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'They are scared for their lives'; 'Give me 10 hours'

Last Afghanistan Jew’s would-be Jewish rescuers save Afghan women soccer team

An ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn fixer and an Israeli-American businessman rescue athletes, prosecutors and judges from Taliban rule after Zebulon Simantov refuses to leave

Afghan refugees' luggage sits at the Torrejon de Ardoz air base in Madrid, Spain, on August 24, 2021. (Jesus Hellin/Europa Press via Getty Images)
Afghan refugees' luggage sits at the Torrejon de Ardoz air base in Madrid, Spain, on August 24, 2021. (Jesus Hellin/Europa Press via Getty Images)

JTA — Zebulon Simantov, Afghanistan’s last Jew, has not left Kabul, despite the best efforts of some Jewish figures and organizations.

One of them was Moshe Margaretten, a US ultra-Orthodox fixer whose passion is bringing Jews out of danger.

Margaretten paid Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman who helped extract people from war-torn Syria, to be a middleman and get Simantov out — but Kahana told Margaretten what many others had heard: Simantov was not leaving because of his long-standing refusal to grant his Israeli wife a “get,” or decree of divorce. Simantov feared facing Israel’s legal system, which penalizes such a refusal.

But Kahana hatched another idea. The team that he sent into Kabul to extract Simantov learned that there were plenty of women in danger of being targeted by the Taliban as they assumed total control of Afghanistan — among them members of the country’s national women’s soccer team, along with judges and prosecutors.

Was Margaretten interested in paying for their extraction?

“Absolutely,” Margaretten said. “Give me 10 hours.”

Israeli-American Moti Kahana, CEO of Amaliah. (Dov Lieber/The Times of Israel)

Within a day, Margaretten, who is based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, had drummed up $80,000 from his ultra-Orthodox community. He wired the funds to Kahana’s consultancy, GDC, and by Wednesday, Kahana was, from his New Jersey farm, coordinating the extraction of at least four soccer players, a judge, a prosecutor and their families, over land and by air. Kahana said that they numbered 23 people. Margaretten said that the money would also assist the refugees after their departure.

By Friday, Kahana said that his team had extracted another 23 people.

Khalida Popal, the former captain of the national women’s soccer team who is now based in Denmark and is leading efforts to extract the players, thanked Margaretten’s nonprofit, Tzedek Association, on Twitter on Thursday afternoon, as the world was reeling from the news of a massive suicide bomb attack on Kabul’s airport.

This March 8, 2016 file photo shows Khalida Popal, the former Afghanistan national women’s team captain, in Copenhagen. (AP/Jan M. Olsen, File)

“Thank you ⁦ @Tzedek_Assoc for your incredible help w/ this life-saving rescue effort, including coordination to the airport and other routes, and political connections,” she said. “Together we are saving lives!” (Margaretten said that some of the funds are being directed through Tzedek, and some are going directly to the project to assist the refugees.)

Popal did not add details and did not return requests for an interview, but her expression of relief came after days of tweets expressing anxiety and uncertainty. According to the Washington Post, another planeload of Afghan female soccer players, their relatives, and officials left for Australia on Tuesday, with 75 people on board the rescue flight.

“This is exactly where our players were last night,” she tweeted 90 minutes earlier, attaching a video of the carnage at Kabul airport. “I am worried and nervous and feel bad in my stomach. I don’t know if some of our players are here. I am worried.”

Illustrative: Afghan female soccer players compete in a match at the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) stadium in Kabul, Friday, Dec. 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Margaretten was bemused by the trajectory of the week: a failed bid to persuade a recalcitrant husband to flee danger resulted in the successful rescue of women from a repressive society.

“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,” he said. “That’s a very fun story. And he wants money.” (Simantov has in the past reportedly demanded money to be rescued and to grant interviews.)

Zebulon Simantov touches the grave of his family members in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2009. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

“Moti told me, ‘My people there on the ground are telling me there is a group of soccer players, and they are very scared for their lives,’” Margaretten said. “They believe they will be a big target for the Taliban to get killed. Maybe you want to get involved to save their lives.”

Now it’s become a mission. Margaretten and Kahana say that they plan on extracting dozens more people by land and by air. Margaretten said that he projects having to raise more than $2 million for the effort.

Margaretten helped lead advocacy for the passage of the First Step Act in 2018, which creates incentives for federal prisoners to reduce their sentences and helps rehabilitate them once they are out. He was seen as critical in getting congressional Republicans to back the legislation.

The act is viewed as one of the major successes of the Trump administration, and for Trump’s Jewish son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner. Margaretten lit the candles at the 2019 White House Hanukkah party.

Moshe Margaretten lights candles at the White House Hanukkah party in 2019. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Margaretten was moved to get involved in prison reform advocacy after seeing the havoc that imprisonment wreaked on some people he knew in his community. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that, like the rescue he is funding in Kabul, his advocacy came from a place of seeking to assist Jews, and ending up helping others as well.

“Ninety-four percent people who benefited from this legislation, the First Step Act, were from minority groups,” Margaretten said.

Nevertheless, he’s still looking out for Simantov.

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

Margaretten forwarded a photo via WhatsApp of Simantov on Wednesday, draining the blood of a chicken into a metal container.

“This is Zebulon Simantov making a chicken kosher!” Margaretten said in a voice message.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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