After two decades in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden did not waver from his promise to withdraw the military from this battle-scarred country, even as the Taliban were sweeping across the provinces, gaining territory and cities on their way to Kabul. The Panjshir Valley, once the stronghold of Taliban opponent Ahmad Shah Massoud that valiantly held out in the 1990s, was captured quickly this time. Likewise with Kabul, the relatively worldly capital city, where military and police personnel took off their uniforms and dispersed, while the international airport was crowded with refugees, and the American flag was removed from the embassy as a helicopter airlifted the last diplomats in a scene identical to the fall of Saigon.
Sandwiched between the former Soviet states of Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Iran, and China, this country has long served as a crossroads for competing empires who never succeeded in taming its tribes as they hid among its mountains, valleys, and deserts. These same landforms contain traces of past cultures and religions that the Taliban regards as idolatry and infidelity worthy of destruction rather than preservation.
Fortunately, there are two places and people in Queens where one can learn stories of an earlier Afghanistan. In Jamaica Estates, Congregation Anshei Shalom was built by Afghan Jews as a place of learning, prayer, and preservation of culture. At the intersection of Kissena Boulevard and Parsons Boulevard, the Kouchi Supermarket is a magnet for Muslim Afghan immigrants from across the metropolitan region. Inside this two-story institution, one can see prayer rugs, spices, literature, and photos of Afghanistan in better days.
Four years ago, Mohammad Mohib, serving as the Afghan Ambassador to the United States, met with Holliswood resident Jack Abraham to discuss rebuilding ties between Afghan Jews and their former homeland. Ariel Roubinoff filmed the meeting, which I transcribed into a story. “I wanted to get to know their story and to bring all the Afghans together. They are proud to be Afghans and they help children back home,” said Mohib. “They still have very fond memories of the country. To see people who came here 50 years ago and still speak Farsi, must mean a lot to them.”
In my work teaching Jewish history, I mention the legends of lost tribes that settled in Afghanistan, the country’s role as a haven for persecuted Jews, and its connection to Bukharian Jews. The city of Balkh is remembered as the home of Hivi al-Balkhi, an eighth century heretic whose ideas were refuted by Saadyah Gaon. His defense of rabbinical Judaism also appears in the Afghan Genizah, a set of writings from the 11th century that were found in an Afghan cave in 2012.
The documents are valuable, as they survived the destruction of Afghan cities during the Mongol conquests of the 1200s. They provide clues on how much contact Afghan Jews had with the communities in the Middle East, and whether they were rabbinic or Karaite. The language on the documents indicates whether Persian or Arabic predominated in this corner of Afghanistan.
Jews returned and departed from Balkh in the following centuries, with some of their descendants settling among Bukharian Jews, carrying the Balkhiev last name. Today, Balkh is a shadow of its former glory.
Herat is a city close to the Iranian border, serving as a refuge for 300 Mashhadi families who fled after being converted to Islam by force. Their arrival made Herat’s Jewish community the largest among Afghanistan’s cities. “They were a loved community and had a strong relation with the rest of the Afghans. Some still stay in touch,” said Ghulam Sakhi, a caretaker of the former Yu Aw (Yoav) synagogue in an interview with Al Jazeera last year. “Of the six synagogues, one was given to be used as a school, another was given to be turned into a mosque, and four that were badly damaged were set to be restored.”
Prior to the Taliban’s return to Herat, the Aga Khan Foundation hired artists and stonemasons to restore the former synagogue to its distinctive appearance. “Even though they are not here, this belongs to their history as much as it does to us. We are preserving this, their history, for them to return to,” Sakhi said. “This property belongs to them, and we are only safekeeping it until they return.”
A second wave of Jewish refugees of nearly 4,000 Bukharian Jews traveled through Afghanistan between the two World Wars, fleeing the Soviet takeover of Central Asia. Afghan authorities did not welcome these refugees, preferring that they continue to British India or risk deportation back to the Soviet Union. In 1933, the Jewish Agency reported 200 Jewish refugees being held in Afghan prisons. Their precarious situation was noted by Abraham Emanueli, a Bukharian delegate to the Nineteenth Zionist Congress in 1935, who wrote to British Palestine Commissioner Herbert Samuel. “Today, every Jewish refugee from Russia is believed to be a Bolshevist propagandist. At the same time... the Bukhara Jews in particular are regarded as industrial capitalists and suspected of hate towards the principle of communism.”
Anti-Jewish riots took place in Herat in 1935, resulting in a gradual decline of its Jewish population, including its Mashhadi and Bukharian refugees. Nazi German diplomats promoted anti-Semitic sentiments in the 1930s, blending nationalism with Muslim extremism even as Afghanistan maintained a neutral policy during World War II. Additional violence occurred in 1948, with riots across the Muslim world in response to the rebirth of the Jewish state. With the imposition of communism in 1978 and four decades of war that followed, Jewish life disappeared in Afghanistan.
The country’s last Jew, Zevulun Simantov, announced his intention to make aliyah in June, fearing the return of the Taliban. Under their previous reign in Kabul, he was arrested on numerous occasions, experiencing torture while in detention, and confiscation of his sefer Torah.
With the departure of Simantov, the presence of Jews in Afghanistan has come to an end, but the community flourishes in their new homes, where they have opportunities to live better lives, freely express their religious observance, and connect with Jews from other countries.
Perhaps in the future, as in other countries that expelled the Jews, enlightened leaders and citizens will again ask for them to return and recognize their role as merchants, diplomats, and religious forebears that contributed to the history and culture of Afghanistan.
By Sergey Kadinsky