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The Last Jew in Afghanistan

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For several years now Zebulon Simantov, “The last Jew in Afghanistan,” has garnered sympathetic press attention. Afghanistan like all Middle Eastern Muslim countries hosted significant Jewish communities for thousands of years.  Probably the first Jews arrived after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 720 BCE then its population was exiled and scattered around the Assyrian empire. Afghanistan was a crucial trading route from the West to China and long before Marco Polo Jews traded and settled along the Silk Road.

The Jews survived and thrived because in general the powers who controlled this route, such as the Mongols, could not have cared less what religion the locals adhered to so long as they could trade. Things deteriorated as fanatical religions spread eastward and Jews were treated as second-class citizens. Some rulers were more favorable than others and Jews got a better deal under Islam than they did under Christianity. Most Jews in the world today come originally from Muslim and Arab cultures. Almost all of them were driven out and their property confiscated in reprisal when Israel gained independence or fanatics took charge.

Similarly Iraq once was the most important and vibrant Jewish center in the world. Jews contributed massively to the religious, secular, and commercial wealth of Iraq. Not only were they attacked  in the infamous Farhud pogrom of 1941, but they were systematically driven out after 1948 and the few that remained were reduced to the point where now no Jews live there anymore. A recent conference was held in the more humane Kurdish region in which hundreds of Iraqis regretted the loss of the Jewish community and its contribution to Iraqi culture and wealth. They urged the authorities to welcome them back. For their pains, those from the south were sanctioned and threatened with expulsion themselves 

Remnants of Sephardi Jews survived what was once a thriving community in in Afghanistan, even under the Taliban. Zebulon Simantov was feted for his stubborn perseverance, holding court in his one-room accommodation in the last synagogue in Kabul, refusing offers to re-locate him. He swore he would never leave. Even in August this year as the Americans fled, said he was not going anywhere. Who was he? 

Born in Herat, Simantov became the country’s last Jew after the death of Yitzhak Levy in 2005. Though they both lived in the same run-down synagogue, their hatred for one another was legendary. For years the two cursed and denounced each other to the authorities. Once during a mutual stint in jail, their arguing was so annoying that their Islamic captors simply threw them out. Simantov was no model husband or father. His wife and daughters couldn’t take him anymore and left for Israel in 1998. Out of spite, he had refused to give her a Get, a religious divorce, for the past twenty years. 

In August, an American Israeli businessman, who runs a private security company, and had helped evacuate the remaining Jews from war-torn Syria in 2014, succeeded  in rescuing Simantov who even demanded $50,000 before he would leave.  Finally, he relented and arrived just before Yom Kippur, in New York City, where, as a condition of his rescue, he signed a Get for his wife. 

Not a nice man. Neither indeed are all those men (and occasionally women) who hold up a religious divorce either for blackmail or bloody-mindedness by refusing to give a Get.  This ‘dog in the manger’ mentality is nothing new. Neither is the refusal of religious authorities to face up to their moral obligation and do something about it. Jewish law provides any number of ways of getting around a biblical law that says it is the man who grants a divorce. But instead of using halachah creatively to relieve unfairness and suffering, as was the case in the past, they reserve their creativity for adding restrictions instead of removing them. And in the case of the Agunah, a woman who cannot re-marry because she has no Get to release her, they rely on secular courts to do their business.

What does it say about our religion that we cannot fix our own problems and we have to rely on outsiders to do it for us? Frankly, it reflects negatively on Judaism and depresses me. 

But just as I was about to feel even further depressed at the behavior of our religious brethren, along comes a ray of light that teaches me not to generalize.

A certain Rabbi Margaretten is a Chassid of the Skverer dynasty and lives in New York. The typical monochromatic, bearded, be-hatted, ringleted person, typical of a breed noted for being concerned only with their small world and disregarding other passengers when they fly. This gentleman has been involved in rescuing Muslim Afghanis. He has spent his own money and time arranging to get them out of the country. He has also processed paperwork and visa applications for those at risk. He pays for their stay at safe houses, hotels, food, clothing, and medical bills. When he was asked why he does it, he replied, ” I feel for them because my parents and grandparents are all Holocaust survivors”.

If only so many of us did not generalize, marginalize, or dismiss those we do not agree with. It is so dangerous and destructive. There are good and bad people everywhere, in every community. You often hear about what people do wrong. But you rarely hear about how much good they do.  The challenge is to look for the positive, to avoid those who have an agenda that diminishes others.  It is true, as the Talmud says,  “ the poor of your city take priority. ” But that does not mean we should not help others and in showing kindness, hopefully, bring people closer together. It is all very well saying “make peace, not war.” But to love, one needs to turn a blind eye to the negative and focus on the positive.

October 19 2021

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