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Last Afghan Jew Leaves Amid Minority Exodus In Fear Of Taliban

Zabulon Simantov, who was the last member of Afghanistan's once-thriving Jewish community, blows the traditional shofar, or ram's horn, at a synagogue in Kabul.

Zablon Simintov, Afghanistan’s last Jew, has left the country after the Taliban takeover.

The 62-year-old had suffered separation from his family in Israel and endured civil wars and the 1996-2001 Taliban oppression to stay in his homeland, Afghanistan.

Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman, confirmed that Simintov and 29 of his neighbors were taken to a "neighboring country," the AP reported. Most of the Afghan evacuees accompanying him were women and children.

Simintov, who lived in a dilapidated Kabul synagogue, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi in March that he would leave Afghanistan if the Taliban returned to power following the withdrawal of Western forces.

Zabulon Simantov prays at a Jewish cemetery in Kabul.
Zabulon Simantov prays at a Jewish cemetery in Kabul.

“After our important festivals [of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in September], I will leave Afghanistan,” he said. “If you have decided to leave then it is difficult to stay,” he added. “If the Taliban return they are going to push us out with a slap in the face.”

His increasing worries over the past two years leading up to the Taliban takeover convinced him to leave despite trying to stay in Afghanistan as long as he could keeping kosher and praying in Hebrew.

Simintov, whose wife and two daughters have lived in Israel for more than two decades, used to say it was God’s will that he lived in Afghanistan. But he has worried about his future there ever since Washington began talking about a peace deal with the Taliban in 2018.

“Peace talks are making people worried that if the Taliban come and if they behave the same as they used to during their regime [that began in the 1990s], then people will be worried,” he told the BBC in 2019.

Simintov is not the only one leaving his homeland, which in the mid-1900s boasted a 40,000-strong Jewish community.

Afghanistan’s Hindu and Sikh minorities have also shrunk from more than 200,000 in the 1980s to just a few hundred families today.

Most members of those communities in Afghanistan have already left while others plan to join exiled members of their community in India. Militant attacks have targeted their temples and leaders, killing scores, while criminals kidnap community members for ransom.

There is a risk that some of Afghanistan’s non-Muslim minorities, many of whose members fled during the tumultuous decades following the 1978 communist coup, could vanish completely now that the Taliban has returned to power.

For its part, the Taliban has attempted to assuage the fears of non-Muslim Afghans. The militants have visited Sikh temples to try and assure the remaining members of the community of their commitment to their safety and well-being.

“The Islamic Emirate will take serious and effective steps to grant human rights, rights of the minorities and the marginalized communities within the framework of the holy religion of Islam,” a September 7 statement by the Taliban government said.

But members of minority communities find it difficult to trust such statements.

Sandeep Singh, 20, relocated to India earlier this year. He told Radio Azadi that in addition to the security threats, his community faced systemic discrimination in Afghanistan.

“When I used to go to school [in Kabul], both the students and the teachers would ridicule me,” he said. “They would pull my hair and turban,” he added. Sikhism requires its adherents to wrap their hair in a turban.

Bushra, 17, is a Sikh high school student in Kabul. She told Radio Azadi that she regularly faces harassment and ridicule because of her faith. “Everybody comments on my appearance and taunts me for having small eyes,” she said. “They make fun of how I dress.”

Members of Afghanistan's tiny Hindu and Sikh community celebrate the new year.
Members of Afghanistan's tiny Hindu and Sikh community celebrate the new year.

Soni Singh, an Afghan Sikh who now lives in exile in New Delhi, says it is difficult for the community to integrate into their new country but it's also unfeasible for it to return to Afghanistan.

“When we return to Afghanistan and try to use our skills to get ahead, we are told that we come from another country,” he said. “Our children are called names because we do not trim our hair,” he added. “They call us Hindus despite the fact that we are Sikhs.”

A Crucial Transition

Afghanistan’s religious minorities faced discrimination despite the country’s previous constitution guaranteeing protections.

They had gained limited government protection, the freedom to worship, and token representation in the government. But their future now hangs in the balance as the Taliban-led government announced a hard-line cabinet composed of Sunni clerics.

Family members mourn after an attack on Sikh temple in Kabul on March 25, 2020. The attack killed Sikhs and was claimed by the Islamic State militants.
Family members mourn after an attack on Sikh temple in Kabul on March 25, 2020. The attack killed Sikhs and was claimed by the Islamic State militants.

In 2001, months before the demise of its regime, the Taliban had caused an international uproar after they announced a plan that required all Hindus in the country to wear yellow badges.

Islamic law, as interpreted by the Taliban, will play a larger role in the country’s politics and public policies. The Taliban has revived its Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which indicates a keenness to return to more literal interpretations of Islamic law.

Afghan clerics and Islamic scholars have insisted that discrimination against non-Muslims has no place in Islam.

“If religious minorities live in an Islamic country, its government is obliged to protect them,” Mufti Bilal Ahmed Safir, a religious scholar in Kabul, told Radio Azadi. “Their lives and properties should be protected and they should be granted all the rights given by Allah.”

During the 1990s, the Taliban and rival Islamist groups pledged to protect minorities, but most Hindus and Sikhs fled to India.

Last month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) called for an evacuation of religious minorities from Afghanistan because they were at extreme risk of persecution by the Taliban.

A Hindu shrine in Kabul.
A Hindu shrine in Kabul.

“The Taliban’s imposition of their harsh and strict interpretation of Sunni Islam in the areas that they have taken over poses a grave threat to all Afghans of differing interpretations [of Islam] and other faiths or beliefs,” USCIRF Chairwoman Nadine Maenza said. “The outlook for the country’s religious minorities is particularly bleak, with threats of Taliban persecution mounting,” she added. “As Afghans are forced to flee their homes on account of their beliefs, the U.S. government must ensure that the most vulnerable among them have a pathway to seek refuge in the United States.”

Sardar Gurbachan Singh Ghazniwal, 50, did everything he could to stay in Afghanistan. He even lived inside the Gurdwara, the Sikh temple, in Kabul for years after losing his businesses and properties in the southeastern city of Ghazni.

But after the Islamic State militants attacked Kabul's Gurdwara last year and killed 25 Sikhs -- including nine of his relatives -- Ghazniwal made up his mind to move to India.

“Whenever I travel in a bus or taxi, my fellow [Afghan] Muslim brothers ask me, ‘Where do you come from in India, Sardar?’” Ghazniwal told Radio Azadi. “They even don’t consider that I speak Pashto and Dari (the two main Afghan languages) as if I had come from Afghanistan. Even when I speak fluent Pashto and Dari, I am not considered an equal [citizen].”

The looming uncertainty caused by the Taliban's takeover of the country might force most, if not all, of Afghanistan’s non-Muslim citizens to follow Ghazniwal’s path.

  • 16x9 Image

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan, is based in Kabul and supported by a nationwide network of local Dari- and Pashto-speaking journalists. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

  • 16x9 Image

    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.