History of the Jews in Afghanistan

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Afghan Jews
Herat Jews Cemetery.jpg
Total population
More than 10,000
Regions with significant populations
Hebrew, Dari

The history of the Jews in Afghanistan goes back at least 2,500 years. In more recent times, the community has been reduced to extinction by emigration,[1][2][3] the last Jew in Afghanistan left the country in November 2021. Today, the Afghan Jewish communities now exist mostly in Israel and the United States.

The Jews had formed a community of leather and karakul merchants, landowners and money lenders alike.[citation needed] 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 mountains of Afghanistan. On the rocks of these mountains, their prayers were carved in the Hebrew language and sometimes, they were even carved in Aramaic, moving between the routes on the ancient Silk Road.[4] Jews also settled in the capital city of Kabul.

A notable Israeli of Afghan-Jewish descent is the Sephardic Rabbi of Givat Shaul, Jerusalem, rabbi Yinon Yonah.


Afghan Jews

Early history[edit]

Records of a Jewish presence in Afghanistan date back to the 7th century CE.[1] However, Afghans or Pashtuns claim descent from the Ten Lost Tribes. Balkh was a major center of Jewish life in ancient Afghanistan. The city was said to have been the burial place of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, and the home of the prophet Jeremiah.[4] The city of Herat was an important location on the silk route, as well as on other trading routes. In modern times, ruins still exist, and one of them is a Jewish cemetery. Muhammad al-Idrisi (died 1166) wrote that Kabul had a Jewish quarter.[5] In the 18th century, Jews who had served in the army of Nadir Shah settled in Kabul as his treasury guards.[5] In 2011, the so-called Afghan Geniza, an 11th-century collection of manuscript fragments which were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian, was found in Taliban caves in Afghanistan. Some 29 pages from the collection were purchased by the National Library of Israel in 2013.[6]

Soviet refugee crisis[edit]

By the early 1930s, some 60,000 refugees fled from Soviet territory and settled in Afghanistan.[1][2] In 1932, Mohammed Nadir Shah signed a border treaty with the Soviet Union in order to prevent asylum seekers from crossing into Afghanistan from the Soviet border.[1][2] Later that year, Afghanistan began deporting refugees back to the Soviet Union or specified Chinese territories. Soviet Jews who were already in Afghanistan, because they were attempting to flee further south, were detained in Kabul, and all Soviet Jews who were apprehended at the border were immediately deported. Soviet Jews were accused of conducting espionage with the intention to disseminate radical Bolshevist propaganda.[citation needed]

Anti-Jewish campaign[edit]

Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1933, and he was succeeded by his son, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who continued and expanded his father's campaign against the Jews in Afghanistan.[citation needed] Afghan Jews were declared non-citizens[citation needed] and non-refugee Afghani Jews, who had lived there for decades if not centuries, began to be targeted.[citation needed] All Jewish citizens of Afghanistan were ordered to relocate to their birthplace, which was most often Herat or Kabul. This was an attempt by the government to further enforce the policy that Jews were not natives of the northern provinces of Afghanistan. By the end of 1933, nearly all Jews in northern cities had been expelled, and returned to central Afghanistan.[citation needed] Many Jews in Afghanistan were expelled from their homes and robbed of their property.[7][8][9] Jews continued living in major cities such as Kabul and Herat, under restrictions on work and trade.[7]

In 1935, the Jewish Telegraph Agency reported that "Ghetto rules" had been imposed on Afghan Jews, requiring them to wear particular clothes, requiring Jewish women to stay outside markets, requiring all Jews to live within certain distances from mosques and banning Jews from riding horses.[10] In 1935, a delegate to the Zionist Congress said that an estimated 40,000 Bukharan Jews had been killed or starved.[2]

