What does Judaism mean in a country without Jews? As a people, we have been all over the earth in our wanderings, but we don’t always stay. Whether we have been kicked out or moved on for our own reasons, there are many places around the world with Jewish cemeteries and Jewish buildings, but no living Jews. One more country is soon to be added to that list as US and international forces leave Afghanistan.
There is only one native Jew left in Afghanistan and reports are that he is currently safe. There may be other Jewish expatriates and soldiers still in the country as foreigners coordinate their exit. At some point in the future, in a nation ruled by the Taliban, there will be no Jews left.
But there are Jewish heritage sites in Afghanistan, a country that once had upwards of 40,000 Jews. What will become of the synagogues and cemeteries left behind? It’s hard to imagine that they will fare better than similar sites in Europe where Jews have similarly disappeared. As anyone who has run a cemetery knows, it is quite difficult to keep such a location in good condition. Imagine doing so when there are no families of those buried there to visit or contribute to its upkeep.
Some places in Europe have seen a renewed in interest in Jewish life even without a robust native population, but the response is often to build a museum to the past, such as Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. As they celebrate their Jewish heritage, these countries are not necessarily looking to encourage Jewish immigration and reestablish themselves as centers of Jewish life.
Instead, these places look at their Jewish history as a draw for tourism and a symbolic message to their current population. “Look at the commitment to pluralism and diversity we are making by building these museums and restoring these heritage sites,” they seem to say. One notes that it is much easier to commit to the value of tolerance by erecting an expensive structure than actually living with people who are different.
For a while, Afghanistan seemed to be on the course of European countries in celebrating its Jewish past. With foreign money, synagogues and cemeteries were restored in the hopes that current Afghans would understand the diversity of the people who have lived there over the centuries. Perhaps the history lessons would help them build a current pluralistic society.
Such dreams have been dashed by the Taliban take over, but for one of the rabbis who was involved in the Jewish revival the main concern is not that the new rulers will destroy these religious sites the way their predecessors did the Buddhist statues that were dynamited decades ago. The primary fear is of neglect. If there are no Jews left to take care of these places, no tourists visiting, and no government support, what will happen to them? Most likely they will fade into just more Jewish ghosts haunting another corner of the globe.