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| Magazine Feature |

Underground Railroad  

How chassidic activist Moshe Margareten saved desperate Afghans from the Taliban

Photos: Jeff Zarabedian, AP Images

 

The rendezvous at the Albany airport was an unlikely meeting of worlds. As the last US forces lifted off from Kabul last month, four Afghan children were reunited with the mother they had last seen three years before, and were then introduced to their savior — a chassidishe man from Williamsburg. It was their first time seeing a Jew, and the family was overwhelmed with gratitude.

Even for someone like Moshe Margareten, who’s grown used to dramatic reunions ever since a prison reform effort he spearheaded became law three years ago, the scene last month was moving.

“The mother got very emotional,” says Margareten, who founded the Tzedek Association, which focuses on inmate services. “She told me, ‘The kindness that you showed me is the reason my late husband chose to work with the United States.’ ”

Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban triggered a rush to rescue the myriad individuals and groups whom the radical group deem a threat to their version of pure Islamic governance, or who collaborated with the departed Coalition troops. Margareten has become one of these saviors, an unlikely label for someone who regularly travels to his rebbe in New Square.

“Happy to report that we were blessed to help 61 men, women, and children evacuate from Afghanistan yesterday!” he tweeted, referring to a women’s soccer team, a judge, and several prosecutors.

But the story of the unlikely Albany reunion facilitated by a youthful-looking chassidic Jew is only one part of a wider picture. Look deeper, and it pulls back the screen on a tale of covert rescue that has largely stayed off the media’s radar.

Call it the new underground railroad. With vast numbers of American and British soldiers and spies personally invested in rescuing the Afghans they worked alongside, alternative routes have sprung up to replace the air route that is now closed.

The modus operandi is in constant flux, but the elements look clear: safe houses operated by former Afghan special forces allied with the nascent resistance movement; contacts with local Taliban leaders who have been bribed to allow safe passage; and frantic efforts to secure entry to countries such as Tajikistan.

The last exhausting weeks of playing cat and mouse with the Taliban are just the latest evolution in Moshe Margareten’s years-long effort to help those behind bars — both from his community and beyond. But underlying the universal reach of his mission, he says, is a very Jewish instinct.

“People call you and cry, and we are Jews who have rachmanus. It’s very hard, because we can’t help everyone.”

No Jew Will Be Left Behind

It was actually Zebulon Simantov, the colorful and by now legendary “last Jew in Afghanistan” who drew Moshe Margareten into the Afghan maelstrom.

As the Kalashnikov-toting Taliban swept through provincial capitals in their Toyota pickup-truck convoys, and it became clear that Kabul was about to fall, all efforts turned toward evacuating the many groups and individuals the Taliban see as a target. These include Westerners, the tens of thousands of Afghan civilians who worked with US troops during the past 20 years — and for Jews worldwide, Zebulon Simantov.

The last Jew left from the glorious community that existed for millennia in the land along the once-strategic Silk Road, Simantov has become the stuff of countless colorful profiles of Afghanistan. Having survived the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s, Simantov stayed on living in a Kabul shul, supported by individuals and media outlets who wanted to hear his story. He is liked by the local Afghan Muslims, and he earns a living selling amulets.

His insistence on staying put was also because of his refusal to give a get to his wife, who lives in Israel, a status that runs afoul of Israeli law. None of that was a consideration for Margareten.

“I got calls from a few people saying that Simantov is in great danger,” Margareten says. “He’s the last Yid left in Afghanistan and I was asked if I could do anything to help him out.”

Having tolerated him when they last ruled the country, the Taliban are not the problem. Not so for ISIS, founded by radicals who splintered from al-Qaeda for not adhering strictly enough to Islamic principles. Along with al-Qaeda, thousands of ISIS operatives who have wandered the region since 2017 have slipped into Afghanistan.

“Everyone is speaking about the Taliban, and ISIS want people to speak about them,” says Margareten. “That’s why they committed that suicide bombing attack near the airport. This is just a call for attention.”

