Revisiting Kabul

June 19, 2012 by Rob Getreu
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As my inbound flight descends through the cloudless sky into Kabul, I am reacquainted with the barren mountain range that surrounds this ancient and desolate capital…writes Rob Getreu.

L-R U.S. officials Matt and Michael, Rob Getreu, Navy Lieutenant Commander Risa Simon, Colonel Michael Benjamin and U.S. Embassy official Dr Lowry Taylor

To be sure, this troubled country is no Garden of Eden and the endless battle of insurgency, dust and drought challenges locals and expats alike.

Its been 12 months since my last visit and I am curious as to the progress that been made in “nation building” and how Kehilah Kabul has been managing with the ever increasing political and security challenges facing this country.

Jews have lived in Afghanistan for at least 2,500 years. The Pashtuns, the largest ethic group, are believed to be decedents of one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Some even claim that the name Afghanistan derives from Afghana, a grandson of King Saul. The earliest Jewish tombstones go back to 752AD and there is a recorded history of vibrant Jewish populations in Kabul, Herat, Ghanzi and Balkh. Early 19th century immigration of Jews from Persia and Russia bolstered the community to about 40,000 although most made aliyah or went to the US after 1948. Current thought is that Zablon Simintov is the sole remaining “local” Jew although no one seems to have heard from him in recent times.

There is, though, an ongoing Kehilah Kabul made up mainly of international military and civilian personnel working through the US military/ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) and US Embassy. I was fortunate again to joint the small, yet committed, kehilah for Kabalat Shabbat. While the US military do have a Rabbi in country, his time is split serving the hundreds of Jews soldiers spread throughout the country.

No guns in Shule

The current Kabul lay leader is Col Michael Benjamin, a senior legal officer and career military officer. Having previously served in Baghdad, he is coming to the end of his current deployment and is happily looking forward to a more “normal” life in a transport command in St Louis, MN. I’d also met with a Naval Officer, LCDR Risa Simon (finishing her tour this weekend) and senior US diplomat, Dr Lowry Taylor.

The Shabbos service had a uniquely US reform/conservative flavour and for this Aussie, somewhat “interesting” to follow. The tunes were mostly different to those that I heard before in shules in Australia and the various cities I’ve visited over the years. We also ended up using three different sidurs (yes you got it, six Jews and 3 sidurs, what else would you expect?). One being a local photocopy edition especially for the Shabbos service, another being a US Conservative sidur while the final one was specific for military personnel especially put together by the reform, conservative and orthodox communities in the US. What was unique about this sidur was not that is was specifically designed to meet the needs of the military, but the fact that all three Jewish groups could actually collaborate and come up with a sidur together. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned from just that!

Over dinner, I was most interested to gauge the views of my fellow Jews as to the progress of the work being done and the hope for a better future. When I last met such folk, they were all very positive, yet realistic, that their work would pay dividends in improving the lives of the local population and contribute to the overall security of the US and world.

This time, however, there seems to be a more circumspect view that there will be limitations to the overall long-term improvement. For sure, children are going to school and the local people are getting better access to health care. Mind you, the traffic is progressively getting worse. In Kabul, at least, the local “stores” have fresh bread, meat, fruit and vegetables, people seem reasonably well dressed and there is a constant activity in construction (of sorts), small engineering enterprises and the ubiquitous roadside sale of mobile phone cards. Mind you, I think the people most suffering with unemployment are those who paint the white lines in the middle of the roads. They simply don’t exist. Without doubt, there is no driver in Kabul that thinks that he needs to stick in his lane or even travel in the same direction of the rest of the traffic in his lane. Sometimes, it really is best to just close your eyes and pray Tefillat ha Derech!.

However, the reality is that with the immanent drawdown of foreign security forces, there is a significant and determined internal play for influence and power. Dr Lowry Taylor, in her role as the Chief of the US Reconciliation Unit, said it best in that it will be for the Afghan people to determine their own future and political make up. Now that there is some degree of stability, all that we in the West can hope to do is provide a suitable environment that will enable all the various political, religious and ethnic groups to talk together and lay the foundations for the next generation of Afghan society. In other words, if it is to be … then its up to them… not me.  But is you listen to the international community, there will, though, be an ongoing ISAF role in assisting the Afghanis to provide for a long term security that disengages future Afghan governments, and the West, from the impacts of extremism and terrorist influences.

As we were finishing the Shabbos service, US Navy LCDR Risa Simon reminded the six of us Jews in the Chapel, that this weekend is the 3rd anniversary of the deaths of two Jewish Americans killed by a roadside bomb that destroyed their vehicle. As she was retelling their story, my mind went back to the funeral I attended for the late Pte Greg Sher who too, was killed in Afghanistan just over 3 years ago. While we did not have a minyan, no one thought that Hashem would mind if we all said Kaddish in their memory.

We Jews are known for our ongoing and committed roles of Tikun Olam, healing the world. Kind David, in Psalm 122 reminds us “ may there be peace within your walls and serenity within your mansions”. Honour and eternal gratitude goes to all the service men and women, and diplomats and aid workers, who constantly put themselves in harms way and sacrifice themselves for the common good to bring peace, security and advancement to those throughout the world less fortunate than the rest of us. As it is written in Psalm 92, “the righteous will flourish like a palm and grow tall like a cedar”. Kol Hakavod to them all.

Rob Getreu is a Canberra based Officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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