The man known as the Last Jew of Kabul could soon be heading to Israel after agreeing to grant his estranged wife a religious divorce in a Zoom call – a precondition for smooth entry to the Holy Land.
Zebulon Simentov, who fled Afghanistan last month after the Taliban takeover, landed in Turkey on Sunday on what his rescuers say is a final stop before traveling to Israel, perhaps as soon as this week.
It brings to an end a weeks-long odyssey that included an escape from his homeland as well as a video-conference divorce procedure, intended to ensure that he does not run into trouble with the Israeli authorities.
Under Jewish religious law, a husband must agree to grant his wife a divorce, something Simentov had long refused to do. Facing the prospect of legal action in Israel, where his ex-wife lives, Simentov, after resisting for years, finally agreed to the divorce last month in a special Zoom call supervised by Australian rabbinical authorities.
During the sometimes chaotic discussion, conducted through an interpreter who struggled to explain the procedure, Simentov agreed to sign a divorce document known as a “get” after receiving assurances that he would not face trouble in Israel.
Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, whose nonprofit group the Tzedek Association funded the journey, said Simentov had spent the last few weeks living quietly in Pakistan, an Islamic country that does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
He said his group had looked into bringing Simentov to the US but had decided that Israel was a better destination, both because of the difficulty in arranging a US entry visa and because Simentov has many relatives, including five siblings and two daughters, already in Israel.
“We are relieved we were successful in helping Zebulon Simentov escape from Afghanistan and now into safety in Turkey,” said Margaretten, whose group has helped evacuate several dozen other people from Afghanistan. “Zebulon’s life was in danger in Afghanistan.”
Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, chair of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States, greeted Simentov at the airport in Istanbul on Sunday.
He said he had an appointment to take Simentov to the Israeli consulate on Monday to arrange his entry into Israel. Under Israel’s “law of return”, any Jew is entitled to Israeli citizenship.
Chitrik said he had been working with Margaretten and other volunteers for several months to get Simentov out of Afghanistan. “I’m happy this issue is finally coming to rest,” he said.
How long that will take remains unclear. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it was unaware of the request, and Simentov could also be delayed by coronavirus protocols restricting entry to Israel.
Simentov, who lived in a dilapidated synagogue in Kabul, keeping kosher and praying in Hebrew, endured decades of war as the country’s centuries-old Jewish community rapidly dwindled. But the Taliban takeover in August seems to have been the last straw.
Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman who runs the private firm that organised the evacuation on behalf of Margaretten, told reporters last month that Simentov was not worried about the Taliban because he had lived under their rule before. He said that threats from the more radical group, Isis, and pressure from neighbours who were rescued with him had helped persuade him to leave.
Hebrew manuscripts found in caves in northern Afghanistan indicate that a thriving Jewish community existed there at least 1,000 years ago. In the late 19th century, Afghanistan was home to some 40,000 Jews, many of them Persian Jews who had fled forced conversion in neighbouring Iran. The community’s decline began with an exodus to Israel after the country’s creation in 1948.
In an interview in 2009, Simentov said the last Jewish families had left after the 1979 Soviet invasion.
For several years he shared the synagogue building with the country’s only other Jew, Isaak Levi, but they despised each other and feuded during the Taliban’s previous rule from 1996 to 2001.
At one point, Levi accused Simentov of theft and spying, and Simentov countered by accusing Levi of renting rooms to prostitutes, an allegation he denied, The New York Times reported in 2002. The Taliban arrested both men and beat them, and they confiscated the synagogue’s ancient Torah scroll, which went missing after the Taliban were driven from power in the 2001 US-led invasion.
When his 80-year-old housemate died in 2005, Simentov said he was happy to be rid of him.
Reporters who visited Simentov over the years – and paid the exorbitant fees he charged for interviews – found a portly man fond of whiskey, who kept a pet partridge and watched Afghan TV. He observed Jewish dietary restrictions and ran a kebab shop.
Born in the western city of Herat in 1959, he always insisted Afghanistan was his home.
The Taliban, like other Islamic militant groups, are hostile to Israel but tolerated the country’s minuscule Jewish community during their previous reign.