Afghanistan’s Last Remaining Jew

Carmine SavareseUnsplash

The BBC recently filmed a conversation with one of the world’s most fascinating men: the last remaining Jew in Afghanistan, a man by the name of Zablon Simintov.

Jews have lived in Afghanistan since the seventh century, meaning that the Jewish population either predates or was developed right when Islam was being formed as a religion.

Though there was always a formidable Jewish population in Afghanistan, the number swelled dramatically in the 1930s, when many Jews fled Soviet Russia. This lead to a growth of anti-semitic sentiment, and soon the Afghani government, under King of Afghanistan Muhammad Nadir Khan, passed laws targeting the Jewish population.

Though a combination of starvation and emigration, the Jewish population of Afghanistan, which had one time been around 40,000 people, dwindled to 5,000 in 1948, per Atlas Obscura.

However, in 1951, the Afghan government decided to allow Afghani Jews to emigrate without revoking citizenship. This was the death knell for the Jewish population in Afghanistan, and a majority decided to move either to Israel or the United States. By 1996, the Jewish population was down to 10 people.

Simintov remembers when there was a flourishing community in Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan.

“There were 500 Jewish families in Herat… All of them left Afghanistan,” he recounted.

Simintov also discussed the pressures he faced to convert to Islam. In Afghanistan, Islam is the official state religion, and is practiced by 99.7 percent of the population.

“People have asked me to convert to Islam. They offered me money but I said no. I responded to them that God made me Jewish and you Muslim. Even the Taliban asked me to convert, but I said no.”

However, Simintov also mentioned that he was not free from retribution. In the video, he takes out old Hebrew documents, lamenting at their tattered status.

“Look at these place cards; these were all in frames. The Taliban tore them apart. Just look at this,” he explained.

The Taliban also stole Simintov’s Torah.

Featured image credit: Tanner MardisUnsplash

Simintov believes that the thief is currently at Guantanamo Bay and hopes his prized possession can be returned.

“Peace talks are making people worried that if the Taliban come, and if they behave the same as they used to during their regime, people will be worried.”

To continue practicing his faith, Simintov has had to make some adjustments, per Atlas Obscura. For example, he adheres to kosher rules by slaughtering his own meat, having received permission from the nearest rabbi (who lives in Tashkent, Uzbekistan).

Simintov decided to stay in his native Afghanistan, despite the fact that his wife and two daughters moved to Israel.

In an interview with Tablet magazine, Simintov explained why.

“This is my home. This is where I belong,” he argued. “I won’t let Jewish history die in Afghanistan.”