‘US left with a bad name:’ Afghanistan’s last known Jew hails Taliban’s return

Zabulon Simintov. (Supplied)
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Zabulon Simintov. (Supplied)
‘US left with a bad name:’ Afghanistan’s last known Jew hails Taliban’s return
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Zabulon Simintov. (Supplied)
‘US left with a bad name:’ Afghanistan’s last known Jew hails Taliban’s return
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Zabulon Simintov. (Supplied)
‘US left with a bad name:’ Afghanistan’s last known Jew hails Taliban’s return
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Zabulon Simintov. (Supplied)
‘US left with a bad name:’ Afghanistan’s last known Jew hails Taliban’s return
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Zabulon Simintov. (Supplied)
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Updated 22 August 2021

‘US left with a bad name:’ Afghanistan’s last known Jew hails Taliban’s return

Zabulon Simintov. (Supplied)
  • As the caretaker of Kabul’s only synagogue, residing in its compound for decades, Simintov has witnessed a civil war, Soviet and US invasions of Afghanistan, the Taliban rule and the group’s return to power 20 years later

KABUL: All his bags were packed, and Zabulon Simintov was ready to go.
But since the Taliban’s stunning takeover of Kabul last week, Simintov, Afghanistan’s last known Jew, has had a change of heart and plans, saying he does not wish to leave anymore.
It’s a stark contrast from his narrative a few months ago when Simintov, in his late 50s, told Arab News he “had had enough,” explaining how he was fearful of the Taliban’s return to power as the insurgents made rapid territorial gains and US-led foreign troops began withdrawing from Afghanistan in early May.
However, after the Taliban’s bloodless siege of the Afghan capital on Sunday and the group’s pledge to form an “all-inclusive government” and not “seek revenge against enemies,” Simintov says he has chosen to stay in Afghanistan, his home for over five decades.
“A few days ago, an Afghan came from America with a plane ticket to take me (back to Israel). I said I won’t go even if the plane comes outside my home,” he told Arab News over the phone from his home in Kabul on Saturday.
“I need to protect the synagogue here. I see no threat from the Taliban side. The Taliban have come; they are welcome! There is no fear, no threat,” Simintov, a carpet and jewelry merchant, added.

The Taliban have sought to present a more moderate face since last week’s lightning offensive, but the group was infamous for its harsh and repressive policies when it ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, before being toppled by US-led forces and prompting many to formulate an exit plan.

On Friday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference that more than 18,000 people had been flown out of Afghanistan in the past few days.

But Simintov, who has served twice in the Afghan army, said he would not leave, despite his wife and two daughters moving to Israel in 1992.

As the caretaker of Kabul’s only synagogue, residing in its compound for decades, Simintov has witnessed a civil war, Soviet and US invasions of Afghanistan, the Taliban rule and the group’s return to power 20 years later.

The Kabul synagogue, established in 1966, is the only Jewish place of worship in the country after all Jews moved to Herat in western Afghanistan, which once hosted four synagogues.

Although information on the origins of Judaism in Afghanistan is scarce, it is believed that Jews came to the region about 2,000 years ago, living in relative peace and harmony in the Muslim-majority country until the mid 20th century.

Once a thriving community in Afghanistan, thousands of Afghan Jews left for Israel and Western countries in the late 1940s after the creation of Israel and after the Soviet invasion in 1979.

Others fled during the subsequent civil war under the Mujahideen and after the Taliban’s first ascension to power in 1996.

Simintov, who was born in Herat and later moved to Kabul, describes the country’s monarchical period, which ended in 1973, as the “golden era” for Jews but also for Afghans at large.

“I have no other demand from the Taliban; I want no position for myself. But like other people, want security.”

And, perhaps, his copy of the Torah back.

Simintov said Khairullah Khairkhaw, the former interior minister under the Taliban regime, “had confiscated the Torah from his custody in Kabul.”

Khairkhaw, who was released from the Guantanamo Bay prison in 2014 by former US president Barack Obama, serves as the Taliban’s political leader in Qatar, where the group has its political office.

“I will find the contact person for him and get the Torah back,” Simintov said.

The Taliban’s co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar arrived in Kabul on Saturday for talks with senior group leaders and politicians on forming a new government.

The government council, which was formed to fill a void left by President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country hours after the Taliban took over the presidential palace, includes former President Hamid Karzai, Gulbudin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hizb-e-Islami political and paramilitary group and Abdullah Abdullah, the old administration’s main peace envoy.

Simintov urged the Taliban “not to give any share to these former figures and militia leaders” who have been “behind the country’s destruction” and instead bring together “sound and professional individuals” from different ethnic groups and minorities.

“These leaders have given their test in the past, have plundered Afghanistan and looted billions ... Their presence will damage the Taliban’s credibility,” Simintov said.

