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An Extreme Case Study in Jewish Infighting

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A Jewish man is stranded on an island for many years. The rescue team finally arrives, and they admire how he survived on his own for so long. They notice three makeshift buildings. “The first one,” the man explains, “is my home.” He directs the rescuers to the second building. “And this is my shul.” The rescuers notice the similar-looking third building. “And what is the purpose of this one?” They ask. “Oh,” the man responds. “That is the shul I don’t go to.”

This classic joke may reflect reality more than it originally seems. Consider the fact that two men who were believed to be the last Jewish people in Afghanistan — Zebulon Simentov and Yitzhak Levi — did not quite get along. In fact, their relationship was not even that of simple bickering. It was quite concerning, bitter, and rivalrous, and ultimately resulted in serious consequences.

The fact that Simentov and Levi stood as the last remaining Jews in Afghanistan and shared a residence in the same shul would seem to make it all but certain that they would find some camaraderie, solidarity in their uniqueness. But reality was the opposite. Similar to the man on the island, Simentov and Levi managed to find division despite being the only coreligionists in the entire country.

The Telegraph, in a 2001 profile of these two, describes their “explosive hatred for one another.” A hatred that even escalated to physical fighting. Levi told Radio Free Europe in 2002 that Simentov is “lying all the time,” even to the extent of writing to his wife and claiming that Levi married another woman. “That’s why my wife is angry with me now.” 

Simentov, meanwhile, had his own complaints. “They [the Taliban] beat me a lot. I was imprisoned several times because of this charlatan Levi. He wanted to get rid of me to sell the synagogue. But thank God he was not successful,” he said to Foreign Policy, in a 2019 profile of him.

They fought intensely over who had the rights to the property, and they lived in different areas of the shul. Simentov remarked to The New York Times that “I don’t have many complaints about the Taliban, but I have a lot of complaints about him.”

Having disagreements is a very Jewish thing, and tolerating varying opinions is healthy and vital to keeping our minds open and even reinforcing our own perspectives as well. The situation in Afghanistan between Levi and Simentov, however, demonstrates the danger of toxic divisiveness and an adversarial relationship going completely awry. (Perhaps this kind of attitude is not surprising coming from two men bold and rigid enough to remain in Afghanistan despite the diminished Jewish community.)

The quarrel between Levi and Simentov further deteriorated. Levi accused Simentov of running a secret brothel and selling alcohol. Simentov accused Levi of dabbling with black magic. Eventually the fighting caused the Taliban to throw them both in prison. Yet even there they would still argue with each other, to such an extent that they were kicked out. Amidst all this squabbling, the shul’s Torah, which was antique, was taken by the Taliban and apparently went missing thereafter.

The feud between the two had begun when Simentov was supposed to help Levi make aliyah, which caused the latter to suspect Simentov of wanting to sell their shul — an accusation they both leveled at each other. 

When Levi passed away in 2005 (he was decades older than Simentov), police thought that Simentov may have murdered him until diabetes was concluded to be the cause of death. 

Simentov was then famously believed to be the very last Jew in Afghanistan. That is, until more recently. “It now appears that the fanfare may have been misplaced,” The Jerusalem Post explains.

The last Jew in Afghanistan was actually Tova Moradi, a woman who was born to a Jewish family but ended up marrying a Muslim. “The local Jewish community disavowed her,” The Jerusalem Post notes, which could have contributed to why her presence was overlooked. It also turns out she is a distant cousin of Simentov. 

Simentov told Foreign Policy in 2019 that “I will never leave Afghanistan because of the Taliban or anyone else.” However, just a couple years later he and Moradi would both end up emigrating after the United States’ withdrawal in 2021 which was immediately followed by the Taliban’s takeover.

It is a remarkable story in itself that a handful of Jews stood their ground even as the Jewish population in Afghanistan dwindled. Even more stunning was the fury the last two known Jews had for each other. 

The Simentov-Levy dynamic might serve as a microcosmic example of the dangers of being divided as a Jewish community. The Times of Israel noted how months of protests and division surrounding the Israeli judiciary encouraged Hamas and compromised Israel’s security: “The security establishment has long warned that the government’s plan had impacted the military’s operational abilities and harmed Israel’s deterrence.” Then October 7th happened.

As we reflect on the tragic consequences of internal strife, it becomes clear how vital it is to ensure that problems facing the Jewish community are tackled with a unified spirit and a sense of common cause. When it comes to issues such as religious and cultural identity, Zionism, and combating antisemitism, we need to embrace as big a tent as possible: from fierce critics of the Israeli government to its staunchest supporters, from observant Jews to non-observant Jews, and from those on the political right to those on the political left. 

Likewise, the joke mentioned earlier feels true in that it reflects on how petty we unfortunately can be even within the religious sphere. We express a tribalistic attitude sometimes, preferring certain shuls, and even minyans to such an extent that we become stubborn. 

Whether it is politics, religion, or communal and personal relationships, it is crucial that we strive for unity and avoid stoking divisiveness. It is not only the right thing to do — it is necessary for the survival of the Jewish people.

About the Author
Alan E. Weintraub holds a master’s degree in History and an Advanced Certificate in Public History.
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