The JTA Central in the Taliban’s total takeover of Afghanistan this week had some particular concerns about one person: the country’s last remaining Jew, 62-year-old Zebulun Simantov.
Simantov, who in recent years has lived in Kabul’s only synagogue, said earlier this year that he would travel to Israel before the Taliban arrived. He has also said that the Taliban imprisoned him during the last coup d’état of the fundamentalist Muslim group in Afghanistan and that they tried to convert him and consider him an infidel.
Days after the takeover of the Taliban, Simantov’s whereabouts remain unclear.
Meanwhile, Israeli media have revealed new information about the family situation of the carpet dealer and former restaurant owner who grew up in the city of Herat, including that he has for decades refused to give his wife a divorce.
Here’s what we know right now.
Many people try to help Simantov – but it is unclear if he wants them.
Several Jewish organizations have expressed willingness to help Simantov if he wants to leave. And Mendy Chitrik, chairman of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States, said he has been in contact with authorities in Turkey, where he lives, about Simantov.
But an employee of a Jewish group told the Jewish Telegraph Bureau that a journalist in Kabul contacted Simantov on Sunday and that Simantov told the journalist that he would not leave.
Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman, said people interested in getting Simantov out of Afghanistan have reached out to him after the takeover, but that he declined and demanded “personal funding”.
It was not the first time Simantov had tried to blackmail anyone who sought to contact him. “I do not go below $ 200,” a journalist from a German news organization reported to him in 2015. Another account from last year, Simantov demanded $ 500 from an Israeli journalist for an interview, and finally settled $ 100.
Amie Ferris-Rotman, a British-Jewish journalist who used to work in Afghanistan, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “He really liked alcohol and used to insist that journalists who wanted to interview him come with some.”
It is unclear whether Simantov has spoken publicly since the Taliban seized Kabul. An Indian news channel, WION, quoted him on Tuesday as saying he would not leave Afghanistan, but the report contained only archival footage.
His refusal to divorce his wife has previously spurred international diplomacy.
Reports of Simantov previously noting that his wife and daughters moved to Israel in 1998. On Wednesday, there were reports in Israeli media that for more than 20 years he had refused to divorce his wife under Jewish law. (Already in 2010, Yedioth Aharonoth reported on the attempts of Simantov’s wife, who lives in Holon near Tel Aviv and has not been named in the Israeli media, to divorce him.)
According to Jewish law, a “get” or rabbinic divorce is required for women to remarry. Women whose husbands refuse to make an offer are known as “agunot” or chained women, and their situation is seen as an important point of gender inequality in Orthodox Judaism. In recent years, Orthodox rabbis have invested effort in solving the problem.
That was the case a decade ago, when Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the European Rabbis Conference, in 2011 offered to fly to Kabul to get a purchase for Simantov’s wife. Ferris-Rotman heard about the woman’s attempt to obtain a Jewish divorce certificate from Israeli colleagues.
“I knew Zebulun, and I knew Rabbi Goldschmidt, so I tried to see how we could resolve the situation,” Ferris-Rotman, who now lives in London, told JTA. She said others had previously discussed pressuring Simantov.
But Simantov refused to meet Goldschmidt, despite being offered an item that was difficult to sweeten the deal. “Even after Amie offered a single malt scotch case, the man refused,” Goldschmidt tweeted Wednesday.
We tried with Amie FR, a correspondent in Kabul, to get him to agree to write a Get, and I was ready to fly to Kabul to manage it. But even after Amie offered a case of single malt scotch, the man refused …… .. @Amie_FR @avitalrachel @ZvikaKlein @SamuelSokol https://t.co/cyLk4TwZuc
– Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt (@PinchasRabbi) August 18, 2021
In Israel, men determined to be “stubborn spouses” can go to jail, and Israeli media said Simantov is staying in Afghanistan to avoid dealing with his divorce and rabbinical authorities. But a spokesman for the Israeli chief rabbinate told JTA he was not aware of a ruling or edict by a rabbinical judge condemning Simantov as a stubborn spouse or “sarvan.”
Ferris-Rotman said she had asked Simantov why he would not divorce his wife. “He would say, ‘Oh, her, I’m done with her,'” she said.
He has had trouble getting along with others in the past.
“He’s something of a disgruntled old man,” said Ferris-Rotman, who communicated with Simantov in Russian, which he does not speak very well. Simantov, whose main language is Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, also speaks broken Hebrew.
Simantov had a notoriously bad relationship with Kabul’s second remaining Jew, Ishaq Levin, until Levin’s death in 2005. Speaking of Levin to The Guardian, Simantov said, “The old man was crazy,” screwing a finger toward his temple to illustrate the point.
The two lived at opposite ends of the synagogue, the report said, and only wanted to exchange curses. According to stories Simantov has told reporters over time, each man went to the Taliban to accuse the other of criminal behavior. He said the two argued so much in prison that the Taliban released them both – even though the group kept a Torah that Levin and Simantov had tried to recover.
A report on Wednesday suggested that Daniel Kurtzer, the US ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, may also have been involved in Simantov’s divorce diplomacy. But Kurtzer’s recollection suggests he was probably working on the issue for Simantov’s housemate, Ishaq.
“What I did was make sure a Jewish chaplain in the U.S. Army went to the synagogue in Kabul where this man lived and tried to persuade him to give a get. The chaplain came back to me to say that the man was not willing to do that, ”Kurtzer recalled.
The next year, the chaplain was back in Kabul trying to try again. But he learned that the man was dead, so the woman in Israel was informed that she was no longer an agunah, but an almana or widow.
His fate under the Taliban is unclear.
Simantov has been a well-known local personality. Journalists came to him regularly, and some taxi drivers already knew where he lives in Kabul, where many of the streets do not have names.
That means the Taliban know what he thinks. Unlike Ishaq, who said he had no quarrel with the Taliban, only with Simantov, Simantov has been outspoken about his contempt for the Taliban. Ferris-Rotman said that was the case when she lived in Afghanistan, and that was still the case in the spring when Simantov conducted an on-air interview.
For now, the Taliban say Simantov should have no reason to fear. On Tuesday, an Israeli journalist from Kan TV station Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman in Doha, Qatar, asked if Simantov would be safe under the Taliban.
Shaheen, who said he was not aware he was speaking to an Israeli publication, said: “We are not harming minorities. There are Sikhs and Hindus in the country and they have their religious freedom. ”
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