When Margareten was approached to get involved in Simantov’s rescue, it was for the deep pool of contacts that he’s cultivated over years of working on prison reform in the US. The project, which started in his Williamsburg apartment in 2009 over outrage at the disproportionate 27-year sentence imposed on Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, steadily advanced into the First Step Act that was signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018. It is estimated that in the law’s first year alone, over 5,500 inmates were freed or allowed home confinement.

Margareten was told by the askanim who had coordinated the effort until then that the groundwork had already been laid for Simantov’s rescue, but that the State Department was refusing to help. “They said they have too much to deal with as it is and they are not getting involved. The askanim wanted me to help get politicians put pressure on the State Department.”

Talking Turkey

The breakthrough arrived from Turkey. Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, who was recently profiled in these pages (#874, “Turkish Trail Mix”) and who maintains links with Jewish communities across the Muslim world, suggested that matters would be greatly expedited if a US senator were to pen a letter formally asking the Turkish government for assistance in Simantov’s case.

“I wouldn’t say that the Turkish government has a friendly relationship with the Taliban — a working relationship is more accurate,” explains Rabbi Chitrik, who is a rabbi in Istanbul. “After all, Muslim governments know how to find their own paths of discussion.”

Turkey is the closest nation to Afghanistan with a robust Jewish community and Rabbi Chitrik had long taken an interest in the last Afghan Jew.  He surmised that an official request to get involved would spur Turkish authorities to do something for him.

This was where Margareten’s extensive political connections could work. Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio was a natural fit for a cause like this. A child of Cuban refugees, the Republican has taken a keen interest in human rights crises around the world, such as in Venezuela and Iran.

“We went back and forth with his office, discussing what type of letter, until we got the final language,” Margareten says.

He quickly raised the necessary funds and hired Moti Kahana, an Israeli American businessman, to head to Kabul and lay the groundwork for the evacuation. Kahana’s previous experience in brokering Syrian rebels’ medical treatment in Israel made him a natural for the high-stakes diplomacy necessary in Afghanistan.

At this point, the unexpected occurred. Simantov, the subject of the diplomatic uproar 7,000 miles away, changed his mind about wanting to leave. He had his friends and clients in Kabul and wanted to stay. Margareten had no choice but to return to Rubio and explain that his political cover was not needed.

“I apologized to Senator Rubio for making him crazy,” Margareten says, “but I explained that Simantov didn’t want to go.”

Escape Route

In the meantime, a member of the team working to extricate Simantov called Margareten and said, “Rabbi, I know you were trying to take out this last Jew, and it didn’t work out, but do you know there are thousands of people there who are secret Jews? They are choice targets for the Taliban.”

Margareten made a few phone calls to gauge donor interest in covering the expenses for this different project and was given the go-ahead.

“The first $80,000 came from the frum community,” he says. “The donors are Orthodox people who were moved by what they saw. I received video clips of people in hiding, shivering and begging for their lives, saying, ‘Take us out or we will all get killed.’ But we can’t help everyone, so we are working with the most urgent cases.”

The first case he took on was the women’s soccer team. The Taliban frown on anyone playing sports, but especially women. They were guided through the city to the airport, and flown to Qatar.

Next, Margareten was sent a CNN story about an Afghan mother who was desperately trying to save her four young children. The woman, who was identified in the story solely by her first name, Suneeta, had been married to a man who worked alongside US troops, until he disappeared eight years ago. It was widely believed that he was abducted and murdered by the Taliban, and his widow escaped to the United States, where she worked to bring over her children. That effort took on special urgency with the Taliban in control.

The story, with four children under 18 separated from their mom, strikes a chord with anyone who works with refugees, says Sara Lowry, the Albany-based attorney for the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants who took up the case pro bono. She has been working with Suneeta since 2018.

Lowry says that after the CNN story was broadcast, she was bombarded with calls from people who said they wanted to help. But those people “needed to be vetted, let’s leave it at that,” she adds.

“There are so many deserving people who need to be helped,” Lowry says. “This was my only case where there was no adult who could take care of them. Adults have the experience to deal with this, just based on their having more years on the planet, to being able to navigate the airport on their own. These four kids don’t have the street smarts to do these things.”