In mid-1935, riots erupted in Herat, the Afghan city with the largest Jewish population, over a dispute between two boys, one Jewish and one Muslim. The two boys got into a fight for unknown reasons, during which the Muslim boy fell down some stairs. The Jewish boy, Aba Ben Simon, was blamed, and others began spreading rumors that he was trying to forcibly convert the Muslim boy to Judaism.[2] The incident led Herat's Shiite Muslims to take up arms against Jews and pillage their shops and homes.[citation needed] Jewish women were subjected to kidnapping and rape, regardless of their marital status, and sometimes, they were forcibly converted to Islam and married off to their attackers. Some Jews fled Herat, and they were never allowed to return.[citation needed]

From 1935 to 1941, under Prime Minister Mohammad Hashim Khan (the uncle of the king) Nazi Germany was the most influential country in Afghanistan.[11] The Nazis regarded the Afghans as Aryans.[12] In 1938, it was reported that Jews were only allowed to work as shoe-polishers[13]

Attempts at migration[edit]

Some Afghan Jews attempted to emigrate to British India, but when they arrived on the border, the colonial authorities categorised them according to their passports; those with Soviet passports were accused of having "Bolshevist ties" and denied entry. Many Afghan Jews were deported back to Soviet-controlled territories under the guise that they had allegedly violated the "behavioural conduct" codes of British India, though historians have made note of the fact that the colonial government's fear that the emigrants would spread socialist ideas among the Indian public and offer encouragement to the independence movement played a much larger part in its decision to deport them.[2]

The condition of Jews continued to worsen in Kabul and Herat.[citation needed] Many Afghan Jews illegally emigrated to British India during the 1940s during the Second World War. Thousands of Afghan Jews also emigrated to Palestine during the war, but most of them emigrated to Palestine after the State of Israel was established in 1948). Some Afghan Jews also emigrated to the United States, most of them settled in the New York City borough of Queens.[1]


In 1948, there were over 5,000 Jews in Afghanistan. They were allowed to freely emigrate in 1951, and they were also allowed to keep their Afghan citizenship, Afghanistan was the only Muslim country which allowed Jewish emigrants to keep their citizenship. Most Afghan Jews moved to Israel or the United States.[14] Afghan Jews left the country en masse in the 1960s. Their resettlement in New York and Tel Aviv was motivated by their search for a better life. By 1969, approximately 300 Jews remained in Afghanistan, and most of them left Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979, leaving 10 Jews in Afghanistan in 1996, most of them lived in Kabul.[2] Currently, more than 10,000 Jews of Afghan descent live in Israel. Over 200 Afghan Jewish families live in New York.[3][14] Over 100 Jews of Afghan descent live in London.[1]

End of Afghanistan's Jewish community[edit]

By the end of 2004, only two known Jews were left in Afghanistan, Zablon Simintov and Isaac Levy (born c. 1920). Levy relied on charity to survive, while Simintov ran a store selling carpets and jewelry until 2001. They lived on opposite sides of the dilapidated Kabul synagogue. They kept denouncing each other to the authorities, and both of them spent time in Taliban jails. The Taliban also confiscated the synagogue's Torah scroll. The contentious relationship between Simintov and Levy was dramatized in a play which was inspired by news reports about the lives of the two men, which were released by the international news media following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban regime. The play, titled The Last Two Jews of Kabul, was written by playwright Josh Greenfeld and was staged in New York in 2002.

In January 2005, Levy died of natural causes, leaving Simintov as the sole known Jew in Afghanistan.[15] He cared for the only synagogue in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.[16] He was still trying to recover the confiscated Torah. Simintov, who does not speak Hebrew,[17] claimed that the man who stole the Torah is now in US custody in Guantanamo Bay. Simintov has a wife and two daughters, all of whom emigrated to Israel in 1998, and he said he was considering joining them. However, when he was asked if he would go to Israel during an interview, Simintov retorted, "Go to Israel? What business do I have there? Why should I leave?"[17] In April 2021, Simintov announced that he would emigrate to Israel after the High Holy Days of 2021, due to the fear that the planned withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan would result in the Taliban's return to power.[18] Throughout August 2021, Simintov remained in Kabul despite having had a chance to escape.[19][18][20]

