Saviors: Last Jew in Kabul on his way to Israel

JERUSALEM (AP) – The man known as the last Jew in Kabul could soon be on his way to Israel, after accepting …

JERUSALEM (AP) – The man known as the last Jew in Kabul could soon be on his way to Israel, after agreeing to give his estranged wife a religious divorce in a Zoom call – a prerequisite for trouble-free entry into the Holy Land.

Zebulon Simentov, who fled Afghanistan last month after taking over the Taliban, landed in Turkey on Sunday on what his rescuers say is a last stop before traveling to Israel, perhaps as fast as this week.

It closes a week-long odyssey that included an escape from his home country as well as a videoconferencing divorce procedure to ensure he would not get into trouble with Israeli authorities.

According to Jewish religious law, a husband must agree to give his wife a divorce, something he had refused to do for many years. Facing the prospect of lawsuits in Israel, where his ex-wife, Simentov, lives after resisting for years, finally ended the divorce last month in a special Zoom call under the supervision of Australian rabbinical authorities.

The Associated Press saw part of the procedure. During the sometimes chaotic discussion, led through an interpreter who struggled to explain the procedure, Simentov agrees to sign a divorce document known as a “get” after receiving assurances that he will not have problems in Israel.

Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, whose nonprofit group Tzedek Association funded the trip, said Simentov had spent the past few weeks quietly in Pakistan, an Islamic country that has no diplomatic ties with Israel.

He said his group had looked into bringing Simentov to the United States, but decided that Israel was a better destination both because of difficulties in arranging a US entry visa and because Simentov has many relatives, including five siblings and two daughters. already in Israel.

“We are relieved that we managed to help Zebulon Simentov escape from Afghanistan and now to safety in Turkey,” said Margaretten, whose group has helped evacuate dozens of other people from Afghanistan. “Zebulun’s life was in danger in Afghanistan.”

Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, president of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States, greeted Simentov at Istanbul airport on Sunday.

He said he had an agreement to take Simentov to the Israeli consulate on Monday to arrange his entry into Israel. Under Israeli “return law”, every Jew is entitled to Israeli citizenship.

Chitrik said he had been working with Margaret and other volunteers for several months to get Simentov out of Afghanistan. “I’m glad this problem has finally come to a standstill,” he said.

How long it will take is unclear. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it was unaware of the request and Simentov may also be delayed by coronavirus protocols restricting entry into Israel.

Simentov, who lived in a dilapidated synagogue in Kabul, held kosher prayers in Hebrew, endured decades of war as the country’s centuries-old Jewish community rapidly declined. But the Taliban’s takeover in August appears to have been the last straw.

Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman who runs a private company that organized the evacuation on behalf of Margaret, told the Associated Press last month that Simentov was not worried about the Taliban because he had lived under their rule before. He said threats of the more radical Islamic State group and pressure from neighbors rescued along with him had helped persuade him to leave.

Hebrew manuscripts found in caves in northern Afghanistan indicate that a flourishing Jewish community existed at least 1,000 years ago. In the late 1800s, Afghanistan was home to some 40,000 Jews, many of them Persian Jews who had fled forced conversion in neighboring Iran. The decline of the community began with an emigration to Israel after its establishment in 1948.

In an interview with The Associated Press in 2009, Simentov said the last Jewish families 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 and feuded under the Taliban’s previous rule from 1996 to 2001.

At one point, Levi accused Simentov of theft and espionage and Simentov countered by accusing Levi of renting rooms to prostitutes, a claim he denied, The New York Times reported in 2002. The Taliban arrested both men and beat them, and they confiscated the synagogue’s old Torah scripture that disappeared after the Taliban was driven from power in the 2001 invasion led by the United States.

When his 80-year-old housemate died in 2005, Simentov said he was happy to be free of him.

Journalists who visited Simentov over the years – and paid the exorbitant fees he charged for interviews – found a portly man who loved whiskey who kept a partridge and watched Afghan television. He complied with Jewish dietary restrictions and ran a kebab shop.

He was born in the western city of Herat in 1959 and always insisted that Afghanistan was home.

The Taliban, like other Islamic militant groups, is hostile to Israel, but tolerated the country’s small Jewish community during their previous reign.

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