Emotional Reunion

Having come across the CNN story, Margareten read that the children were “unsupervised and in hiding.” He reached out to Lowry and the CNN reporter, Christina Maxouris, but did not receive an answer. Speaking to his friend, Lipa Boyarsky from the Aleph Institute, which lobbies for prisoners’ rights, Margareten expressed his sadness at the situation with Suneeta’s family and his frustration at not being able to do anything about it.

“Wait, I know the attorney,” Boyarsky exclaimed, and got Lowry on the phone.

Margareten praises Lowry’s dedication: “She fought for this family like a mom who fights for her kids. She was so worried about them every step of the way, even making calls as late as midnight.”

It wasn’t long before Margareten was in touch with a man near the children. It turned out that they had been waiting for the previous 30 hours at a hiding place near the Kabul airport. Margareten asked the White House legal team expedite the children’s paperwork.

“I reached out to the White House at about four o’clock,” he says. “At eight thirty I got a call that the paperwork was ready.”

Within hours the children were on the way to the airport for a flight to Qatar.

A few days later, Margareten got a call that the children would be arriving the next day at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., and would be reuniting with their mother at Albany International Airport that afternoon. He was invited to come, and the stage was set for an unusual kiddush Hashem that made the news, as two very different worlds met.

“When I walked in,” Margareten recalls, “Sara Lowry, the lawyer, was asking, ‘Who is Rabbi Moshe?’ She’d never seen me before. So I said that it was me and she brought me over to the family in a side room and introduced me as ‘the rabbi who saved your kids.’ ”

The cultural gap between rescuer and rescued, wasn’t a factor, says Lowry. “The mother was overwhelmed with gratitute that somebody was willing to help get them back home as quickly as they did. When I asked if we should invite the rabbi to Albany, she said, ‘Oh, yes, please, I want to thank him.’ There was not a hint of hesitation.”

The Lion of Panjshir

Thousands of miles away from the air-conditioned halls of Albany International is the Panjshir Valley, a mountainous region about 50 miles north of Kabul that has long been a thorn in the Taliban’s side. For a decade it held out against the Soviet occupiers, and resisted hard-line Islamist rule last time the Taliban were in power.

Ahmad Shah Masood, a celebrated guerilla commander — head of the Northern Alliance and known as the “Lion of Panjshir” — led this independent entity until he was assassinated by the Taliban just two days before the 9/11 attacks.

As the rest of the country once again fell to the turbaned militants, Panjshir became a magnet for those who sought to oppose Kabul’s new rulers. Former Afghani vice president Amrullah Saleh has taken refuge there along with thousands of former Afghan soldiers.

And in a twist of plot worthy of a novel, once again an Ahmad Masood is in command of the resistance. Leaving his home in West London just a few months ago, the late warlord’s 32-year-old son, who has been privately educated in Britain, is back in tribal robes.

The “Lion Cub,” as he’s known, is said to bear a striking resemblance to his slain father. He’s vowed not to give up the fight, and while his forces battle to repel the Taliban’s advance on their mountain province, it’s men like his who are doing the dangerous undercover work that the underground railroad now relies on.

Initially, Qatar — which hosted the Taliban leadership in exile — was the route of choice out of the danger zone. As the Afghan rescue operation heads into the next stage, there are alternatives that Margareten hints at but refuses to elaborate on.

“Broadly speaking, there are two stages that we need to deal with,” he says carefully. “One is getting them across Afghanistan from their safe houses, and across the Taliban’s borders. That is done by former Afghan special forces whom we’re paying to do the work. The second, which is just as difficult, is to get them into the safe country beyond, which is just as hard.”

In the Afghan context, “special forces” refers to the elite units trained and equipped by the Americans, and which saw bloody service trying to stanch the hemorrhaging power of the central government as the Taliban advanced. Now, suitably disguised, they are working with Western intelligence agencies to spirit out as many endangered Afghans as possible.

The Great Game

With Kabul a playground for spies, and world powers angling for influence, the stage is set for a return to the great geopolitical struggles of yore. For much of the 19th century, the British Empire and Czarist Russia faced off over control of Central Asia in what became known as the “Great Game,” after Britain invaded Afghanistan in 1839 to turn it into a buffer state.

