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.
The U.S. announced Tuesday that it had pulled out between 30% and 44% of its 2,500 troops in the South Asian country. A complete withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO forces is expected to take place by September 11.
Simentov has been the caretaker of Kabul’s only synagogue for decades and lives in the synagogue complex. He hopes the government can hire a replacement when he moves to Israel, to which his wife and two daughters moved in the 1990s because of the civil war in Afghanistan. He has visited once, for two months in 1998, he said.
“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.
Once a thriving community in Afghanistan, thousands of Afghan Jews have left for Israel and Western countries.
The migration started in the 1950s after the creation of Israel, though many left after the Soviet invasion in 1979.
According to Hamayon Ahmadi, a conservator and restorer in Herat, more than 1,000 Jews coexisted with other residents of Herat City before the start of the war in 1978.
“They were living together with others in a peaceful environment in Herat,” Ahmadi said, adding that the city once housed four synagogues.
He said some Afghan Jews who left the country have visited the cemetery south of Herat’s Old City.
Simentov has been the only Jew living in Afghanistan, he said, since Isaac Levi, another Jew living in Kabul, died in 2005.
Other than being the synagogue caretaker, Simentov is jobless, though he said he ran a restaurant a few years ago and, he said, his family at one time had a carpet business that allowed him to travel the world.
Fear of violence
Lal Gul, chairman of the Afghanistan Human Rights Organization, said the country is undergoing a transformation that can have a lasting impact on minority rights. He warned that minorities can become particularly vulnerable if the peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government fail.
“God forbid, if peace talks do not succeed, there would be another civil war in the country that will have [a] negative impact on everyone, particularly Afghan minority groups,” Gul said.
No progress has been reported in the peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government that began September 12 in Doha, Qatar.
Meanwhile, violence has surged across Afghanistan in recent months. In March, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said women and minorities are the two main targets of the increased violence.
At least 10 people were killed Tuesday in two explosions that targeted buses west of Kabul City, where mainly Hazara Shiite Muslims live.
Last month, a bomb attack outside a high school in the same area of Kabul killed at least 80 people, mostly schoolgirls, and injured 150 others.
No group took responsibility for the school attack. The Afghan government blamed the Taliban, but the group rejected any involvement in the attack.
In a report published in June 2020, HRW said the Taliban have not changed much from the 1990s when they were in power, despite the militant leadership’s claim to have walked away from some of their extremist ideologies and practices. The report stated that the Taliban had a record of "systematic violations" of human rights during their rule.
In its latest report published in April, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said the Taliban “continue to exclude religious minorities and punish residents in areas under their control in accordance with their extreme interpretation of Islamic law.”
USCIRF recommended to the U.S. State Department “to continue designating the Taliban as an ‘entity of particular concern.’ ”