Caught in the middle: Ancient sect struggles for survival on both sides of Israeli-Palestinian divide

by Stephanie Rice, April 2009

KIRYAT LUZA ON MOUNT GERIZIM, West Bank – On a chilly night in mid-April, hundreds of men dressed in white converged on a row of lambs on a grassy Palestinian mountaintop, their knife blades glinting in the dusk light. As their ancient Hebrew chants grew louder and more urgent, the men wrestled the lambs to the ground, slitting the animals’ throats and spilling blood onto their white cotton clothing. With children staring wide-eyed and spectators snapping photos, the lambs were quickly skinned, skewered and lowered into fire pits.

The faithful are Samaritans, a tiny sect that traces its roots back to the ancient Israelite tribes Moses led out of Egypt. They say the Passover sacrifice has been performed just like this, here on this windblown mountain in the West Bank, since biblical times.

Most probably know them best from the book of Luke parable, where the despised Samaritan is the only one to help a wounded Jewish man lying on the side of the road. While the story is fictional, the Samaritans are very much real. Today their numbers have dwindled to roughly 730 members, according to their count, and many suffer from physical deformities caused by intermarrying – something the sect is trying to address by allowing more men to marry outside the faith.

Both Israeli and Palestinian but neither Jew nor Arab, the Samaritans perform a delicate balancing act of neutrality in a region where almost every aspect of daily life is dictated by politics. “In order to survive, you have to take the policy of not being involved but also to live in peace with everybody,” said Benyamin Tsedaka, an expert on Samaritan history and editor of the sect’s newspaper, as he sat in his living room after the sacrifice. “It’s better not to take any side.”

Maintaining good relations with both Palestinians and Israelis is crucial for the Samaritans, because the community is split between Holon, an Israeli city just south of Tel Aviv, and Kiryat Luza, the village high on Mount Gerizim that overlooks the Palestinian city of Nablus.

In Holon, the youth serve in the Israeli army. At times, citizens from Kiryat Luza have worked in the Palestinian police force. Many from the mountain village descend Gerizim’s rocky slopes every day to work or attend university in Nablus. In both communities, everyone speaks Hebrew and Arabic, and in Kiryat Luza, residents carry identity cards from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The Samaritans follow the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament and Torah, but reject later writings. They say they never left when the Jews were exiled to Babylon and split from Judiasm when conflicts erupted with Jews returning from exile. They believe their religion to be the true, unaltered faith of the ancient Israelites, and they worship just as their ancestors would have thousands of years ago.

Hundreds flock to their annual Passover sacrifice, which occurred on April 9 this year – one day after the Jewish Passover began since the Samaritans use their own calendar.

At the ceremony, representatives from the Palestinian and Israeli governments sat side by side as young Israeli soldiers and students from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv crowded around the sacrifice pit with Palestinian families, aiming cell phones and camcorders at the frenzied ritual.

“The only place Israelis and Palestinians are meeting together is here on the mountain,” Tsedaka said, sitting in his living room after the ceremony. “We are a model of making peace in this area. Tonight you see Israeli and Palestinian officials sitting together, smiling and laughing. One day before, they were shooting each other, but here they are at peace.”

In this region, though, peace is elusive, even for the nonpolitical Samaritans. Up until the first Palestinian uprising, the Kiryat Luza community lived below in Nablus and only ascended Mount Gerizim for religious ceremonies. When the first intifada began in 1987, they began building temporary homes on the mountain and eventually moved there permanently to escape the violence in Nablus, where skirmishes between Palestinian protestors and the Israeli army were making daily life treacherous.

“Every day there were clashes,” Tsedaka said. “The Samaritans were sometimes affected, even wounded.”

One of the battles the Samaritans have been able to avoid is the struggle for Jerusalem. To them, Mount Gerizim is the holiest place, the site of the first Israelite temple and where Abraham almost sacrificed his son – not the Temple Mount in Jerusalem as Jews believe – so they have little stake in the fight over Israel’s most divided city, one of the more contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When Yasser Arafat was in power, he awarded the Samaritans a seat in the Palestinian legislature. That changed when Mahmoud Abbas became president, but Tsedaka said it’s just as well. “Israel didn’t like it, and I didn’t like it,” he said. “It made us look like we were taking sides.”

But the Samaritans have problems that go beyond politics. Their shrinking population and generations of intermarrying within the four core families have resulted in a high rate of physical and mental disabilities. Kiryat Luza’s roads are filled with men and women with misshapen limbs. Many struggle to walk, leaning heavily on metal walkers. Others sit silently with blank stares, unable to hear or speak.

In an attempt to produce healthy children and keep the sect alive, an increasing number of Samaritan men have been marrying outside the faith, mostly Jewish Israelis. Recently, some have even been allowed to bring mail-order brides from the former Soviet Union. There is no conversion process for the women, Tsedaka said, they are only required to adopt Samaritan traditions, like isolating themselves in a separate dwelling during menstruation and after childbirth.

While some worry the Jewish women will not truly adopt the Samaritan faith, Peretz Tsedaka, a 66-year-old aluminum factory worker from Holon, said he supports the marriages. “My younger cousin married a Jew,” he said, standing close to a fire pit where a skewered lamb was slowly roasting. “Changing blood is a good thing, you have to gain some distance. It’s really not good to marry so close.”

As if on cue, Tsedaka’s younger cousin and younger brother walked up, their white clothes still splattered with lamb’s blood. “It’s becoming a common practice, and they fit into the community, no problem,” the brother, Menashe Tsedaka, said of the non-Samaritan brides. “The concern was the wife could influence the man to leave the community, but there are no problems.”

Since there are not enough Samaritan women for all of the men, “in the old days, we would just wait for the husband to drop dead,” he added, laughing.

All three men live and work in Israel and said they feel closely tied to the country in terms of politics and ideology, but at the same time, they support the official Samaritan policy of neutrality as a means of survival.

“The Palestinians are multiplying, and there are less of us,” Peretz Tsedaka said.