Zebulon Simantov, Afghanistan's last remaining Jew. (Screen grab/YouTube) (Screen grab/YouTube)
Zebulon Simantov

Zebulon Simantov doesn’t want to give his wife a writ of divorce and fears Israel would force him to do so.

By Pesach Benson, United With Israel

While Westerners and fearful Afghans flee Afghanistan ahead of an August 31 deadline for evacuation, one person who isn’t going anywhere is the country’s last Jew, Zebulon Simantov.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that Simantov turned down an opportunity to evacuate. Instead, a group of 23 people likely to be killed by the Taliban were extracted, some by air, others by land.

The story begins with Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, an ultra-Orthodox fixer and founder of the Tzedek Association, a non-profit organization that advocates for criminal justice reform and rehabilitation of prisoners.

After hearing that Simantov was still in Afghanistan, Margaretten turned to Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman who rescued and brought to Israel several of Syria’s last Jewish families during the Syrian civil war. Kahana was also involved in the 2015 rescue of Gill Rosenberg, an Israeli-Canadian citizen who flew to Iraq to join Kurdish forces fighting against Islamic State.

Simantov’s ‘Chained Wife’

From New Jersey, Kahana coordinated a team of people to extract Simantov, who confirmed reports he was refusing to leave. His wife and children left Afghanistan years ago and live in Holon. The wife, whose name has not been publicly identified, wants a divorce, which Simantov adamantly refuses to give.

In Jewish law, a wife whose husband refuses to give a bill of divorce. called a get, has the unfortunate status of an agunah, or chained woman. An agunah can only obtain her freedom to remarry with a get or the death of her husband. Some men have refused to give their wives a get, either out of spite or in the hope of extorting a more favorable divorce settlement.

Amie Ferris-Rotman, a British-Jewish journalist who used to work in Afghanistan, told JTA she once asked Simantov why he wouldn’t divorce his wife.

“He would say, ‘Oh, her, I’m done with her,’” she said.

Israeli courts can jail a recalcitrant husband who refuses to divorce his wife. Judges took high-profile measures on behalf of agunot in two separate cases in June.

In one case, an agunah of 16 years received her divorce after the rabbinical courts as well as the High Court of Justice ruled in the woman’s favor. The woman’s father-in-law, who was deemed a key obstruction to the divorce, was fined and barred from leaving Israel until the divorce was settled.

In another case, a Jerusalem rabbinical court issued a landmark ruling that a lawyer who prevents the giving of a get or harms divorce proceedings could be sanctioned. In that case, a man who was preparing to divorce his wife told the rabbinical court his attorney had advised him to withhold the get for a better financial settlement.

Freedom for Others

Born in Herat, where there was once a thriving Jewish community of hundreds of families, Simantov fled to neighboring Tajikistan in 1992 before making his way to Kabul. In March, Simantov said he would leave Afghanistan if the Taliban ever came back to power.

Speaking to Israel’s Kan News earlier in August, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said he didn’t know who Simantov was, but insisted that no Jews would not be harmed. “We don’t harm minorities. There are Sikhs and Hindus in the country, and they have their religious freedom.”

Shaheen, later claimed he didn’t know he was being interviewed by an Israeli reporter.

Afghan Hindus and Sikhs aren’t banking on Taliban statements. At least 210 were due to be airlifted to India before a pair of Islamic State suicide bombers killed 13 U.S. servicemen and at least 170 more at Kabul’s airport on Thursday.

With Simantov refusing to leave, Moti Kahana suggested to Margaratten that they instead extract a group of women who would have been killed by the Taliban — four women soccer players, a judge and a prosecutor and their families. Margaretten was on board with the idea and within a day raised $80,000 to rescue them.

“He didn’t give a get, a divorce, to his wife; she lives in Israel. And because of that he’s scared to go to Israel,” Margaretten told the JTA. Simantov has reportedly demanded money to be rescued and to grant interviews in the past.

According to the JTA, Margaretten and Kahana want to extract dozens more people from Afghanistan. For that endeavor, Margaretten says he will need to raise more than $2 million.

The rabbi also told JTA he’ll continue looking out for Simantov.

“I told Moti Kahana, please have someone to watch over him. He doesn’t want to leave but we’ll have some people keeping an eye on him that no one shouldn’t harm him,” Margaretten said.

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