Despite his hostility toward the Taliban in the past, he admits to Kabul and other areas “being safer under their rule,” blaming US leaders for “invading” Afghanistan and “creating destruction and carnage.”

“The US is leaving a bad name in history by invading here. The Taliban is back, why did it spend so much money, kill so many people and now leave this way? US citizens should not vote for (President Joe) Biden and (former President Donald Trump); both of them are totally mad,” he said.

“Let’s see what comes next.”


Austria plans to lift lockdown, but not for the unvaccinated

Austria plans to lift lockdown, but not for the unvaccinated
Updated 5 sec ago

Austria plans to lift lockdown, but not for the unvaccinated

Austria plans to lift lockdown, but not for the unvaccinated
VIENNA: Unvaccinated individuals will continue to stay in lockdown even after Austria lifts its wider coronavirus measure for the general public on Sunday, Chancellor Karl Nehammer confirmed on Tuesday, a day after he took office.
Austria’s two-week-old lockdown aimed to counter a surge in daily COVID-19 infections to record levels, with restaurants, bars, theaters, museums and non-essential shops shut to all but take-away business. Hotels are closed to tourists.
A week before that general lockdown, people not fully vaccinated against coronavirus had been placed under lockdown, barring them from roughly the same places that are now shut, and allowed to leave home only for the same few reasons as the public now, such as going to work.
“The lockdown for the unvaccinated is staying,” Nehammer told a news conference, while confirming that the wider curbs would be lifted on Sunday as planned.
However, details still need to be ironed out at a meeting on Wednesday between the government and the influential governors of Austria’s nine provinces.
“For all the unvaccinated who are suffering from the fact they are staying in lockdown, there is a clear offer: you can come out of it if you seize the chance to get vaccinated,” Nehammer said, adding that his aim was to encourage as many as possible to get their first dose of vaccine.
Asked if restaurants and hotels would re-open at the weekend, Nehammer said that had already been agreed with provincial governors and the aim was to re-open businesses as broadly as possible.
The question that remained was what safety measures and curbs needed to be adopted, he added.

Ryanair cancels Morocco flights until February

Ryanair cancels Morocco flights until February
Updated 1 min 50 sec ago

Ryanair cancels Morocco flights until February

Ryanair cancels Morocco flights until February
  • Move follows government ban on all arrivals to combat spread of omicron variant
  • Irish carrier is largest airline in Europe, which is facing severe COVID-19 outbreak

LONDON: Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline, has canceled all flights to Morocco until February 2022.

The move follows a total ban by the Moroccan government on flights arriving in the North African country until Dec. 13 to combat the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19.

It is not yet clear whether the ban will extend beyond the initial December deadline.

Other countries, including Japan and Israel, have also implemented stringent flight bans in an attempt to prevent the spread of the new variant.

Irish carrier Ryanair usually flies thousands of flights a day across Europe and beyond. The continent’s COVID-19 outbreak is far worse than many other places in the world, including Morocco, which recorded just 90 cases in the last 24 hours compared with 50,000 in Britain.


One dead, two missing after building collapses in France

One dead, two missing after building collapses in France
Updated 45 min 56 sec ago

One dead, two missing after building collapses in France

One dead, two missing after building collapses in France
  • Two adjacent buildings were also heavily damaged in the blast that occurred in the port at Sanary

SANARY-SUR-MER,France: French rescue workers on Tuesday recovered a man’s body from the rubble of a residential building destroyed overnight in a suspected gas explosion, and were scrambling to find two other people still missing after extracting a woman and a baby alive.
The woman and baby as well as three others were injured in the blast in the Mediterranean coastal city of Sanary-sur-Mer, which was heard from as far as eight kilometers (five miles) away.
“It’s very likely that the victim is the father of the baby,” Houda Vernhet, director of the government’s regional authority for the Var region, told AFP.
He was unconscious when located and declared dead after rescue workers spent more than two hours removing him from the unsteady wreckage of the three-story building.
The two people still missing “are a mother, an elderly woman, and her son” who lived on the ground floor, Vernhet said.
“For now, we haven’t yet found any signs of life from the rubble, but we didn’t hear the baby right away, either,” said Col. Eric Grohin, director of the fire service for the Var department.
Authorities said rescue workers smelled gas when they arrived at the site.
“The causes aren’t known for now. There was smell of gas, but we can’t say anything more while the police inquiry is underway,” the regional authorities said in a statement.
Two adjacent buildings were also heavily damaged in the blast that occurred in the port at Sanary, a city of around 15,000 people southeast of Marseille.


