Not Muslim, Not Jewish: Ancient Community in the West Bank Feels Increasingly Israeli

For the 800 Samaritans split between Mount Gerizim in the West Bank and a suburb of Tel Aviv, the younger generation is increasingly being drawn to the Israeli way of life, sparking tensions and fears

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Young Samaritan worshippers resting during a Passover ceremony at Mount Gerizim, May 6, 2018.
Young Samaritan worshippers resting during a Passover ceremony at Mount Gerizim, May 6, 2018.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP
Davide Lerner
Esra Whitehouse
Davide Lerner
Esra Whitehouse

As Jacov climbs into his white van, he notices the small blue and white Israel flags fluttering from the windows. “I’ll take these off at Ariel Junction,” he smiles. From there, his journey will take him on a side road, up winding hills deeper and deeper into the West Bank. Back home, his love for Israel cannot be freely displayed.

Jacov, 43, whose surname is withheld over safety concerns, is one of the roughly 800 Samaritans split between two communities in Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he goes by the Arabic name of Yaa’kop. This ancient community – practicing an ancient religion that is a variation of Judaism, but also shares some similarities with Islam – has lived alongside Israelis and Palestinians since the formation of the Jewish state in 1948, a rare haven of neutrality in a sectarian world. Now, though, there are signs of change.

“The new generation of Samaritans feels more and more Israeli,” says Jacov’s brother, Baruch (Mubarak when he’s in the West Bank). “Israel is thriving. Its economy only continues to grow, while the Palestinians seem to want everything to stay the same,” he notes.

FLAGBEARER: Jacov getting ready to leave Holon for the other Samaritan community – in Kiryat Luza, near Nablus, in the West Bank.Credit: Davide Lerner

Original traditions

The Samaritans rarely make the news in Israel – except for once a year when the media and hundreds of tourists ascend to the community’s West Bank village and watch it celebrate its own version of Passover. This involves the slaughter of a small herd of sheep at twilight – an offering to God, giving thanks for the community’s freedom from slavery in Egypt and based on the text in the Book of Exodus.

The ritual takes place atop Mount Gerizim (also known as Jebel et-Tor), which is sandwiched – somewhat symbolically – between the Israeli settlement of Har Bracha and the Palestinian city of Nablus. It is on this mount the Samaritans believe God ordered their temple to be built. They believe the mountain houses the rock where Abraham was prepared to follow God’s command and sacrifice his son Isaac, the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments, where God is said to have made Adam out of dust, and where Noah’s ark came to rest.

The Samaritans (“Shomronim” in Hebrew) consider themselves the descendants of the Israelites, from the ancient Kingdom of Israel in biblical times. They believe their ancestors escaped exile under the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C.E. and that they alone kept alive the traditions of the Jewish people. They claim the Kingdom of Judah, which went on to become what we know today as the Jewish people while exiled in Babylon, moved away from those original traditions.

According to the British former diplomat and historian Gerard Russell in his book “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms,” the Samaritans “saw themselves as keeping to the letter the ancient traditions that their southern neighbors the Jews had abandoned,” and had a history of persistent conflict with them. To name but one such incident of this long-enduring “family feud,” in the year 9 C.E., the Samaritans are said to have vandalized the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, littering it with human bones.

A young Samaritan worshipper walking up Mount Gerizim to participate in an early morning Passover ceremony, May 6, 2018.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP

Still, Abdullah Aboud Cohen, the 23-year-old grandson of the community’s current high priest Aabed-El ben Asher ben Matzliach, isn’t about to pull rank. “To call us the real Jews is misleading as we are all the descendants from the same people,” he says diplomatically, as the community’s de facto spokesperson. Indeed, all of his pronouncements on Samaritan history are given with a hint of caution, no doubt aware of religious sensitivities in this most incendiary of lands.

During Byzantine rule some 1,500 years ago, the community dwindled and suffered from endless persecution, eventually benefiting from the conquest by Arab Muslims in 637. Over time, the community suffered from plague, persistent poverty, and socioeconomic pressure, with many moving across the Middle East to Damascus, Cairo or Northern Iraq.

By the 20th century, most of the Samaritan diaspora had slowly disappeared, many having converted to Islam. (The Samaritan synagogue in Cairo was handed over to the Jewish community in 1706.) In the 1840s, faced with the threat of a pogrom in Nablus that would wipe out what was left of the community in the Holy Land, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Chaim Abraham Gagin, stepped in to save the Samaritans. He declared them “a branch of the House of Israel,” and they were spared at the cost of paying a hefty fine to the city’s Muslim authorities. But by the time of the British Mandate era, the community was close to extinction.

