Samaritans Can’t Get Back Page From Torah Book Because They Live in Palestinian Territory

A legal battle has centered around two medieval gems that were stolen from a Nablus synagogue in 1995 and were later found by Israel's customs authorities

Part of a medieval Torah scroll suspected of being stolen from a Samaritan synagogue in Nablus in 1995.
Coordinator of Government Activities in the Terriories

For five years, Israeli authorities have been holding on to a page from a 14th-century Torah book that was stolen from the Samaritan synagogue in Nablus, but the small community can’t get it back because its members live in territory partly controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

The leaf was found by customs officials at the Allenby Bridge in the belongings of an Israeli who had planned to bring it into the country from Jordan. It has not been returned to the individual despite a court order to do so, while the Israeli authorities also refuse to return it to the Samaritans since they reside in an area of the West Bank under the civil control of the PA. Daniel Estrin first reported on the issue for National Public Radio.

The affair began in March 1995 when thieves broke into the Samaritan synagogue in Nablus and stole two valuable Torahs. One was a sheepskin scroll parchment dated to around 1360, while the other was a codex – a book – from the 15th century. They were both written in the ancient Samaritan script; the Samaritans trace their roots to the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe and practice a Torah-based religion similar to Judaism.

The Israeli authorities and the PA launched an investigation immediately after the break-in. A few months later, then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat told the Samaritans that the Torahs had been found in Jordan and ransom negotiations with the thieves had begun. The negotiated payment went from $7 million down to $2 million.

Representatives of the Samaritan community traveled to Amman and at least one of them, according to the investigation, met with a masked man who showed him the Torahs. But the community was apparently unable to raise the money and the treasures disappeared again.

Only in 2011, 16 years after the robbery, did the ancient documents show up again. This time it was in two silent videos showing a book, its pages turned by an anonymous hand. The videos reached an Israeli antiquities dealer who showed them to Binyamim Tsedaka, a leader of the Samaritan community in Israel and an expert in Samaritan manuscripts.

Tsedaka recognized the stolen Torah and the chase was on once again. The antiquities dealer met in Amman with a Palestinian who had once served in the Palestinian police, and who showed him one of the Torahs.The other one apparently ended up in London and was offered for sale there. Rumor has it that it was bought by a member of the Qatari royal family.

Samaritans celebrating Passover at Mount Gerizim near Nablus in the West Bank.
Majdi Mohammed / AFP

During negotiations, an Israeli representative of the Green family – evangelical Christians who own one of the world's most important antiquities collections – offered to buy the manuscript in Amman for the Samaritan community in exchange for the right to exhibit it at the family’s Bible Museum in Washington. After discussing the offer, the community’s leaders turned it down.

In 2013, during a routine check at the Allenby Bridge over the Jordan River, customs officers found two archaeological items in the belongings of Iyad Sardih of Sakhnin in the Galilee, who was returning from a family visit to Jordan. One of the items was a leaf from Deuteronomy, which had apparently been torn from the Samaritan Torah book. According to Sardih, he had bought the page in the antiquities market in Jordan without knowing its provenance or value.

The page was handed to the Civil Administration’s Archaeology Unit for examination by the Israel Antiquities Authority. The IAA sent a sample of the page to the Weizmann Institute of Science for carbon-14 testing, which authenticated it. Estrin, who investigated the affair with the help of experts, is sure that it was torn from the 1360 Torah. But the state did not claim that the page was stolen and did not press charges against Sardih.

Meanwhile, Sardih, through attorney Alaa Zahalka, submitted a request to the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court to have the page returned to him. The court instructed the IAA to return the page, but the IAA did not do so. Sardih charged the IAA with contempt of court, and won.

But instead of returning the page, the IAA and the Civil Administration’s Archaeological Unit appealed to the district court. The unit’s representatives argued that it had taken back the page from the IAA and therefore the IAA was not the place from which to demand the page back.

The district court accepted that argument and rescinded the order to return the page to Sardih, who the court said would have to sue the Archaeology Unit. Zahalka recently submitted a request for the right to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In none of the hearings was it suggested that the document be given back to the Samaritan community, because Israel does not return archaeological items to an area controlled by the PA – the Samaritan community is located in Area B, under Palestinian civil control and Israeli security control.

The Samaritan community, which resides in Israel and Jordan, numbers only about 800, and celebrated Passover on Sunday. Between the lines of Estrin’s report are complaints that the thieves were in cahoots with someone in the community. That’s one reason many members of the community prefer to forget about the affair even at the cost of losing the Torahs.

Community leader Tsedaka also says that members of his small community are loath to upset their ties with the Palestinians. Estrin meanwhile says that when he asks about who is to blame for the affair, he gets the feeling no one wants to open it up because it’s so painful.