Jew of Afghanistan,” the sole remnant of a centuries-old community. He charged reporters for interviews and held court in Kabul’s only remaining synagogue. He left the country last month for Istanbul after the Taliban seized power.
Now it appears he was not the last one.
Simentov’s distant cousin, Tova Moradi, was born and raised in Kabul and lived there until last week, more than a month after Simentov departed in September. Fearing for their safety, Moradi, her children and nearly two dozen grandchildren fled the country in recent weeks in an escape orchestrated by an Israeli aid group, activists and prominent Jewish philanthropists.
“I loved my country, loved it very much, but had to leave because my children were in danger,” Moradi told The Associated Press from her modest quarters in the Albanian town of Golem, whose beachside resorts have been converted to makeshift homes for some 2,000 Afghan refugees.
Moradi, 83, was one of 10 children born to a Jewish family in Kabul. At age 16, she ran away from home and married a Muslim man. She never converted to Islam, maintained some Jewish traditions, and it was no secret in her neighborhood that she was Jewish.
“She never denied her Judaism, she just got married in order to save her life as you cannot be safe as a young girl in Afghanistan,” Moradi’s daughter, Khorshid, told the AP from her home in Canada, where she and three of her siblings moved after the Taliban first seized power in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Despite friction over her decision to marry outside the faith, Moradi said she stayed in touch with some of her family over the years. Her parents and siblings fled Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1980s. Her parents are buried at Jerusalem’s Har Menuhot cemetery, and many of her surviving siblings and their descendants live in Israel.
The exit of the Last Jew from Afghanistan, Zevulon Simentov , masks the larger, dark issue of the rejection of the ‘other’. Thousands of years of Jewish history are completely erased, remembered only by the descendants of the dead. Dara Horn, author of People love dead Jews has written a heartfelt essay in The New York Times addressing the extinction of diversity, particularly in the Muslim world:
These stories are used as comic relief, like a Mel Brooks skit injected into the relentless thrum of bad news. But when I read about the Last Jew of Afghanistan, a country where Jewish communities thrived for well over a thousand years, it occurred to me that there have been many “Last Jews” stories like this, in many, many places — and that the way we tell these stories is itself part of the problem.
Dozens of countries around the world have had their Last Jews. The Libyan city of Tripoli was, astonishingly, one-quarter Jewish in 1941; today the entire country is Jew-free. After the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi, who banished the country’s lingering Jews during his reign, a lone Libyan Jew came back to Tripoli and took down a concrete wall sealing the city’s one remaining synagogue. But he was soon forced to flee, having been warned that an antisemitic mob was coming for his head.
Chrystie Sherman, a photographer for Diarna, an online museum of Jewish sites in the Islamic world, once told me how she tracked down the last Jewish business owner in Syria, a millenniums-old Jewish community that once numbered in the tens of thousands. In 2009, he took her to a magnificent 500-year-old synagogue. The structure didn’t survive Syria’s civil war. At another synagogue, she had to lie to government agents about why she was there; admitting that she was documenting Jewish history was too dangerous.
In my travels, I’ve also seen what happens in such places decades after the Last Jews have vanished. Often, thousands of years of history are completely erased, remembered only by the descendants of the dead. Sometimes, something even creepier happens: People tell stories about Jews that make them feel better about themselves, patting themselves on the back for their current love for Jews long gone. The self-righteous memory-keeping is so much easier without insufferable living Jews getting in the way.
Places around the world now largely devoid of Jews have come to think fondly of the dead Jews who once shared their streets, and an entire industry has emerged to encourage tourism to these now historical sites.The locals in such places rarely minded when living Jews were either massacred or driven out.
But now they pine for the dead Jews, lovingly restoring their synagogues and cemeteries — sometimes while also pining for live Jewish tourists and their magic Jewish money. Egypt’s huge Jewish community predated Islam by at least six centuries; now that only a handful of Jews remain, the government has poured funding into restoring synagogues for tourists.
I have visited, and written about, many such “heritage sites” over the years, in countries ranging from Spain to China. Some are maintained by sincere and learned people, with deep research and profound courage. I wish that were the norm. More often, they are like Epcot pavilions, selling bagels and bobbleheads, sometimes hardly even mentioning why this synagogue is now a museum or a concert hall. Many Jewish travelers to such sites feel a discomfort they can barely name.
I’ve felt it too, every time. I’ve walked through places where Jews lived for hundreds or even thousands of years, people who share so many of the foundations of my own life— the language and books I cherish, the ideas that nourish me, the rhythms of my weeks and years — and I have felt the silence close in.
