Sunday, July 29, 2007

Last Jew In Afghanistan Has No Plans To Leave

In the war-torn country of 30 million Muslims, Zebulon Simentov stands alone. Thirteen centuries after the first Jews arrived in Afghanistan, Simentov is the last Jew left in the nation. "It makes no difference," says the 47-year-old, who wears a yarmulke along with his shalwar kameez. "I'm like a lion -- strong and courageous." While there were more than 40,000 Jews in Afghanistan at the turn of the 19th century, the community emptied -- first in 1948, when the state of Israel was established, and then in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. For some time, Simentov was one of two Jews in Kabul. He was finally left alone when his neighbour and archrival Ishaq Levin died in January 2005.There was no love lost between the two men, who lived together at the synagogue through the Soviet invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban regime. Simentov and Levin vied for control of the synagogue, and famously grew to despise each other, holding loud yelling matches that neighbours could hear down the street. When Levin died of natural causes at 80, Simentov did not seem to grieve the loss. "He was a very bad man who tried to get me killed," he told the Associated Press news agency at the time, "and now I am the Jew here, I am the boss." Before he died, Levin said Simentov had accused him of converting to Islam, so that Simentov could take over the synagogue. Meanwhile Simentov blamed Levin when a valuable copy of the Jewish holy book, the Torah, went missing. Simentov, who said it was confiscated under the Taliban regime, was acquitted in court.Now Simentov is the only one left and in control of the dusty rundown synagogue they shared and fought over. Described as coarse and demanding, he still fights with his neighbours. But they seem to live side by side in mutual tolerance and respect. "I have no problems," he says, "Except for the Taliban years when a few crazy people came around." There's not much left in Kabul of Jewish history. Yet there's a place in the suburbs where Simentov often comes to pray. It used to be a Jewish cemetery, and his grandparents are buried here. Now it's looked after by an Afghan Muslim family. "Many Muslims tried to convert me," he says. "But I never listened." His ex-wife and children moved to Israel long ago. But Simentov refuses to follow. Too many problems, he says, and too many responsibilities in Afghanistan.