The last two Jews of Kabul. And they hate each other

Nick Meo
Saturday 11 September 2004 00:00 BST

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Life is not easy at the best of times for the last two Jews in Afghanistan. But the situation is made more complicated by the fact that they hate each other.

Life is not easy at the best of times for the last two Jews in Afghanistan. But the situation is made more complicated by the fact that they hate each other.

Worse still, despite their mutual loathing, Zbolon Semantov and Isaak Levi have to live together in the country's last synagogue, long after the rest of Afghanistan's Jews moved to Israel.

For years the feud was so bad that the temple was divided by a curtain so the pair didn't have to see each other during worship.

"Careful of him, he's a magician," hissed Mr Semantov, who lives in the upstairs quarters. "He's not a real Jew, he converted to Islam just to please the Taliban."

Mr Levi, whose squalid old man's quarters are downstairs, insists he is the true guardian of the synagogue. He is weary now though and just wants to give up and join his family in Beersheva. "Don't listen to that dirty dog upstairs," he says, showing missing teeth from, he claims, fist fights between the two of them.

The stand-off in the synagogue off Flower Street is a sad end to a rich culture hundreds of years old. Bukhara in Uzbekistan, on Afghanistan's northern border, once had a Jewish community of around 100,000, most of whom emigrated to Israel and the United States. Only a few thousand remain.

Herat in the west once had thousands of Jews, but most left for Israel after 1948. American Jewish researchers say they have recently found families in Herat who converted to Islam to survive but who have continued to practise their faith in secret.

In the 1940s a community of 40,000 Jews lived in Kabul, where they prospered as money-changers and as carpet dealers. They built the capital's synagogue in 1966. However, after the Communist revolution of the 1970s most left, eventually leaving only Mr Semantov, whose carpet business was thriving, and Mr Levi, who found himself, as a shoemaker, too poor to go. Both see themselves as custodians of the last flickering flame of Judaism in Afghanistan. "It's my country so why should I go?" asked Mr Semantov. "Somebody has to look after the synagogue, and if I move to Israel it will be that imposter downstairs."

Mr Levi has had enough. He suffers from diabetes and ekes out a living selling amulets to superstitious Afghan women seeking to become pregnant. "I just wish the Israeli government would help me go," he said.

He claims that he was beaten by the Taliban's feared Vice and Virtue Police after Mr Semantov ratted on him to save his own skin. "I told them I was trying to help people - how could that be against Islam?" Mr Levi said. "But they beat me anyway."

Today little prejudice is shown against them and both have Muslim friends. Most Afghans know nothing of their own country's Jewish heritage and leave them alone to their worship and their feud.

Some progress has been made on taking the poison out of the dispute of late. Jewish groups from New York have arbitrated and persuaded them to take the partition down in the synagogue. But they still won't speak to one another.

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