May 10th, 2010
09:03 AM ET

Afghanistan's last Jew vows to stay put

Kabul, Afghanistan — Zablon Simintov is always guaranteed the best seat in his local synagogue here, but the privilege comes with a downside: he's the last Jew in Afghanistan.

The country's 800-year-old Jewish community - an estimated 40,000 strong at its peak - is now a party of one.

But Simintov, for his part, isn't going anywhere soon. For more than a decade, he has refused to join his wife and two teenage daughters in Israel.

"My family call me all the time and say, 'Come here, you're the last Jew in Afghanistan, what are you doing there?' " he says.

Simintov, a former carpet dealer, refuses to answer that question. "I don't know why I'm still living here," he says. "It's God's will."

He hasn't seen his daughters - now ages 14 and 16 - since his one trip to Israel 12 years ago.

But the bald and bespectacled Simintov says he is content guarding a cupboard full of dusty prayer books - one is 400 years old, he says - spending holidays with visitors from Europe and the U.S. and surviving off donations from Jews around the world.

Historical evidence suggests a sizable Jewish community in Afghanistan since the Middle Ages, according to the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, a nonprofit group.

Afghanistan's Jewish population reached 40,000 in the mid-19th century, the group says, and began declining around 1870 with the passage of anti-Jewish measures.

Israel's creation in 1948 drew most of Afghanistan's remaining Jews.

Simintov's synagogue - the last in Afghanistan's capital - sits inconspicuously in a courtyard behind busy city streets, though a close inspection reveals Stars of David in second-story metal railings. The interior is adorned only by broken light fixtures and ceiling fans.

But Simintov says he is hardly in hiding. "They're all like my brothers here," he said of his fellow Afghans. "It doesn't make a difference whether I'm here or in Israel."

That wasn't the case under Taliban rule, which ended with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, though Taliban forces have been resurgent in parts of the country.

Simintov says he was arrested four times under Taliban rule and that he was beaten while in custody.

"The Taliban was a problem," he says. "They interfered in everyone's business, but now they're gone, they're finished."

Which means that Simintov is more inclined than ever to stay put.

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