Now once again, powers like Russia and China are eager to get in on the game — and so, reportedly, are both Israel and the United States.

Sources confirmed to Mishpacha that both the Mossad and CIA are on the ground in Afghanistan, with a view to establishing a modus vivendi with the country’s new bosses.

What the Americans want is clear: the evacuation of their citizens and dependents in the short term, and a back channel to the country’s leaders in the long run.

Israel’s interests are to gain access to Afghanistan’s long border with Iran, to enable the kind of penetration of a sworn enemy that has reportedly been possible via other countries in the area like Azerbaijan.

The Taliban, in turn, want the hard cash that comes from selling drugs — one of Afghanistan’s major exports.

In that three-way intersection, Israel could end up being the US’s go-between with the Taliban in a country that America has officially departed — the payoff being information on Iran from a hard-line Islamist organization.

All of that provides insight into what’s actually going on at Kabul ground zero. While the cameras capture the wild-looking Taliban patrolling, as women cower indoors, the reality may be that the country is not headed for a total rerun of the 1990s.

“The Taliban,” says Margareten “want to get international legitimacy and run the country, so we may be able to work with the leadership going forward. The problem may be the fighters on the ground.”

What’s clear, though, is that the Taliban are not opening the doors willingly. In a country where baksheesh —massive corruption and bribery — was part of the government’s downfall, it’s clear that large sums must change hands to open the gates.

Also left unmentioned are the exact escape routes. While some rescue outfits continue to try to exit through the front door — with planes sitting on the tarmac in Mazar-i-Sharif waiting to take off — those efforts are running into extortion demands from the Taliban. That leaves covert overland routes.

The biggest problem facing those who want to help Afghans is a dearth of countries willing to accept them as refugees. The US has taken in about 17,000 refugees, but faces political headwinds against accepting more. Western media outlets are reporting large-scale attempts with neighboring Pakistan and Tajikistan, both Muslim countries that border Afghanistan. Tajikistan in particular has taken a hard line against the Taliban, ostentatiously decorating the Lion of Panjshir with a high civilian award, just weeks after Kabul fell. But those governments have so far not had any diplomatic pressure applied in this direction.

“We would appreciate,” Margareten states slowly, acknowledging that he is weighing his words due to the delicate political situation, “if the White House would put pressure on Pakistan and Tajikistan to take in these people — not even to stay there, but just to accept them for a little while until they can go elsewhere. We have ways of getting them out through the mountains, but we don’t have where to send them after that.”

Jewish Roots

Millions of Afghans have made their way to these borders in the last few weeks.

One group at particular risk is a clan of some 2,000 members who live in Mazar-i-Sharif, on the country’s western border, and have many Jewish practices. They claim a tradition that they are descended from the Ten Tribes exiled during the time of the first Beis Hamikdash. Regardless of the veracity of their contention, the Taliban believe they are Jewish, and that places them in jeopardy.

“They are begging that we take them out,” Margareten says. “Whatever you think about them, in the eyes of the Taliban they are Jews.”

Rabbi Chitrik says he is in touch with members of this group. “I’m not sure if they are halachically Jewish, or if they just have Jewish ancestry. They are probably in more serious danger because converting from Islam to Judaism is a capital offense there.”

Others in peril are a group of Muslims in Herat who have dedicated themselves to caring for the local Jewish cemetery, and a Muslim family who were in the news several years ago for donating a relative’s organ to an Israeli baby.

“They have been able to get 130,000 people out of Kabul,” Rabbi Chitrik says, “but out of Herat and other cities such as Mazar-i-Sharif, where those people who may be Jewish live, they haven’t been able to get anyone out.”

The crisis has brought many politicians into action, but none more so, says Margareten, than New York senator Chuck Schumer. “You always have to know who to call on in a crisis. Generally, Republicans will help more with religious freedom issues, and Democrats will step forward on issues like criminal justice. But on this issue, the Senate majority leader opens the most doors, including to the White House.”

For Margareten, who was closely associated with Trump and the office of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — even coordinating a rare letter signed by leading rabbanim thanking Trump for elevating religious practice during the Covid pandemic, and lighting Chanukah candles at the Trump White House — the effort has broken down some barriers.

