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Can the Samaritans Bounce Back?

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 27.10.2011:

TWIP Comment

October 2011

If an alien race descended to earth on an evening in late April and made a stopover at the top of Mount Gerizim, they would surely conclude that human civilisation has not changed much since the biblical era. At this point each year, the entire Samaritan clan, resplendent in flowing white robes, gathers at the summit of their spiritual home to conduct an epic slaughter of livestock. At sundown, a chosen member of each family slays their sacrifice, and the blood from dozens of cut throats flows into a narrow stone trench.

This has become the representative image of the Samaritans. Every Passover for 2,500 years they have performed the ritual without variation. This unique offshoot of conventional Judaism is defined by its adherence to tradition and its spiritual home of Mount Gerizim in Nablus. Samaritan beliefs and customs set them apart from Palestinian neighbours and Jewish brethren.

In recent years that isolation has begun to seem unsustainable. Samaritan numbers have dwindled to just 712 in 2007, split between Mount Gerizim and the town of Holon near Tel Aviv. One of the world’s oldest communities is facing serious threats to its existence.

The population has been shrinking steadily, accelerated at points by bloody suppression and mass conversion to Islam. It has been difficult to regenerate while tradition dictated that no Samaritan could marry an outsider, a law that held until 2007.

Samaritans, particularly the Gerizim community, are physically and spiritually separated from other ethnicities and faiths, living on the margins outside the mainstream. Their spokesman, Shahar Jegoshya, downplayed this in a recent interview, stating, “Many of us are quite well-to-do people. Practically all of us have our own houses and cars. Our guys serve in the army.”

Yet there is an entrenched schism with other strands of Judaism, which dates back to 538 BC and the return from Babylon. Secular Jews typically regard them as eccentric, and they have frosty relations with Sephardi (of Spanish extraction) Jews who believe Samaritans are pagans and heathens.

They are set further apart by alternative holy books, history, and languages. Their interpretation of Moses’ Ten Commandments contradicts the conventional Jewish recording, and the Israeli government finds it problematic to have a Jewish community living in the heart of the West Bank outside of a fortified settlement.

Neither are they integrated within Palestinian society. While their eternal and non-aggressive presence saves them from the hatred that is reserved for the new waves of settlers, Samaritans have always distinguished themselves from Palestinians. They no longer hold a seat on the Palestinian Legislative Council; they carry Israeli passports as well Palestinian.

Typically Samaritans have more sympathy for Israeli political positions, and they serve in the IOF (Israeli Occupation Force). Yet they are not cheerleaders for Israel, and generally refuse to make statements on the key issues for fear of antagonising either side, although leaders have referred to the IOF as an “enemy” in the past.

The delicacy of their unique position – effectively “Palestinian Jews” – is reflected in a policy of keeping their heads down in the interests of self-preservation. Sadly, Samaritans are finding out that there is little room for bystanders in the most contentious and fought-over land in the world.

Like the Bedouin, who have been reduced to helpless onlookers while their quiet, pastoral way of life is literally demolished to serve expansionist goals, the Samaritans must worry about a time when their legitimacy is challenged and they risk becoming collateral damage.

That their numbers are evenly split between Israel and Palestine is a perilous situation, as there is a great risk that any inflammation of the conflict will cut them adrift, as occurred during the first Intifada. The Holon community would be denied access to their most important holy site, and their Gerizim counterparts would struggle to cross into Israel.

There are signs that the Samaritans are beginning to adjust to the present threatening circumstances. A long-standing diktat that members of the community were forbidden from marrying outsiders was annulled in 2007, leading to a peculiar influx of eastern-European brides typically acquired on the Internet. In the short term, this should keep numbers steady.

If community leaders are shrewd enough, the Samaritans could take advantage of their unique position and the intrigue that their lifestyle generates. The Bedouins of Wadi Rum have made a fine living from exhibiting glimpses of their culture to visitors, and already Mount Gerizim is becoming a tourist attraction, with numbers peaking around the day of sacrifice.

At this critical time, the Samaritans must strike a delicate balance between the need to adapt and the preservation of their way of life. They would surely benefit from better links with nearby Nablus, whose people have always respected their presence, to guard against a political sea-change. Better communication would help to bring them in from the margins.

Exposure, which has been so rare, can provide the Samaritans with recognition for their unique history and culture. Certainly, their isolation cannot continue, having brought them already to the brink of extinction.

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