For the JC October 28 2021
He is the last Jew of Afghanistan, who was rescued in a courageous humanitarian mission last month after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.
But in a bizarre twist, according to his rescuer, Zebulon Simentov is refusing to go to Israel to make his home there unless he is first paid $10million – and he has warned he is otherwise ready to go back to Afghanistan.
After his rescue in September, Mr Simentov was flown to a country that has remained unnamed for security reasons. He is now in Istanbul, where he is staying in a hotel.
In an extraordinary phone conversation with his rescuer, Israeli humanitarian contractor Moti Kahana, he demanded the staggering sum, claiming he “lost a lot of money” in leaving Afghanistan, and also asked for additional cash to buy a winter coat.
In earlier statements weeks ago he had been insistent that he would not make Israel his final destination because he feared punitive measures over his failure to give a get to his wife, who has lived there with his two daughters since 1998. However, he has since granted the divorce in a ceremony performed over Zoom, organised in Turkey by Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, chairman of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States.
Mr Simentov’s brother Aron and sister Osnat are also in Israel, living in Holon, near Tel Aviv. But instead of making aliyah he wants to go to the US and live in New York, where he has relatives.
Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, who heads the Tzedek organisation in America that funded the rescue from Kabul, has been in regular contact with Senator Chuck Schumer’s office in Washington over the immigration case, as has Moti Kahana. But Mr Kahana warned: “Zebulon is a long way down the priorities list for getting into America, behind people who worked for the US in Afghanistan, or who hold green cards. I told him it could take six months to two years, and that it would be much easier for him to go to Israel. He refused and said he would prefer to return to Kabul rather than go to Israel — but I do not know why.”
Mr Kahana has tried to persuade Mr Simentov’s brother and sister in Israel to fly to Turkey at his expense and talk Zebulon into coming back with them. But they have refused, though they said they would be happy to see him in Israel.
Mr Simentov apparently believes he was forced to leave Kabul under false pretences, on the understanding that he would go to America. Told that this is not presently possible, he demanded $10million and says he plans to stay in Istanbul for three months. Mr Kahana said: “I’m not a babysitter. I can’t go on funding and supporting Zebulon in Istanbul for an unlimited time, and I told him I won’t take him back to Kabul.”
Mr Simentov was staying in a Sheraton until earlier this week, when he moved into a cheaper hotel. Mr Kahana said he had paid for the room for a month but warned: “After that, I’m done.”
He predicted that the last Jew of Afghanistan would end up staying in Turkey for good.
Rabbi Margaretten told the JC: “Obviously, going back to Afghanistan is potential suicide. It’s crazy. Zebulon has several siblings and children in Israel, whereas in the US all he has is an elderly uncle. Frankly, Israel makes the most sense, he should be reunited with his daughters and his siblings. We cannot force someone to go somewhere they don’t want to go.”
In Turkey, Rabbi Chitrik was confident about Mr Simentov’s future, saying he “doesn’t need handlers, or anyone to pay for him. He has the means to support himself.”