Despite initially stating that he will put up with the Taliban rule, it has been reported that Simantov has emigrated to a presently undisclosed country before the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah on 6 September 2021 after he received death threats from the Taliban or ISIS-K, taking 30 other refugees with him, including 28 women and children.[21] Ami Magazine, an Orthodox Jewish publication which is based in New York City, has reported that Zablon is en route to the United States. In a surprising twist, an unbeknownst distant cousin of Zablon, Tova Moradi, fled the country sometime in October following Zablon's departure.[22] Thus, due to decades of warfare, antisemitism and unbearable religious persecution, there are officially no Jewish people remaining in Afghanistan as of November 3, 2021.[23][24]

Remaining synagogues and buildings[edit]

The synagogue that Zablon Simintov was a caretaker of until his last day in Afghanistan is located in District 4 of Kabul, in "kuche-ye Gol Forushiha" (Persian: کوچه گل فروشیها‎, The Florists' Alleyway).[25] Simantov's neighbors promised him that they will maintain the synagogue of Kabul in his absence.[21]

In the city of Herat, the historic centre of Afghan Jews, there are 4 synagogues, 1 public bath, as well as a Jewish cemetery and several abandoned houses. The Yu Aw Synagogue (Persian: کنیسه یوآو‎), the largest of the Synagogues, still exists in Herat, in western Afghanistan.[26] It is a disused synagogue, which still has mos t of its original characteristics. This synagogue is composed of 3 floors, a main congregation room, several side rooms and corridors, as well as 7 domes of different sizes.[27] The Yu Aw synagogue underwent renovation in recent years and it was also added to Herat's list of protected cultural sites.[26] The second synagogue, the 'Gulkiya Synagogue (Persian: کنیسه گلکیا‎) was converted into a mosque and today, it continues to be used as the Balal Mosque. Despite the takeover of the Synagogue, its structure and design have not changed, and the building has undergone renovation in recent years. The synagogue's mikveh has fallen into disrepair and as a result, it is no longer accessible to the public.[26] The third synagogue, Shemayel Synagogue (Persian: کنیسه شمائیل‎) has been converted to an elementary school, and has also been renovated in recent years.[26] The fourth synagogue, the Mulla Ashur Synagogue (Persian: کنیسه ملا عاشور‎), located within Herat's historic Bazar, has sadly been left abandoned, and as a result, it is in a state of disrepair.[26] The Jewish public bath also remains abandoned, and the building is also in need of urgent renovation in order to prevent its complete destruction. The bath was operational in Herat's Bazaar until 2018.[26] There is also a small Jewish cemetery in Herat. Some of the tombstones have information about the deceased persons which is written on them in Hebrew. In recent years, some of the tombstones and the wall which surrounds the cemetery have been repaired thanks to donations which were sent by the Afghan Jewish Community which lives in the State of Israel.[26] Before the fall of the government of the Afghan Islamic Republic to the Taliban, Herat's cultural officials stated that at the time of the forced departure of the Herati Jews, on a stone inscription, the community stated that it had transferred the responsibility of caring for the Synagogues, the public bath, and the cemetery to the government which ruled Afghanistan when the inscription was written.[26] The state of these historic buildings and the Taliban's plans for them have remained unknown since Afghanistan fell to the violent Islamist group which has terrorized religious minorities in the past.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f author., Aharon, Sara Y. (2011). From Kabul to Queens : the Jews of Afghanistan and their move to the United States. American Sephardi Federation. ISBN 9780692010709. OCLC 760003208.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Koplik, Sara (2003). "The demise of Afghanistan's Jewish community and the soviet refugee crisis (1932–1936)". Iranian Studies. 36 (3): 353–379. doi:10.1080/021086032000139131. ISSN 0021-0862. S2CID 161841657.
