Afghanistan’s last known remaining Jew allegedly demanded a financial payment from a group of volunteers working to facilitate his evacuation from Kabul following the Taliban takeover this week, refusing to leave when his request was rebuffed.
Israeli-American businessman Moti Kahana, who has been involved in several controversial high profile exfiltrations of Jews from Middle Eastern countries, told Haaretz on Wednesday that while 62-year-old Zabulon Simantov initially agreed to be evacuated, he subsequently conditioned his exit on the receipt of "personal financing.”
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"I'm not paying Jews to save their own lives. I'm here to help. I'm not here to pay you to save your life," Kahana said.
Simantov “claimed to have had some debts that he had to cover before he leaves. We’re not in the business of covering peoples’ debts. We’re in the business of saving people's lives if they need to be saved,” confirmed Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, the Istanbul-based chairman of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States and another participant in the aborted rescue mission.
“When the news about the Taliban came, he indicated that he wanted to leave, and we contacted the Turkish Foreign Ministry and Kahana and his team” but “if he doesn’t feel under threat” then “it’s totally up to him,” Chitrik said. “We don’t feel that there is a threat to his life.”
In an interview with Indian news network WION aired on Tuesday, Simantov said that while he had the opportunity to flee to the United States, he had decided to remain behind in order to look after Afghanistan’s last standing synagogue.
His remark stood at odds with comments he has made this April, when he told Arab News that he would emigrate following the High Holidays in the fall.
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“I will watch on TV in Israel to find out what will happen in Afghanistan,” Simantov said at the time.
His wife, a Jew from Tajikistan, and their two daughters have lived in Israel since 1998. But Simantov has stayed in his native Afghanistan to tend to its lone synagogue, located in the capital Kabul, through decades of violence and political turmoil, including a period of Taliban rule and the country’s war with the U.S.
In an interview with Hebrew weekly Makor Rishon, Kahana said that part of the reason why Simantov had not left for Israel was due to the fact that he had long refused to grant his wife a religious bill of divorce, known in Hebrew as a "get."
In a subsequent conversation with Haaretz, Kahana said that while preparing to evacuate Simantov, American officials informed him that the United States had flown a rabbi into Kabul in the early days of the Americans occupation to assist Simantov in granting his wife a divorce via video conference but "the guy did not show up.”
It was, apparently, not the only attempt.
“We tried with Amie FR, correspondent in Kabul, to get him to agree to write a Get, and I was ready to fly to Kabul to administer it,” Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, head of the Conference of European Rabbis, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday evening, referring to Amie Ferris-Rotman, a former correspondent in Afghanistan. “But, even after Amie offered a case of single malt scotch, the man refused.”
“True story! He is very stubborn, but also generous and quite fun. I spent Passover with him in the Kabul synagogue some years ago,” Rotman confirmed on Twitter.
Simantov, a carpet and jewelry merchant, was born in the Afghan city of Herat, which decades ago was home to hundreds of Jews. He eventually moved to Kabul but fled to Tajikistan in 1992 before returning to the capital city.
He lives in the synagogue – which he renovated himself – in the heart of Kabul’s flower district. Without him around, the synagogue will shut down, ending an era of Jewish life in the country that scholars believe began at least 2,000 years ago.
He became the country’s last Jew upon the death of Yitzhak Levi in 2005. The pair famously did not get along and in 1998 Levi wrote to the Taliban interior minister to accuse Simantov of theft of Jewish relics. Simantov retorted by telling the Taliban that Levi ran a secret brothel where he sold alcohol.
The Taliban was so annoyed by their constant fighting that they threw them in jail. But they eventually kicked them out when they continued to fight inside the prison.
Asked about Simantov by Israeli public broadcaster Kan, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen replied that he did “not know the last Jew” but that the new regime was “not harming minorities.”
“There are Sikhs and Hindus in the country, and they can practice their religion,” he said.
JTA contributed to this report.