The Jewish Angle on Afghanistan

By Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel (Lebanon)

As I write this, the Kabul International Airport is surrounded by Taliban fighters who show no affinity for political coalitions or bargaining.

It seems like the future for Afghanistan is bereft of anything remotely moderate, and most likely includes a full-scale adoption of an oppressive version of Sharia law. My heart goes out to the Afghanistan people who are about to enter a new and violent stage of their civilization’s history, religious zealotry. Unlike some empires in the Bible, like Cyrus the Great of Persia who allowed Zerubabel to repopulate Jerusalem, this new era in Fundamentalist Afghanistan is keen on uniformity to one religious understanding of text. Of course Iran, and it’s Palestinian proxy Hamas, are cheering from the sidelines, as they’re fully committed to Islamic religious fundamentalism which includes defeating America and Israel.

From a domestic standpoint, to say that the last few weeks of the American War in Afghanistan is merely disappointing undermines the shameful reality of a nation that doesn’t fully withdraw its troops before declaring the war ended. Afghanistan is known as the Graveyard of Empires for a reason - the mountainous topography and tribal way of life makes it geographically and ethnically difficult to control.

So, just like Alexander the Great's failed conquest, and the Britains, and the Russians after them, the American influence in that sphere seems to have disappeared overnight. I shudder to think about the amount of military-grade vehicles and weapons our unfriendlies have acquired in our haphazard egress from the Afghan theater. I am also worried about the encroaching militaries in Israel’s general neighborhood who are only more emboldened to try out new weapons.

Zabulon Simantov, Afghanistan's last Jew, was born in the 1950s and lived through the Soviet invasion, and the early Taliban years in the 1990s. He held out hope that the Western powers would repel the fundamentalist Taliban, who imprisoned him four times in the 1990s. In early April, The Times of Israel reported that Simantov would be leaving after the High Holidays, “fearing that the US military’s promise to leave the country will leave a vacuum to be filled with radical groups such as the Taliban.” His departure would end a diaspora community that scholars believe to be at least 2,000 years old. While, as of this writing, it’s unclear that he has safely departed Afghanistan, the prophecy is all but fulfilled.

And from the American Jewish perspective, this horrific human rights desecration in Afghanistan is a foil into the pervasive antisemitism that has been travelling across leftist circles on the internet over the last few months. In short, the Islamic radicalism of the Taliban and Hamas is something that needs to be addressed, as the double standard against Israel is deafening. Only a scant two months ago, when Israel and the Palestinian territories were chafing over small potatoes compared to the violent takeover of Afghanistan, social media was abuzz with antisemitic rhetoric accusing Israel of colonistic atrocities and excusing violence against Israel. Now that religious-inspired violence is cascading through social media outlets, those very politicians and social media gurus are silent. No virtue statements on the Taliban’s coerced child brides? Where’s The Squad to fight for the oppressed? Silence.

The Middle Eastern conflict was the millennial version of Vietnam. If you had friends in the military, most likely they fought there. The failure of our ability to protect our allies has hollowed out the high ground that was used to defend western values imparted on our neighbors. This was something that both Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about in regards to Vietnam. They called it “saving the soul of America,” and insisted that, “the blood we shed in Vietnam makes a mockery of all our proclamations, dedications, and celebrations. Has our conscience become a fossil? Is all mercy gone?”

In lieu of a wartime transition, from US occupation to Afghani national government, our military extraction created a humanitarian crisis in which our tax dollars abetted. If there is one silver lining to this dark cloud of war, it’s found in watching what happens when a power vacuum produces another terrorist state, and vindication for Israel’s defensive wars. I know at this upcoming High Holidays, I will pray for the United States of America, for Israel, and for the Afghani people. Just like many other issues, the Jewish angle on this is complicated and painful, but we face it authentically and still pray for peace.