The round-the-clock effort to save Afghanistan’s last Jew and many others has brought Margareten into close contact with the Biden White House, Margareten says. He is working with a National Security Council official he will only identify as “Tom.”

But the Biden administration has instructed all assistance be extended to Simantov, as well as to others working to free Afghans. The ongoing crisis is their mess, and they appreciate anyone working to save civilians there.

Safe Houses

When Moshe Margareten turned his phone on after Rosh Hashanah, he was greeted with the news that the last vestige of Afghanistan’s ancient Jewish community had departed. Clips of Zebulon Simantov — still clad in his traditional robes and surrounded by smiling Afghan children as they sat on a bus — circulated online, a reminder that while the headlines have moved on, the underground railroad steams ahead.

“We first moved Simantov out of his house on Thursday — four days before Rosh Hashanah — because it was getting dangerous for him,” says Margareten. “Going into Rosh Hashanah on Monday night, I had no idea whether the group he was traveling with was going to make it out. Moti Kahana thought they would make it, but we lost contact with them. They’d gone into hiding in a safe house along the way.”

So long as the operations are ongoing, Margareten won’t divulge which way they went, but he says it’s getting more difficult to pull off any moves as the Taliban’s grip on the country tightens.

“They’re getting more sophisticated. There’s a massive difference between this week and last week in crossing the border. It took far longer to get to the border than it should have done.”

The fast-moving events were also catching up with the Northern Alliance, whose fighters are part of the resistance networks spiriting Afghans out of the country. As Margareten was in shul for Rosh Hashanah, Taliban fighters were claiming victory over the Lion Cub of Panjshir, after assaulting the valley redoubt. Resistance fighters disputed that claim, but said that not only have the Taliban been effective in capitalizing on the massive amounts of abandoned American hardware, they were being aided by drone strikes from neighboring Pakistan — a claim that the Pakistanis themselves denied.

Evasive as to the identity of the ex-special forces in his employ, Margareten says that they won’t be directly affected by the Taliban’s total dominance.

“Whether or not the valley falls, the fighters are in Kabul, so we can continue operating in the meantime.”

Carefully vetted targets include more former judges and sports players.

“It’s not beyond the Taliban or other militant groups to send terrorists to Western countries disguised as refugees,” he explains, “so we only take people who are beyond doubt anti-Taliban. Everyone who wants to get out of there claims that they were interpreters. So in the next round, we’re only taking cases like this family whose father worked for the Americans, and the wife’s father was killed by the Taliban two weeks ago. They keep changing safe houses, and she’s eight months pregnant. We hope to get them out soon.”

What They’ll Remember

Weeks after the heartrending scenes of Afghans falling from the wheel wells of American C-17s over Kabul airport, the Western media have moved on in what some say is an effort to limit the damage to the Biden administration.

But for the thousands of current and former military and intelligence personnel, plus Afghans, Western journalists, and politicians who are laying the tracks of the underground railroad, the fight is just beginning.

That global web has drawn in Margareten and other Jewish activists. A recent letter from a British Royal Air Force officer asking for help in extracting an Afghan interpreter is typical of what’s landing on Margareten’s desk.

“Dear Rabbi Moshe Margareten of the Tzedek Association,” reads the letter from the RAF flight lieutenant. “The above and his family are in immediate and grave danger from the Taliban, and anything you are able to do in assisting them to reach a third country would be greatly appreciated.”

And that’s why, even as the danger hovering over Afghanistan’s last Jew is over (and according to Motti Kahana, he’s agreed to give a get), Margareten has pushed into an area he wouldn’t have dreamed of just a few weeks ago. While he’s received pushback from some who feel that community funds are better spent closer to home, the substantial donations to keep the fight going speak for themselves.

“I have no day and no night,” Margareten says. “People are begging me, ‘Either you save me or I will die.’ It’s killing me. We see already how it is getting harder and harder to get people out. But these people will remember their entire lives that the guys who saved them were Orthodox Jews.”

 

—with additional reporting by Eliezer Shulman

 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 878)

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