Hedge fund founder Steinhardt will return looted antiquities

Hedge fund founder Steinhardt will return looted antiquities
Updated 7 min 31 sec ago

Hedge fund founder Steinhardt will return looted antiquities

Hedge fund founder Steinhardt will return looted antiquities
  • Among the billionaire's collection were items from Egypt, Turkey and Iraq

NEW YORK: Billionaire hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt has agreed to turn over $70 million worth of stolen antiquities and will be subject to an unprecedented lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities, the Manhattan district attorney announced Monday.
In return, Steinhardt, a philanthropist who is chair of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and co-founder of Birthright Israel, an organization that sends young Jews on free trips to Israel, will not face criminal charges for acquiring pieces that were illegally smuggled out of 11 countries including Iraq, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Syria and Turkey, prosecutors said.
“For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts without concern for the legality of his actions, the legitimacy of the pieces he bought and sold, or the grievous cultural damage he wrought across the globe,” District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said in a news release. “His pursuit of ‘new’ additions to showcase and sell knew no geographic or moral boundaries, as reflected in the sprawling underworld of antiquities traffickers, crime bosses, money launderers, and tomb raiders he relied upon to expand his collection."
Steinhardt said in a prepared statement issued by his attorneys that he was "pleased that the District Attorney’s years-long investigation has concluded without any charges, and that items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries.”
Attorneys Andrew J. Levander and Theodore V. Wells Jr. said that many of the dealers from whom Steinhardt bought the items “made specific representations as to the dealers’ lawful title to the items, and to their alleged provenance.”
According to prosecutors, while complaining about a subpoena requesting documentation for an antiquity in May 2017, Steinhardt pointed to a small chest from Greece and said to an investigator, “You see this piece? There’s no provenance for it. If I see a piece and I like it, then I buy it.”
Many of the pieces Steinhardt acquired were removed from their countries of origin during times of war or civil unrest, prosecutors said.
Steinhardt, who turns 81 on Tuesday, founded the hedge fund Steinhardt Partners in 1967 and closed it in 1995. He came out of retirement in 2004 to head Wisdom Tree Investments.
New York University named its Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development after Steinhardt in recognition of two $10 million donations.
Manhattan prosecutors began investigating Steinhardt's collection of ancient artifacts in 2017 and raided his office and his Manhattan home in 2018, seizing several artworks that investigators said had been looted.
The items surrendered by Steinhardt include a stag’s head in the form of a ceremonial vessel for libations, dating from to 400 B.C., which prosecutors say appeared without provenance on the international market after rampant looting in Milas, Turkey. The stag's head is valued at $3.5 million, the district attorney said.
There was also the chest for human remains from the Greek Island of Crete, called a larnax and dating from around 1300 B.C., which prosecutors said was purchased from a known antiquities trafficker.


Whistleblower: As Afghanistan fell, UK abandoned supporters

Whistleblower: As Afghanistan fell, UK abandoned supporters
Updated 58 min 26 sec ago

Whistleblower: As Afghanistan fell, UK abandoned supporters

Whistleblower: As Afghanistan fell, UK abandoned supporters
  • Thousands of pleas for help via email were unread between Aug. 21 and Aug. 25
  • ‘These emails were desperate and urgent. I was struck by many titles including phrases such as ‘please save my children’

LONDON: Britain’s Foreign Office abandoned many of the nation’s allies in Afghanistan and left them to the mercy of the Taliban during the fall of the capital, Kabul, because of a dysfunctional and arbitrary evacuation effort, a whistleblower alleged Tuesday.
In devastating evidence to a parliamentary committee, Raphael Marshall said thousands of pleas for help via email were unread between Aug. 21 and Aug. 25. The former Foreign Office employee estimated that only 5 percent of Afghan nationals who applied to flee under one UK program received help. At one point, he was the only person monitoring the inbox.
“There were usually over 5,000 unread emails in the inbox at any given moment, including many unread emails dating from early in August,” he wrote to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. “These emails were desperate and urgent. I was struck by many titles including phrases such as ‘please save my children’.”
Former Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who was moved from the Foreign Office to become Justice Secretary after his handling of the crisis, defended his actions.
“Some of the criticism seems rather dislocated from the facts on the ground, the operational pressures that with the takeover of the Taliban, unexpected around the world...” he told the BBC. “I do think that not enough recognition has been given to quite how difficult it was.”
The Taliban stormed across Afghanistan in late summer, capturing all major cities in a matter of days, as Afghan security forces trained and equipped by the US and its allies melted away. The Taliban took over Kabul on Aug. 15.
Many who had worked for Western powers or the government worried that the country could descend into chaos or the Taliban could carry out revenge attacks against them.
Many also feared the Taliban would reimpose the harsh interpretation of Islamic law that they relied on when they ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. At the time, women had to wear the all-encompassing burqa and be accompanied by a male relative whenever they went outside. The Taliban banned music, cut off the hands of thieves and stoned adulterers.