In his 1989 book “History of the Samaritans,” historian Nathan Schur wrote that the Samaritans are “probably the smallest group of people over many centuries to have retained a nationality consistently their own.” Their existence “can be likened to a tiny boat tossed about by huge waves in a hostile ocean,” he noted. Much like their forefathers, young Samaritans are trying to navigate it while getting on with their lives.

Members of the ancient Samaritan community attending the Passover pilgrimage to the top of Mount Gerizim, overlooking the West Bank town of Nablus, May 6, 2018.Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP

The art of diplomacy

If their Passover celebrations earlier this month demonstrate anything, it is that the Samaritans have mastered the art of diplomacy. The guest list for this year’s event included Davidi Ben Zion, the acting head of Samaria Regional Council, as well as Nablus Mayor Adly Yaish, who was elected as a Hamas candidate but is believed to come from a Samaritan family that converted to Islam. Palestinian Authority representatives were also invited, alongside Yesha Council of settlements representative Yigal Dilmoni and Israel Defense Forces Samaria Brigade chief Col. Gilad Amit. “The only people we get any hate from are the vegan activists,” chuckles Cohen, referring to the bloody scenes as the community’s butchers slit the sheep’s throats during the Passover ritual.

Nowadays, the community is divided evenly between the Palestinian village of Kiryat Luza and the Neveh Pinhas neighborhood in Holon, a city just south of Tel Aviv where the Samaritans settled with the help of Israel’s then-President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi in 1954. It was to Holon that around 100 Samaritans, mostly the younger generation, descended from their West Bank village last month to join that community’s Israeli Independence Day celebrations.

Cohen says the Samaritans in Kiryat Luza have a “ticket to the whole Holy Land,” with most possessing Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian passports. Yet these three separate citizenships hint at the identity crisis affecting the community. Some Palestinians call the Samaritans “Israelis and Zionists,” explains Cohen, who describes himself as a “Palestinian Israelite.” Likewise, he notes, some Israelis view them as “Arabs.” Most modern scholars tend to view the Samaritans as a Judaic sect.

The view of Nablus from Mount Gerizim.Credit: Esra Whitehouse

Remaining ‘neutral’

Although Cohen’s mother tongue is Arabic and he studied at An-Najar National University in Nablus, he says that most Samaritans are loath to reveal their true identity to strangers or passing acquaintances. “I didn’t say it directly or bring it up openly in conversation at school or university,” he admits. Cohen’s admission is at odds with the Samaritans’ official narrative that they serve as a bridge between Jews and Arabs in the region.

The Samaritan synagogue on Mount Gerizim, near Nablus.Credit: Davide Lerner

The Samaritans used to hold a single honorary seat in the Palestinian parliament – granted to them by then-PLO President Yasser Arafat – but are currently unrepresented as the seat was not renewed. “There wasn’t any benefit in having it,” explains Cohen, since the Samaritans try to remain “neutral” in Israeli-Palestinian matters.

That’s no easy task. On the one hand they are indebted to the late King Hussein of Jordan, who allowed them to go back and forth from Holon to Nablus before 1967, and granted them freedom to practice on Mount Gerizim. Yet it was Israel that guaranteed their permanent access and presence to the mount when it occupied the West Bank after the Six-Day War in 1967.

Even in everyday life, the Samaritans in Kiryat Luza are often stuck between a rock and a hard place. Cohen explains how they use the health clinic in the Har Bracha settlement and obtain their driving licenses in the large Israeli settlement of Ariel (“You can only use the Palestinian license on the one side of the border, and it’s not an international license,” he says), yet many work in Nablus.

Kiryat Luza before Shabbat.Credit: Esra Whitehouse

Kiryat Luza is also fairly unique for being split between the three administrative areas drawn up when the Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the PA in 1993: Area A (under full Palestinian security and civil control); Area B (Palestinian civil control and joint security control); and Area C (full Israeli security and civil control). “As Samaritans, we wake up in Area B, worship at the Mount in Area C, and go to work in Area A,” says Samaritan scholar Benyamim Tsedaka.

Army dreamers

Several Samaritans explain that most young members of the community, even those living in the West Bank, want to join the Israeli army nowadays – recognizing it as being key to becoming part of Israeli society. Breeto, a young man in his twenties, laments the difficulties of being a young Samaritan as he speeds down from Mount Gerizim, along the winding roads of the West Bank for a night out in the Israeli settlement of Ariel. Breeto says Samaritan parents won’t let their children join the army out of concern that it could have serious consequences for the safety of the entire community. But he still tried to join, he says, eventually being rejected on health grounds. Breeto mumbles that you don’t need to be a warrior to work at a computer in Tel Aviv, hinting that he was “discriminated” against because he’s Samaritan. Baruch, meanwhile, says a cousin of his managed to join the army – “but everyone had to keep it secret.”

