Conflict & Justice

Samaritan community in the West Bank


(Photo: Daniel Estrin)

By Daniel Estrin

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According to the parable that Jesus tells in the New Testament, the Good Samaritan was the one who lent a hand to a Jewish traveler found beaten on the side of the road.

Two thousand years later, the Samaritans are still around. They're one of the oldest and tiniest religious minorities in the Holy Land, and their community is split between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

One a recent evening, the sun was setting over the hills of Samaria, deep in the heart of the West Bank. On the top of one hill, young boys and their fathers dragged fifty very nervous sheep to the center of the village.

"For us this is a great event, a happy event," said Samaritan elder Benjamin Tzedaka. "But from the other side it is very, very sad festival for the sheep."

Tzedaka is a man with a white mustache, a sense of humor, and a deep devotion to his tradition.
"We are just fulfilling the commandment of the Almighty, like it is written in the story of Exodus. Chapter 12, 13, 14 and 15," he said.

A rough version of that account goes like this: And the Lord said unto Moses and Aaron in Egypt, tell the Israelites that each family is to take a lamb, and on the 14th of the month Nissan, they must slaughter the lambs at dusk. And they shall eat the flesh that night, in haste — it is the Lord's Passover.

This community says it's been reenacting the Biblical exodus every single year since the Israelites left Egypt and entered the Promised Land — exactly 3647 years ago, according to the Samaritan calendar.

As dusk falls, men cut the lambs throats and smeared a bit of blood onto everyone's foreheads. Everyone clapped. The inner parts of the animal were burned, the lambs roasted and a few hours later the community feasted – just like the Bible commands.

"It is not Charlton Heston, the Cecil B. DeMille Ten Commandments movie," said Tzedaka. "It is the real thing."
What exactly is the real thing — and who are the real heirs to the Biblical tradition — has been the subject of debate for centuries. Both Jews and Samaritans claim they descend from the Biblical tribes of Israel. But there's one major difference. The ancient Jews offered their Passover sacrifice in Jerusalem. Samaritans say God's chosen holy site isn't Jerusalem – it's Mount Gerizim in Biblical Samaria, what is today the northern West Bank. Unlike Jews, they still reenact the Passover sacrifice.

During the time of Jesus, these theological differences made Samaritans and Jews bitter enemies. And in the late 80s, during the first Palestinian intifada, the Samaritan community in the Palestinian city of Nablus feared persecution and fled their homes. But today, said elder Benjamin Tzedaka, both Israelis and Palestinians want to be the Samaritans' best friends.

"Actually the Samaritans became the only entity in the Middle East respected by Arabs and Jews in the same respect," said Tzedaka. "They are making a competition, who will come to visit the Samaritans."

Who came to visit this year for the Passover sacrifice? People who usually don't mix. The Palestinian mayor of Nablus sat near a prominent head of the Jewish settlers' movement. Israeli medics and Palestinian firefighters stood by the fire pits in case of injury. Palestinian police and Israeli army commanders shook hands. Jewish settlers and Palestinians and tourists from around the world were all there for a glimpse of this small community.

"I think it's fantastic that there is such a multicultural diversity here in Israel," said Ilan Ben Zion, an American immigrant serving in the Israeli army who was moved by the motley crew of visitors. "Despite all the conflict particularly in this area, things like this can still happen. In this sacred space people can mingle peacefully."

Nearby stood Palestinian filmmaker Diana Alzier.

" I have to say, this is the only place where I am in the same neighborhood with settlers, Israelis, Palestinians, Palestinian security forces, and Israeli security forces," said Alzier, "And nobody is trying to show their authority, or power over you….it's confusing."

The Samaritan community itself is also confusing. There are only about 750 of them. About half live in an Israeli town near Tel Aviv, speak Hebrew and serve in the Israeli army. The other half are Arabic speakers who live here in the West Bank. They send their kids to Palestinian schools, and some even work in the Palestinian Authority government. Still, the Israeli and Palestinian Samaritans gather together on festivals like this, as one community.

Politicians on both sides seek to curry favor with the Samaritans as a way to stake their own claims to the Holy Land. Israelis see them as living historical proof of Jews' ancient roots, while Palestinians emphasize their centuries-old relations with the community as proof of their historical connection to this land.

The Samaritans, for their part, say they don't pick sides. Tzedaka said they often host Palestinian and Israeli community leaders together on their holy mountain.

"They feel free to come here and speak about peace and also (open) themselves to the Samaritan issue, which is most important to us," said Tzedaka. "We see any activity as ensuring the existence of the community, a long time ahead."

There were a million and a half Samaritans in the fifth century. A hundred years ago, there were only 146. The community wanted to prevent inbreeding and to boost their numbers, so the high priest started allowing men to marry non Samaritan women. Tzedaka's grandfather was the first Samaritan to marry outside of the community.

Last year on Passover, for the first time, the high priest took another bold step: He welcomed a single mom and her four kids in to the fold as individuals, without marrying in. Sharon Sullivan grew up as a non-practicing Catholic in Michigan. Some in the community are still getting used to her family, she said.

"There's a little bit of surprise on their part: What are these Americans going to be able to do here?" Sullivan said. "I see sometimes they laugh when they hear my kids reading in ancient Hebrew."

This tiny community may be holding onto its most ancient customs, but it's also adopting new ones too — like welcoming outsiders like Sullivan. Samaritan Elder Benjamin Tzedaka said with a smile that he hopes, little by little, the Holy Land's oldest and smallest religious community will someday number a million again.