Samaritan passover
The Samaritan sacrificial rite on Mount Gerizim. Photo by Alex Levac
Text size

In this animal-conscious era where people are willing to eat steak so long as they don't have to hear about the cow, it seems unlikely that thousands of Israelis would be willing to wait hours to see slaughtered lambs, hanging and smelling of burned oil. But this Passover ritual, practiced by Samaritans, has become a magnet. This is no mere killing of animals, but an anthropological phenomenon - a holy ritual that takes place not too far from home, a throwback to ancient days. Thousands of Israelis, and foreign tourists, are apparently prepared to push through crowds each year to photograph a white-clothed man slitting the throat of a lamb.

Like the Jewish Passover, the Samaritan holiday during which the sacrificial rite takes place marks the Israelite exodus from Egypt as recounted in the Old Testament. The Samaritans practice a religion closely linked to Judaism and venerate a version of the Old Testament, but are not Jews.

In recent years, the relative security lull encouraged Israelis, especially photography buffs, to venture into the West Bank and turn the Samaritans' ritual on Mount Gerizim into an obligatory outing. Last year, a record 10,000-plus people were in attendance, and dozens of buses were forced to let their passengers off a few kilometers from the sacred site.

This year, according to the Samaritan calendar, the ritual fell the day before Passover, so fewer locals came; they were too busy doing their last-minute shopping. Those who were able to make the trip arrived early for the prayer session, which began at 6:30 P.M., to ensure a good view.

Chou from Japan arrived at 3 P.M. He was in Israel for two weeks, and found out about the ceremony online. To reach Mount Gerizim, he took a bus to Nablus, and then a Palestinian taxi to the site. He had both a video camera and a regular digital camera in hand. He was disappointed when Israelis started pushing in front of him, ruining his line of vision.

The real problem was the area around the altar on which the sacrifice was to be made, which was surrounded by a fence and designated for prominent Samaritan community members, who surrounded it to fend off visitors. One young woman from Jerusalem spied an elderly Samaritan woman who was having difficulty walking, took her hand, and accompanied her to the site; for her pains, she remained inside the altar area until the end of the evening, taking photos of the slaughtered lambs with her cell phone. Other Israelis passed themselves off as journalists, invited guests, army officers - anything to get closer.

Asher, a red-haired Samaritan from Holon, despaired. "Who needs this headache, go home," he growled, frustrated by the dozens of people blocking his path. "But we are your guests," somebody insisted. "You're not my guests, go home," he responded.

Another Samaritan proposed charging visitors an entry fee next year. One elder confessed that his community had lost control of the annual ritual. The mountaintop site is not suited to thousands of visitors, he said, and there is not enough space for photographers. Meanwhile, some young people climbed atop a Palestinian fire truck nearby; others watched from the rooftop of a building, which did not appear to be strong enough to bear them; the barbed-wire surrounding the building did not deter anyone. Other visitors knocked on doors of private houses and asked to watch the ceremony inside.

Almost everyone had sophisticated camera equipment. One photographer who tried to barge her way into the closed-off altar area complained that she just had to take pictures. Said one Samaritan guard nearby: "It's all on YouTube."

The late writer Susan Sontag once suggested that amateur photographers want to memorialize beauty, whereas professional photographers seek to reveal something that is not seen. In any event, nowadays there is a new genre: "I was there" photography. There I am, with the Samaritans behind me. There I am, next to the slaughtered lamb; there I am, next to the fleeced animal hung up by its ankles.

Like anything else in Judea and Samaria, this ceremony also had a political dimension. The Samaritan community's stronghold, Mount Gerizim, has one foot next to Palestinian Nablus and the other close to Jewish settlements. Both sides court the Samaritan community.

The ceremony made for strange bedfellows. In the space for honored guests was Israel Defense Forces Maj. Gen. Ami Shafran, head of the Teleprocessing Branch, sitting next to Nablus Governor Jibril al-Bakri, who was next to Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria regional council's strategic unit. Also present were Yesha Council chairman Dani Dayan, Samaria district police commander Kobi Shabtai, and Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon.

Earlier that morning, news broke that the perpetrators of the murders of the Fogel family in Itamar had been captured. Hostility between police and Jewish settlers gave way to embraces. Dagan and Bakri denounced the slaughter at the Jewish settlement.