  3. ^ a b Arbabzadah, Nushin (28 February 2012). "The story of the Afghan Jews is one of remarkable tolerance". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  4. ^ a b "Balkh". www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org. Retrieved 2018-11-12.
  5. ^ a b Ben Zion Yehoshua-Raz, “Kabul”, in: Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World, Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. First published online: 2010
  6. ^ "Ancient manuscripts indicate Jewish community once thrived in Afghanistan". CBS. 3 January 2013. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  7. ^ a b Joan G. Roland. The Jewish Communities of India: Identity in a Colonial Era. Transaction Publishers. p. 349. ISBN 978-1-4128-3748-4.
  8. ^ On wings of eagles: the plight, exodus, and homecoming of oriental Jewry by Joseph Schechtman pp 258-259
  9. ^ "The Jewish Transcript January 19, 1934 Page 7". Jtn.stparchive.com. 19 January 1934. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  10. ^ "Ghetto Code Enacted by Afghanistan | Jewish Telegraphic Agency". Jta.org. 15 May 1935. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  11. ^ Tom Lansford: "A Bitter Harvest: US Foreign Policy and Afghanistan" Ashgate 2003 page 62
  12. ^ "The Hunt for the Holy Wheat Grail: A not so 'botanical' expedition in 1935 | Afghanistan Analysts Network". Afghanistan-analysts.org. 20 July 2015. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  13. ^ "All Trades but Shoe-blacking Closed to Afghanistan Jews | Jewish Telegraphic Agency". Jta.org. 25 August 1938. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  14. ^ a b Krastev, Nikola (19 June 2007). "U.S.: Afghan Jews Keep Traditions Alive Far From Home". RFE/RL. New York. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  15. ^ Fletcher, Martin (14 June 2008). "The last Jew in Afghanistan". NBC News. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  16. ^ Shaheed, Anisa (30 May 2018). "Afghanistan's Only Jew 'Worried' About The Country's Future". Tolo News. Retrieved 15 February 2019.
  17. ^ a b Motlagh, Jason (1 September 2007). "The last Jew in Afghanistan—Alone on Flower Street: He survived Soviets, Taliban – and outlasted even his despised peer". The San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  18. ^ a b Friedman, Gabe (4 April 2021). "Afghanistan's last known Jew is leaving for Israel". The Times of Israel. Retrieved 6 October 2021.
  19. ^ Afghanistan's last Jew Zebulon Simentov decides to stay on amid humanitarian crisis. WION. 2021-08-17. Retrieved 2021-08-17.
  20. ^ Steinberg, Rachel (6 April 2021). "Afghanistan's last Jew plans to leave the country". The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved 6 October 2021.
  21. ^ a b Timm-Garcia, Jaide (9 September 2021). "Last known member of Afghanistan's Jewish community leaves country, taking dozens of women and children with him". CNN. Retrieved 9 September 2021.
  22. ^ "'Last Jew in Afghanistan' loses title to hidden Jewish family". The Jerusalem Post. 3 November 2021. Retrieved 1 December 2021.
  23. ^ The New Arab Staff (7 September 2021). "Last Jew in Afghanistan en route to US: report". The New Arab. Retrieved 17 September 2021.
  24. ^ Mehrdad, Ezzatullah (16 July 2019). "Kabul, with Jewish population of 1, still suffers from widespread anti-Semitism". The Times of Israel. Retrieved 9 September 2021.
  25. ^ Nouri, Zakariyya (2 November 2019). "Zablon Simantov: The last Jew in Afghanistan and Fear of Taliban return (زابلون سیمنتوف؛ آخرین یهودی افغانستان و نگرانی از بازگشت طالبان)". Khabarnama. Retrieved 17 September 2021.
  26. ^ a b c d e f g h "After half a Century, several Jews are wishful to visit their hometown of Herat (برخی از یهودیان پس از نیم قرن در آرزوی دیدار از زادگاه‌شان هرات اند)". Radio Azadi. 29 April 2021. Retrieved 17 September 2021.
  27. ^ "Yu Aw Synagoge in Herat's Musa'iha Neighborhood+Pictures (کنیسه یوآو در محله موسائی‌های هرات+تصاویر)". Shafaqna. 4 July 2016. Retrieved 17 September 2021.

External links[edit]