History of the Jews in Afghanistan
Jews are said to have resided in Afghanistan for nearly 1,500 years, but the community has been reduced greatly because of emigration. Afghan Jewish communities now exist mostly in Israel, and the United States.
It was Afghanistan to which Jews turned to when escaping religious persecution in Iran and central Asia. It was in the ancient cities of Herat to the west and Kabul to the east of Afghanistan that they found refuge. The Jews had formed a community of leather and karakul merchants, poor people and money lenders alike. The large Jewish families mostly lived in the border city of Herat, while the families' patriarchs traveled back and forth on trading trips across the majestic mountains of Afghanistan on whose rocks their prayers were carved in Hebrew and sometimes even Aramaic, moving between Iran, Afghanistan, India and central Asia on the ancient silk road.
Records of a Jewish population in Afghanistan go back to the 7th century. In 1080, Moses ibn Ezra mentions 40,000 Jews paying tribute to Ghazni, and Benjamin of Tudela in the 12th century counts 80,000 Jews. In the course of Genghis Khan's 1222 invasion, the Jewish communities were reduced to isolated pockets. Only in 1839, the population increased again, swelled by refugees from Persia, reaching some 40,000.
In 2011, so-called Afghan Geniza, an 11th century collection of manuscript fragments in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian was found in Taliban caves in Afghanistan. Some 29 pages from the collection were bought by the National Library of Israel in 2013.
By 1948, over 5,000 Jews existed in Afghanistan, and after they were allowed to emigrate in 1951, most of them moved to Israel and the United States. Afghanistan was the only Muslim country that allowed Jewish families to immigrate without revoking their citizenship first. Afghan Jews left the country en masse in the 1960s, their exile to New York and Tel Aviv was motivated by a search for a better life but not because of religious persecution. By 1969, some 300 remained, and most of these left after the Soviet invasion of 1979, leaving 10 Afghan Jews in 1996, most of them in Kabul. During and after the rise of the Taliban, hundreds of Jewish afghans had either converted to Islam or disguised themselves as Muslims, the converts to Islam still practised Judaism secretly and adopted Muslim names. Due to the high number of fake conversions the actual number of Jews in Afghanistan is much greater than the recorded amount. It is thought that there are still 500-1000 secret Jews in Afghanistan. More than 10,000 Jews of Afghan descent presently live in Israel. Over 200 families of Afghan Jews live in New York City in USA. Over 100 Jews of Afghan descent live in London.
By the end of 2004, only two Jews were left in Afghanistan, Zablon Simintov and Isaac Levy. Levy relied on charity, while Simentov ran a store selling carpets and jewelry until 2001. They lived at separate ends of the dilapidated Kabul synagogue. Both claimed to be in charge of the synagogue, and the owner of its Torah, accusing the other of theft and imposture. They kept denouncing each other to the authorities, and both spent time in Taliban jails, and the Taliban also confiscated the Torah. Recently, one of Simentov's acquaintances stated that if you had brought (him) a bottle of whiskey, he (Simentov) would be in "heaven."
The contentious relationship between Simentov and Levy was dramatized in a play inspired by news reports of the two that appeared in international news media following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan overthrowing the Taliban regime. The play, entitled "The Last Two Jews of Kabul," was written by playwright Josh Greenfeld and was staged in New York City in 2002.
In January 2005, Levy died of natural causes. Simentov is now the last remaining Jew in Afghanistan, and with a total Afghan population of 30 million, the lowest worldwide. Simentov is trying to recover the confiscated Torah. Simentov, who does not speak Hebrew, claims that the man who stole his Torah is now in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay. Simentov has a wife and two daughters who live in Israel, and he said he was considering joining them. However, when asked during a recent interview whether he would go to Israel, Simentov retorted, "Go to Israel? What business do I have there? Why should I leave?"
- NEW YORK, June 19, 2007 (RFE/RL), U.S.: Afghan Jews Keep Traditions Alive Far From Home
- Motlagh, Jason (September 2, 2007). "The last Jew in Afghanistan / ALONE ON FLOWER STREET: He survived Soviets, Taliban - and outlasted even his despised peer". The San Francisco Chronicle.
- "Ancient manuscripts indicate Jewish community once thrived in Afghanistan". CBS. 3 January 2013. Retrieved 4 December 2013.
- The Guardian (28/02/2012): The story of the Afghan Jews is one of remarkable tolerance
- See Yu Aw Synagogue for references.
- The "Other" in "Afghan" Identity: Medieval Jewish community of Afghanistan
- Old pictures of the Jews of Afghanistan
- THE LAST JEW IN AFGHANISTAN