Afghanistan Virtual Jewish History Tour
Original Article By Alden Oreck
Afghanistan, also called Khorasan or Khurasan in medieval Muslim and Hebrew sources, has a Jewish history that may date back 2,700 years to the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian exile. In 2013, a trove of ancient manuscripts discovered in former Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan provided the first physical evidence of a thriving Jewish community from the area that was more than a thousand years old.
In 2021, the last remaining Jew – Zablon Simentov – left Afghanistan.
The Last Jew Departs
“The history of Jews in this region goes back to way before the birth of the nation state of Afghanistan,” said Afghan academic Omar Sadr. “There are mentions in history of Jews living in this region, during the period of Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor and his conquest of Babylon in 538.”
Early biblical commentators regarded Khorasan as a location of the Ten Lost Tribes. Today, several Afghan tribes including the Durrani, Yussafzai, Afridi, and Pashtun believe they are decedents of King Saul. They call themselves Bani-Israel, like the Hebrew, B’nai Israel, meaning the children of Israel. Even some Muslim scholars and writers accept this.
The exiled Afghan Royal family also traces its roots to ancient Israel, the tribe of Benjamin specifically. As evidence, they cite Makhzan-i-Afghani, a chronicle published in 1635, in the time of King Jahangir by Khawaja Nimatullah of Herat.
Because of its remoteness from the Jewish center in Babylonia, persons unwanted by the Jewish leadership, such as counter-candidates for the exilarchate, may have gone to live or were exiled to Afghanistan.
The Pashtun, the main Afghan ethnic group and Taliban supporters, also believe they are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and later converted to Islam. Dozens of Pashtun names and customs sound Jewish, from the Pashtun tribe names of Asheri and Naftali to the Pashtun custom of a wedding chuppah and the circumcising of the sons on the eighth day after birth. The Pashtuns claim that the city of Kabul stands for “Cain and Abel” and Afghanistan is derived from “Afghana,” the grandson of King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin.
“During the Islamic era, Tajik historian Jowzjani from the 7th also mentions of Jewish colonies under the Ghurid chief Amir Banji who had recruited Jews as advisers,” according to Sadr. Another book, Taaqati-Nasiri, states that in the 7th century, a people called Bani Israel settled in Ghor, southeast of Herat. According to Taaqati-Nasiri as well as Pashtun legend, the Bani Israel soon accepted Islam, after their leader, Qais, met with the Muslim Prophet Mohammed.
Various texts refer to a Jew named Akiva, who was a collector of taxes in the city of Merv during the beginning of the 8th century. Explorers uncovered Hebrew tombstones whose dates go back to the 750s in the ancient city of Ghur in 1946. These tombstones provided details such as communal titles and functions in addition to names and dates.
Other reports tell of Persian Jews rejecting Islam and fleeing the Muslim conquest in the 7th and 8th centuries and settling in Afghanistan. In 1080, Moses ibn Ezra mentioned more than 40,000 Jews paying tribute in Ghazni, a great city on the River Gozan. Benjamin of Tudela, writing approximately 100 years later, echoed this claim, adding that there were 80,000 Jews living there.
Medieval sources mention several Jewish centers in Afghanistan, of which Balkh was the most important. A Jewish community in Ghazni is recorded in Muslim sources, indicating that Jews were living there in the tenth and eleventh centuries. A Jew named Isaac, an agent of Sultan Mahmud (ruled 998–1030), was assigned to administer the sultan’s lead mines and to melt ore for him.
According to Hebrew sources, vast numbers of Jews lived in Ghazni but while their figures are not reliable, Moses Ibn Ezra mentions more than 40,000 Jews paying tribute in Ghazni, and Benjamin of Tudela describes “Ghazni the great city on the River Gozan, where there are about 80,000 [8,000 in a variant manuscript] Jews.”
In Hebrew literature, the River Gozan was identified with Ghazni in Khorasan from the assertion of Judah Ibn Bal’am that “the River of Gozan is that river flowing through the city of Ghazni which is today the capital of Khorasan.”
Stone tablets with Hebrew inscriptions dating from 1115 to 1215 confirm the existence of a Jewish community in Firoz Koh, located between Herat and Kabul. Genghis Kahn’s 1222 Mongol invasion, however, razed Afghanistan, devastating the Jewish communities. Little is known about the small and isolated Jewish community of Afghanistan that remained until the 19th century. In 1839, thousands of Jews again fled Persia, where the Muslim authorities began forcibly converting them, bringing Afghanistan’s Jewish population up to 40,000. They settled in Herat and were mostly traders and dyers dealing in skins, carpets, and antiquities. Herat became the Jewish population center of Afghanistan during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but activity and participation dwindled and there is currently no organized Jewish life there.
According to Sadr, Persian King Nadir Afshar encouraged Jews to settle in the region in 1736 “because the Jews had good connection in the merchant routes in the subcontinent- between central Asia, and Arabia.”
