Today CNN broadcast an intriguing feature about Zablon Simintov, the last Jew living in Afghanistan. The report had a lot to say about Judaism, Afghanistan…and CNN itself.
Afghan Jewry may go back as far as the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Captivity 2,700 years ago, and several of the country’s main tribes claim descent from King Saul. Afghanistan’s Jewish community can look back upon at least 800 years of tradition, including both happy and downright terrifying times. In the late 19th century it counted some 40,000 members, a number that dropped to a mere 5,000 by the mid-20th century due to the Afghan government’s anti-Semitic policies. Most Afghan Jews headed for Israel after 1948 and nearly all of the remainder fled when the Soviets invaded in 1979. The last families dribbled away steadily until now only Levin is left. He returned to Kabul during Taliban rule in the 1990s and has been living in Kabul’s sole local synagogue ever since.
Simintov, a former carpet merchant whom his neighbors simply call “the Jew,” has been something of a global celebrity since the start of the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan and particularly since the death of eighty-year-old Ishaq Levin, Afghanistan’s second-last Jew, with whom the younger man had uneasily shared quarters in the dilapidated synagogue. “He was a very bad man who tried to get me killed,” Mr Simintov told the London Times upon the hated Levin’s death in 2005. “Now I am the Jew here, I am the boss.” Part of the conflict between the two men concerned the synagogue’s Torah. Levin supposedly told the Taliban that it was 400 years old and worth a fortune. The Taliban promptly confiscated it, and Simintov has been trying to get it back ever since. “They should cut his hand off,” he says of the Taliban official, whom he now suspects is being held at Guantanamo Bay. Among other tiffs, Levin and Simintov denounced each other to the Taliban authorities as Mossad spies, which got them beaten with rifle butts and landed them in jail for a time.
The hard-drinking Simintov has been the subject of several newspaper stories and a British play. Despite his rough exterior, he considers himself religious. He prays everyday and keeps kosher, slaughtering animals himself with special permission granted by the nearest rabbi, who resides in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. So far he has no intention of moving to Israel to rejoin his wife and two daughters in Holon, whom he hasn’t seen since his last visit there over a decade ago.
It’s easy to see why an infotainment operation like CNN would feature an anecdote like this. It’s the sort of human interest story that warms the heart of every Afghan War supporter. Doesn’t it prove that the US Army has once more brought the blessings of liberty to a benighted corner of the globe? But the pugnacious Simintov is anything but a pro-war poster child – a fact that CNN just so happened to leave out of its report. In fact, in a 2007 interview he said he preferred both the communist and Taliban regimes to the Karzai government, which he calls a “mafia regime.” It seems that agents of the American-sponsored Karzai administration confiscated $40,000 in carpets, leaving the once-wealthy merchant “poor as a dog” and dependent on handouts from Jewish groups abroad and from his Muslim neighbors. Still, he isn’t budging from his synagogue. It sounds like you gotta be pretty tough to be the last Jew in Afghanistan - and breathtakingly uncurious to work for CNN.