History of the Jews in Afghanistan

Jews are said to have resided in Afghanistan for nearly 1,500 years, but the community has been reduced greatly because of emigration. Afghan Jewish communities now exist mostly in Israel, and the United States.

The Jews had formed a community of leather and karakul merchants, poor people and money lenders alike. The large Jewish families mostly lived in the border city of Herat, while the families' patriarchs traveled back and forth on trading trips across the mountains of Afghanistan on whose rocks their prayers were carved in Hebrew and sometimes even Aramaic, moving between the routes on the ancient silk road.

As of 2018, only one known Jew, Zablon Simintov, remained residing in Afghanistan; he cared for a synagogue in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.[1]


Records of a Jewish population in Afghanistan go back to the 7th century.

Muhammad al-Idrisi (died 1166) wrote that Kabul had a Jewish quarter.[2]

In the 18th century, Jews serving in the army of Nadir Shah settled in Kabul as his treasury guards.[2]

In 2011, so-called Afghan Geniza, an 11th-century collection of manuscript fragments in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian was found in Taliban caves in Afghanistan. Some 29 pages from the collection were bought by the National Library of Israel in 2013.[3]

By 1948, over 5,000 Jews existed in Afghanistan, and after they were allowed to emigrate in 1951, most of them moved to Israel and the United States.[4] Afghanistan was the only Muslim country that allowed Jewish families to emigrate without revoking their citizenship first. Afghan Jews left the country en masse in the 1960s. Their resettlement in New York and Tel Aviv was motivated by a search for a better life, but not because of religious persecution. By 1969, some 300 remained, and most of these left after the Soviet invasion of 1979, leaving 10 Afghan Jews in 1996, most of them in Kabul. More than 10,000 Jews of Afghan descent presently live in Israel. Over 200 families of Afghan Jews live in New York City in the USA.[4][5] Over 100 Jews of Afghan descent live in London.

Current population

By the end of 2004, only two Jews were left in Afghanistan, Zablon Simintov and Isaac Levy. Levy relied on charity, while Simintov ran a store selling carpets and jewelry until 2001. They lived at separate ends of the dilapidated Kabul synagogue. Both claimed to be in charge of the synagogue, and the owner of its Torah, accusing the other of theft and imposture. They kept denouncing each other to the authorities, and both spent time in Taliban jails. The Taliban also confiscated the Torah. The contentious relationship between Simentov and Levy was dramatized in a play inspired by news reports of the two which appeared in international news media following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban regime. The play, entitled "The Last Two Jews of Kabul," was written by playwright Josh Greenfeld and was staged in New York City in 2002.

In January 2005, Levy died of natural causes. Simentov is now the last remaining Jew in Afghanistan,[6] and with a total Afghan population of 30 million, the lowest worldwide. Simentov is trying to recover the confiscated Torah. Simentov, who does not speak Hebrew,[1] claims that the man who stole his Torah is now in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay. Simentov has a wife and two daughters who live in Israel, and he said he was considering joining them. However, when asked during a recent interview whether he would go to Israel, Simentov retorted, "Go to Israel? What business do I have there? Why should I leave?"[1]

There is also a disused Synagogue in Herat, in western Afghanistan, which contains most of its original characteristics although in a state of disrepair.[7]


  1. 1 2 3 Motlagh, Jason (1 September 2007). "The last Jew in Afghanistan—Alone on Flower Street: He survived Soviets, Taliban – and outlasted even his despised peer". The San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  2. 1 2 Ben Zion Yehoshua-Raz, “Kabul”, in: Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World, Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. First published online: 2010
  3. "Ancient manuscripts indicate Jewish community once thrived in Afghanistan". CBS. 3 January 2013. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  4. 1 2 Krastev, Nikola (19 June 2007). "U.S.: Afghan Jews Keep Traditions Alive Far From Home". RFE/RL. New York. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  5. Arbabzadah, Nushin (28 February 2012). "The story of the Afghan Jews is one of remarkable tolerance". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  6. Fletcher, Martin (14 June 2008). "The last Jew in Afghanistan". NBC News. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  7. See Yu Aw Synagogue for references.
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