The decline came in 1870 after Afghan Muslim authorities enacted anti-Jewish measures, triggering a mass exodus to Central Asia, Persia, and Palestine. The 1933 assassination of King Nadit Shah triggered another anti-Jewish campaign. Jews were banished from most Afghan cities, limiting them to Kabul, Balkh or Herat. In addition, Jews were forbidden to leave town without a permit and forced to pay special taxes.
In January 2013, Israel’s National Library unveiled a large cache of Hebrew documents and manuscripts discovered from caves in former Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan that provided the first physical evidence of a Jewish community in the area that was a thousand years old.
The 29 documents run the gamut of life experiences – including biblical commentaries, personal letters, and financial records – and researchers say the “Afghan Genizah” marks the greatest such archive found since the “Cairo Genizah” was discovered in an Egyptian synagogue more than 100 years ago. Genizah is a Hebrew term that loosely translates to “storage” and is used to refer to a storeroom in a synagogue or cemetery where Hebrew books and papers are kept. Under Jewish law, it is forbidden to throw away writings containing the name of God, so they are either buried or stashed away.
“We’ve had many historical sources on Jewish settlements in that area,” Haggai Ben-Shammai, the library’s academic director, said. “This is the first time that we have a large collection of manuscripts that represents the culture of the Jews that lived [in Afghanistan]. Until today we had nothing of this.”
“First, we can verify that [the Afghan Jewish community] actually existed –- that is the most important point,” said Aviad Stollman, curator of the library’s Judaica collection. “And, of course, their interests. They were not interested only in commerce and liturgy; they were interested also in the Talmud and the Bible.”
In November 2016, more than 250 additional ancient texts from the same collection were acquired and put on display at the National Library of Israel. These manuscripts, dating from the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, contain prayers as well as records of trade written in Hebrew, Persian, and Arabic.
Modern Jewish Community
Approximately 3,300 Jews lived in Afghanistan in 1936. By the time Israel was created in 1948, approximately 5,000 Jews remained in Afghanistan, but they could not legally immigrate. Once the restriction was lifted in 1951, most of the Afghani Jewish community made its way to Israel. By 1969, only 300 Jews lived in Afghanistan, most of whom left in 1979 after the Soviet invasion. In 1996, 10 Jews remained in Afghanistan, nearly all in Kabul.
Zablon Simintov, a carpet and jewelry merchant, who twice served in the Afghan army, was one of the last two Jews in the country. He said the best period for Jews was during the country’s monarchical era, which ended in 1973.
In 2005, Simintov and Isaac Levy lived at separate ends of the same decaying synagogue in Kabul. The synagogue was built 40 years earlier and probably avoided being destroyed by the Taliban because it was unassuming, deserted, and in disrepair. Simintov and Levy said they were protecting the synagogue, and each claimed to be the rightful owner of the Torah and accused the other of stealing it. This feud was so heated that both men spent time in Taliban jails for charges they brought against each other. Meanwhile, the Taliban confiscated the Torah.
Both men said they got along with their Muslim neighbors.
Levy said he wanted to join his family in Israel but couldn’t afford to leave. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Jewish groups offered to help Levy emigrate, but he refused. In January 2005, Levy died.
In 2001, Simintov said the Taliban stole all his supplies and he had to close his store. He always wears a yarmulke and lives in the Kabul synagogue, which he renovated himself. Every Shabbat, he reads the Torah from the bimah of the old sanctuary.
He devoted himself to trying to recover the Torah stolen by the Taliban and enlisted the help of the U.S. Embassy and Afghan Interior Ministry. He said he was told the man who stole the Torah is now in U.S. custody in Cuba. Simentov’s wife and two daughters live in Israel and, after Levy’s death, he considered joining his family but did not.
Unlike Buddhist structures, the Taliban did not destroy the six synagogues that remained in Herat. Two of these synagogues were repurposed as a school for boys and a Muslim house of prayer. A third, the Yu Aw synagogue, believed to be about 350 years old, was restored in 2009 with its original hand-painted dome. “About 10 Afghan artists and architects worked on it for over a year, working through much of the damage caused by years of war and neglect.” According to the caretaker Ghulam Sakhi.
The building was used as an educational center for women and children until 2014 when it was closed due to seepage from a nearby drainage channel. In October 2022, the municipality of Herat agreed to another renovation to prevent the building’s collapse. The community mikvah, known as the Hammam-e Mosaie, will also be repaired. “This is a cultural and historic site, which is not used as a place of worship, and the local government will support its preservation,” Zalmay Safa, the head of Herat’s monuments department, told the Art Newspaper. “Despite the change in government our historic sites remain protected and they are not in any way connected to religious matters.”
“Even though they are not here, this belongs to their history as much as it does to us,” Sakhi said. “We are preserving this, their history for them to return to. This property belongs to them, and we are only safe keeping it for till they return.”
