Muslim trust restores Jewish sites in Afghanistan

June 24, 2009

herat-synagogue-1Amid the glum news from Afghanistan, Golnar Motevalli of our Kabul bureau has sent this from Herat:

“Behind a parade of old mud brick shops, through narrow winding alleys, a tiny door opens onto a sundrenched courtyard, where school children giggle and play alongside the ghosts of Afghanistan’s Jewish past.

The Yu Aw is one of four synagogues in the old quarter of Herat city in west Afghanistan, which after decades of abandonment and neglect, has been restored to provide desperately-needed space for an infant school.”

(Photo: Afghan children study in Yu Aw synagogue in Herat, 8 June 2009/Mohammad Shoiab)

The restoration work has been done by the Agha Khan Trust for Culture. The city’s three other former synagogues are also being restored. Read the feature here.


Afghanistan’s Jewish community, once said to have numbered 40,000 or more, now consists of just one person, Zebolan Simanto. He receives a care package from New York every spring with matzos, grape juice and oil to conduct the Seder, the meal on the first evening of Passover.

(Photo: Zebolan Simanto in Kabul, 26 Jan 2005/Ahmad Masood)

There’s a legend in Afghanistan that the Pashtun, the country’s largest ethnic group, actually descended from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. In this legend, the capital’s name Kabul comes from “Cain and Abel” and many Pashtun tribe names had Jewish roots, as in Afridi (Ephraim), Yusufzai (Joseph) and Shinwari (Shimon). After the Taliban were overthrown in November 2001, this legend was mentioned so often on Jewish-interest websites that I looked into it during a reporting tour in Kabul in early 2002. After much asking around, I finally tracked down Abdul Shukoor Rishad, the doyen of Afghan historians, at his home in the dusty suburb of Khairkhana.

Rishad, who was 80 at the time, burst into a very un-Afghan fit of exasperation when I explained through an interpreter that I wanted to know about the legend of Jewish origins. Foreigners had been asking him this for decades, he complained, and he always told them there was nothing to the story. He said some of the Jews sent into captivity in Babylon were settled the-pathans-2in present-day Iran. But he rejected claims that some then moved from there into parts of present-day Afghanistan.

Rishad was so convinced the legend had no basis in fact that he once turned down a large grant to research it further. “There is an association in California that is searching for the Lost Tribes,” he said. “When I was there in 1995, they were ready to provide me enough money for a new study. I turned it down because the theory is wrong. Afghans are not Jewish.”

Olaf Caroe, the British author of the authoritative history The Pathans (1958), called the legend “all great fun” but too riddled with inconsistencies to be true.


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The ghost in the story is how and why the population of Jews declined from 40,000 to one

At rce/vjw/Afghanistan.html, it says…
In 1839, thousands of Jews again fled Persia, where the Muslim authorities began forcibly converting them, bringing Afghanistan’s Jewish population up to 40,000. They were mostly traders and dyers dealing in skins, carpets and antiquities.

The decline came in 1870 after Afghan Muslim authorities enacted anti-Jewish measures, triggering a mass exodus to Central Asia, Persia and Palestine. The 1933 assassination of King Nadit Shah triggered another anti-Jewish campaign. Jews were banished from most Afghan cities, limiting them to Kabul, Balkh or Herat. In addition, Jews were forbidden to leave town without a permit and forced to pay special taxes.

By the time Israel was created in 1948, approximately 5,000 Jews remained in Afghanistan, but they could not legally immigrate. Once the restriction was lifted in 1951, most Afghan Jews made their way to Israel. By 1969, only 300 Jews lived in Afghanistan, most of whom left in 1979 after the Soviet invasion. In 1996, 10 Jews remained in Afghanistan, nearly all in Kabul.

So, now that Afganistan is Judenrein, they can pretend to restore its “culture.”

Posted by Izzy | Report as abusive

That’s quite a baseless remark to make at the end, Izzy. They’re not restoring Afghan culture because there are no longer any Jewish people left.

Posted by H. Rhythwonn | Report as abusive

I wonder of the zionists will go and invade afghanistan now and setup blockades and check points and setup gaza part 2 by caliming this lands belongs to them also. would not be surprised.

Posted by Hassan | Report as abusive

You’ve got to start somewhere, respecting each others heritage is a first step and gives hope for a better future.

Posted by Nikkei 225 | Report as abusive

I agree with Nikkei 225, whe should start building bridges and end the fear.

Posted by Daisy | Report as abusive

interesting! building are being protected and human beings being butchered and bombed by US and NATO. So much for the respecting each other and giving hope for a better future.

Posted by dolphin | Report as abusive

@H. Rhythwonn
What “baseless” remark? That Afganistan is Jew-free (well, technically it is not true, there is exactly one left) or the Afganis pretending to restore Jewish culture?

Both are correct. If they wanted to restore Jewish cultural landmarks, they might inquire of some actual Jews what the different parts of the buildings were. But, they appear to be clueless.

Of course, it could be that they are faithfully restoring the synagogues, but that the writer of the article is the one who is clueless. If that is so, then the writer is the one who makes the Trust *appear* clueless.

@ Nikkei 225

I agree, but doesn’t it appear to you to be too late? What “better future” do we see here? The government of Afganistan is unlikely to start promoting the immigration of Jews, nor to publicly apologize for the way they’ve treated the Jews over the past century.

It just seems so wrong. Like a husband who has killed his wife, only to put a large painting of her over the mantle-piece. He’s declaring his love, only it is too late.

Posted by Izzy | Report as abusive

Izzy, there is no pretense, they ARE actually restoring these buildings, but since the Jewish population has dwindled they are utilizing these spaces for a new purpose.

Rather than basking in supposed historical misdeeds; you ought to live in the present and appreciate efforts.

Posted by Amanda | Report as abusive