I don’t mean the dead Jews’ silence, but my own. I know how I am supposed to feel: solemn, calmly contemplative, and perhaps also grateful to whoever so kindly restored this synagogue or renamed this street. I stifle my disquiet, telling myself it is merely sorrow, burying it so deep that I no longer recognize what it really is: rage.
That rage is real, and we ignore it at our peril. It’s apparently in poor taste to point out why people like Mr. Simentov wind up as “Last Jews” to begin with: People decided they no longer wanted to live with those who weren’t exactly like themselves. Nostalgic stories about Last Jews mask a much larger and darker reality about societies that were once ethnic and religious mosaics, but are now home to almost no one but Arab Muslims, Lithuanian Catholics or Han Chinese. It costs little to wax nostalgic about departed Jews when one lives in a place where diversity, rather than being a living human challenge, is a fairy tale from the past. There is only one way to be.
What does it mean for a society to rid itself of other points of view? To reject those with different perspectives, different histories, different ways of being in the world? The example of Jewish history, of the many Last Jews in places around the globe, holds up a dark mirror to those of us living in much freer societies. The cynical use of bygone Jews to “inspire” us can verge on the absurd, but that absurdity isn’t so far-off from our own lip service to diversity, where those who differ from us are wonderful, so long as they see things our way.
On paper, American diversity is impressive. But in reality, we often live siloed lives. How do we really treat those who aren’t just like us? The disgust is palpable, as anyone knows who has tried being Jewish on TikTok. Are we up to the challenge of maintaining a society that actually respects others?
I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath. The Last Jew of Afghanistan is gone, and everyone is glad to be rid of him.
With the departure of Zebulon Simentov, arranged by business tycoon Moti Kahana, the ancient Jewish community of Afghanistan has officially become extinct. It was not the Taliban takeover which persuaded Simentov to leave, however, it was the fear of being kidnapped or killed by the far more radical Islamic State. Report in Israel Hayom (with thanks: Lily):
The last member of Afghanistan’s Jewish community left the country Tuesday. 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 organized the evacuation, told The Associated Press 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 Islamic State group. He said Simentov’s neighbors also pressed him to leave, so that their children could join him on the bus out.
“For two weeks I pressured him to leave,” Kahana told Israel Hayom. “I explained to him that there were two ways for the Taliban to make money by having a Jew, one of which is kidnapping him, and the second one beheading him and negotiating [for the body] in any case. In the end, he agreed.”
Simentov asked to have 100 children from families in danger to be evacuated as well. 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.
“Thus far, we have managed to get thirty children out, at Zebulon’s request,” Kahana said. “I am sure we will get to 100 children soon.”
The evacuees 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 organized 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.
Update to the Update: The Times of Israel has reported that Simantov was one of a group undertaking a five-day journey out of Afghanistan. It is not known where, when or how they crossed the border into a neighbouring country. Simantov has said he wants to go to New York.
Update: This Times of Israelarticle suggests that Simantov may be reluctant to come to Israel in case he has to face the consequences for refusing to divorce his wife, who has lived in Israel since 1998. This Jewish Chronicle article even says that he refused to board a private plane sent especially to fetch him.
Afghanistan’s last remaining Jew, Zabulon Simantov, has decided to remain in Afghanistan despite the Taliban’s takeover, according to Indian news channel WION in a report by the Jerusalem Post. In spite of reports that he was preparing to leave, he has changed his mind and refused an opportunity to move to the US: (With thanks: Michelle)
Simantov, 61, had previously stated he was planning to leave during the High Holiday season, stating, “I will watch on TV in Israel to find out what will happen in Afghanistan.”
However, he has recently stated in a report to WION, “I will not leave my home. If I had left, there would have been no one to maintain the synagogue.”
As Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, thoughts turn to the fate of the last Jew of Afghanistan, Zebulon Simentov. In April 2021, Simentov, the caretaker of the synagogue in Kabul, was already telling the media that he was planing his exit :“They know that I am working on it, getting my passport and leaving. They can have a watchman, and then, let’s see what happens,” he said. A Voice of America clip, filed in June, confirmed his intention to leave. According to an unnamed source, he is safe.
The withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan has made many Afghans fearful of the Taliban’s return to power, prompting the country’s last remaining Jew to make plans to leave as soon as possible.
“God willing, I cannot say seven to eight months, but I will definitely leave by the time the Taliban come,” said Zebulon Simentov, 62, who lives in Kabul.
The Taliban have increased their attacks on government-controlled areas in recent weeks, just as the United States and its NATO allies started withdrawing their remaining forces from the country.
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