A Jewish cemetery nearby is believed to be owned by an Afghan Jewish family who emigrated to France in the 1970s and is now maintained by local Muslims.
More than 10,000 Jews of Afghan descent now live in Israel. The second largest population of Afghan Jews is in New York, with 200 families. They mostly live in Flushing, Jamaica, and Queens. Rabbi Jacob Nasirov leads the Orthodox congregation of Anshei Shalom, the lone Afghan synagogue in the United States. Members have roots not only in Afghanistan but also Yemen, Syria, Russia, Iraq, Morocco, and Lebanon.
In 2021, Simintov decided to leave Afghanistan, meaning the synagogue will close, and Judaism will come to an end in Afghanistan.
The Last Jew Departs
In August 2021, the U.S. withdrew its forces from Afghanistan. The Taliban overran the country and took control of Kabul. Simentov initially felt safe and was reluctant to leave. Having lived under the Taliban when it ruled from 1996-2001, he did not believe he was in immediate danger. The situation began to deteriorate, however, and Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman who owns a logistics and security company, warned him, “ISIS will either kidnap you and try to sell you or they will chop your head off.”
Simentov agreed to leave with Kahana’s help and funding from New York-based Rabbi Moshe Margaretten. One condition apparently was that he agree to give his estranged wife living in Israel a get, which he had previously refused to do. He was taken to a neighboring country and then flown to New York.
the U.S. withdrew its forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban overran the country and took control over Kabul, Simentov initially felt safe and was reluctant to leave. Having lived under the Taliban when it ruled from 1996-2001, he did not believe he was in immediate danger. The situation began to deteriorate, however, and Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman who owns a logistics and security company, warned him, “ISIS will either kidnap you and try to sell you or they will chop your head off.”
Simentov agreed to leave with Kahana’s help and funding from New York-based Rabbi Moshe Margaretten. One condition apparently was that he agree to give his estranged wife living in Israel a get for a divorce, which he had previously refused to do. Afterward, he was taken to a neighboring country and then flown to New York. Before he left, Simentov was assured the synagogue would be protected.
Israeli aid workers and the UAE were also involved in a daring rescue mission that brought 41 Afghans through Taliban checkpoints and over the northern border into Tajikistan before transiting to Abu Dhabi. Among them were 19 cycling team members, three robotics team members, their relatives, and a number of human rights activists.
Nimat Allah, History of the Afghans (London, 1829), tr. by B. Dorn; Holdich, in: Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 45 (1917), 191–205; H.W. Bellew, Races of Afghanistan (1880); I. Ben-Zvi, The Exiled and the Redeemed (1961), index; Fischel, in: HJ, 7 (1945), 29–50; idem, in: JAOS, 85, no. 2 (1965), 148–53; idem, in: JC, Supplement (March 26, 1937); idem, in: L. Finkelstein (ed.), Jews, their History, Culture and Religion, 2 (19603), 1149–90; G. Gnoli, Le iscrizioni giudeo-Persiane del Gur (Afghanistan) (1964), includes bibliography; E.L. Rapp, Die Juedisch-Persisch Hebraeischen Inschriften aus Afghanistan (1965); Brauer, in: JSOS, 4 (1942), 121–38; R. Klass, Land of the High Flags (1965); N. Robinson, in: J. Freid (ed.), Jews in Modern World, 1 (1962), 50–90. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: B. Yehoshua-Raz, Mi-Nid?ei Yisrael be-Afganistan le-Anusei Mashhad be-Iran (1992); Pe?amim, 79 (1999); A. Netzer, "Yehudei Afganistan," in: G. Allon (ed.), Ha-Tziyyonut le-Ezoreiha (2005).
Sources: Aharon, Sara. “Discovering Afghanistan’s 1,000-year-old Jewish Life,” Jerusalem Post, (November 6, 2016).
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rigsphts Reserved.
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Laura E. Adkins, “The last Jews in Afghanistan argued so much the Taliban kicked them out of prison and stole their Torah,” JTA, (October 31, 2019).
Ruchi Kumar, “Herat’s restored synagogues reveal Afghanistan’s Jewish past,” Al Jazeera, (February 7, 2020).
Sayed Salahuddin, “Kabul’s ‘Jewish lion’ prepares to leave,” Arab News, (April 4, 2021).
Jeremy Sharon, “Last Jew leaves Afghanistan,” Jerusalem Post, (September 8, 2021).
Tamara Zieve, “Afghanistan’s last Jew is bound for New York,” JewishInsider, (September 9, 2021).
James Rothwell, “Dozens of Afghan women rescued from Kabul in first ever Israeli-Emirati aid mission,” The Telegraph, (September 16, 2021).
Jackie Hajdenberg, “Taliban approves conservation work on historic Afghan synagogue,” JTA, (October 27, 2022).
Photo: Nasim Fekrat, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.