For Arafat, a Palestinian Arab whose cousin sold land to the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim and whose family home sits on the border separating Kiryat Luza from Nablus, it’s the fact that the Samaritans “are not in the army” that makes them “occupied just like us.” Asked what he thinks about the Samaritans who live in Holon and serve in the Israeli military, Arafat takes another drag from his narghile pipe and considers the question. “We don’t see them and we don’t care about them,” he responds.

There are other problems facing young Samaritans as well. “We want to go to university in Israel, but our Hebrew isn’t good enough when we are 18 having gone to school in Arabic,” says Breeto. “It just seems that preserving our millennia-old traditions always takes precedence over our lives today,” he adds, shouting over the pop music blaring from his car stereo on the way to Ariel.

The Samaritan synagogue in Holon, south of Tel Aviv.Credit: Davide Lerner

Turning point

Jacov, who works as a builder in Rehovot and commutes from Kiryat Luza every day, claims the younger generation have a stronger yearning for Israel than their elders because of the internet. In the past, he says, it was harder to “compare one side to the other.”

He went to school in Nablus in the 1980s, where he says “everything was better” because the Palestinians “only had Jordanian and Israeli TV.” Today, by comparison, the Palestinians watch satellite TV, where they see “all sorts of Arab channels that incite against Israel.” He yearns for a past where he used to speak to his Arab classmates about Israeli basketball, “and they would know all the players.”

Simha in front of the house her son is building for himself and his new Ukrainian wife on Mount Gerizim.Credit: Davide Lerner

The two intifadas were the main turning point for the Samaritan community. “We were afraid for the safety of our children,” says Simha, 76, gazing down the hill from Kiryat Luza toward Nablus. “We were not afraid of the Palestinians, but of the everyday violence on the streets.”

Every Samaritan parent knows the story of Karim Yitzhak Amram Cohen, a young Samaritan who was convicted on terrorism charges in 2003 for aiding Hamas. For Simha, moving up to Kiryat Luza was a way to distance their children from the violence during the intifadas (the first from 1987-1993; the second from 2000-2005).

The intifadas were the main reason the Samaritans increasingly started selling or renting their properties in downtown Nablus, where they had been for hundreds of years, and started moving to new buildings in the gated community of Kiryat Luza, or further afield to Holon.

Samaritan worshippers praying during a Passover ceremony on Mount Gerizim, near the West Bank city of Nablus, May 6, 2018.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP

The Ukrainian factor

To complicate matters further, an increasing number of Samaritan men have begun marrying Eastern European women (particularly Ukrainians) in the past decade. They are marrying them primarily to stave off the ever-present fear of a demographic crisis in this community where the men strongly outnumber the women, particularly in Kiryat Luza.

Samaritan Jacov and his new wife, Gala.Credit: Davide Lerner

All Samaritans remember the year 1919, when only 141 Samaritans were left in the world (61 women and 80 men), recounts Tsedaka. Indeed, the Samaritan scholar refers to that figure when he speaks of a “Samaritan Holocaust” and calls on the community to remember it on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Jacov is married to Gala, a Ukrainian woman who sits beside him with an unflinching smirk and dark rings under her eyes as they celebrate Independence Day at a family home in Holon, before heading back to Mount Gerizim. “Gala will receive Israeli citizenship in a few months,” Jacov says proudly. And his brother Baruch is soon off to Kherson Oblast, southern Ukraine, to collect his own Ukrainian wife, whom he met on the internet. Once married, the women will convert to the Samaritan religion.

Meeting ground

While some young Samaritans dream of a more prosperous future (which pushes them toward Israel), they still recognize their primary goal as preserving their community and its customs – with the promotion of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence seemingly serving that purpose.

A liquor store on Mount Gerizim.Credit: Davide Lerner

Indeed, Cohen sees Mount Gerizim as a place where both Israelis and Palestinians can meet, often for the first time. The liquor store at the entrance to Kiryat Luza is unlikely but perhaps living proof of this claim. Outside, a 4x4 screeches to a halt and out pile four young men in kippas who grab a few beers – only to be followed seconds later by two young Palestinian men, picking up a couple of bottles of Arak for the weekend.

Since the only liquor store in neighboring Nablus was burned down some years ago, the Samaritans have a monopoly over the alcohol business in the area. At the end of Shabbat, when the Samaritans reopen the gate of the road zigzagging down toward Nablus, a long line of Palestinian cars can be seen waiting to restock supplies. Being the outsider sometimes has its benefits, too.

A young Samaritan worshipper walking up Mount Gerizim, near Nablus, to participate in an early morning Passover ceremony on May 6, 2018.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP

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