As dusk fell on Mount Gerizim, the biblical “mountain of the blessing” overlooking the West Bank town of Nablus, men wearing white from head to toe were rounding up sheep in an enclosed courtyard, preparing them for the mass slaughter that would unfold minutes later.
April 23 marked Passover eve for the Samaritans, a minuscule community of 760 people divided almost evenly between the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon and the small village of Kiryat Luza in the heart of Palestinian Authority-controlled territory in Samaria.
Torn between two embattled national entities, the Samaritans have managed — against all odds — to weather centuries of persecution, from the Jewish Hasmoneans in the second century BCE to the Muslim Ottomans in the 17th century CE. But the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is presenting challenges of a new kind.
When the first Intifada broke out in December 1987, Badawiya Samiri, a journalist with the official Palestinian WAFA news agency, was 7. The daughter of Samaritan priest Yeffet Cohen, she was living in Nablus with her four siblings.
“One night, we heard the sound of gunfire and people shouting and we were scared. We started shaking,” Samiri told The Times of Israel. “That very night, before the sun came up, Dad told us, ‘Wake up, we’re moving to the mountain. We have a home on the mountain, so why stay here and be afraid? I want to move up to the mountain, where there are no problems and no fear.’ And so we came and settled here.”
‘We are fine with the Arabs and fine with the Jews. We are a peaceful people who don’t want trouble.’
From that day on, Samaritan families began leaving Nablus, a rough and conservative city, and moving to the new neighborhood atop Mount Gerizim, the community’s holy place of worship. Until the late 90s, some families continued to spend half the year in the city below, where their jobs and schools were and where winters weren’t as harsh.
Few events attract such a colorful array of visitors as this ancient annual Passover ceremony — where the sheep are slaughtered by each family in a sacrificial ritual, roasted through the night, and eaten — and where earlocked ultra-Orthodox men garbed in black and white mix with veiled young Palestinian women and tourists from Europe and the Far East; and where Israeli soldiers stand guard next to Palestinian firefighters.
The Samaritans trace their lineage back to the biblical tribes of Menashe and Ephraim, the sons of Joseph. They defied imperial conquests and clung to the land while much of the population of the Northern Kingdom of Israel was exiled to Assyria — presently northern Iraq — by King Sargon II in 722 BCE.
But Jews have a significantly different version of events. According to the biblical narrative in the Second Book of Kings, the Assyrian king repopulated desolate Samaria with various indigenous peoples including the Cutheans, who, the Jews believed, the Samaritans descended from. When exiled Jews began returning to Jerusalem from Babylon in the 6th century BCE and building the Second Temple, they refused to recognize the Samaritans as coreligionists.
To this day, Badawiya Samiri explained, it is the stringent religious upbringing that keeps Samaritans from leaving the fold. A Samaritan child has a bar mitzvah at the tender age of 6 after having recited the entire Torah cycle. So when, at 13, the child begins high school in Nablus, “it is unlikely that other ideas will affect him.”
Relations with Palestinian Muslims are generally good, Samiri argued. During her student years at An-Najjah University, when she was forced to miss classes on Saturday because of the Sabbath, a classmate would take notes on copy paper and share them with her later.
There were exceptions. A few zealous Muslim students once tried to incite her friends to stay away from her, claiming she was Jewish. But Samiri’s friends stood up for her, saying they refused to alienate her for her different religious beliefs.
“That was one incident. Many people understand, but some don’t,” Samiri said.
On the official level, the PA has embraced the Samaritans. Yasser Arafat used to give scholarships to Samaritan students to study abroad; and the legislative council, the Palestinian parliament, had a seat reserved for Samaritan priest Saloum Al-Kahin, who passed away a decade ago.
“Relations with the Samaritans are great,” said Muhammad Ghanem, a laborer from Nablus who came to partake in the Samaritan festivities for the fifth time.
“They don’t even consider themselves a separate group, because they are Nablusis through and through,” he added. According to what Ghanem was taught, Samaritans left Nablus in 1920 following an earthquake, though he had a number of Samaritan classmates.
“One member of the Samaritan sect even became a Palestinian fighter during the Second Intifada,” Ghanem boasted, to prove just how Palestinian Samaritans are. “His name is Ibrahim. He’s now serving one or two life sentences.”
When Ibrahim’s name is mentioned in the presence of Samaritans, an awkward silence prevails. “What can we do?” asked one young man from Holon, recently discharged from his mandatory service in the Israeli Air Force. “He was pulled in.”
“One night we heard the sound of gunfire and people shouting and we were scared. We started shaking.”
The community’s division between Israel and the West Bank has come with an emotional toll as well. Basma Cohen, daughter of current high priest Ovadia Cohen (Abu-Wassef), left Nablus 25 years ago to marry her relative in Israel. She said that, at first, the language barrier was almost too much to bear.
“When I moved to Holon, I didn’t speak a word of Hebrew. I sat with the girls and said ‘That’s it, I want to go back to my city.’ I was afraid I would never understand,” Basma said with a slightly Hebrew-accented Arabic.
“I miss this place. As comfortable and fun as it is over there, one always misses his past, his friends and family.”
Basma, who works at a Tel Aviv law firm, said she was sick of explaining to Jewish clients why her name is Basma Cohen, so she started calling herself Bosmat, like her Israeli granddaughter.
Most Palestinian Samaritans bear Jewish first names as well as Arab ones, and all Samaritans living on Mount Gerizim carry Israeli and Palestinian ID cards, as well as Jordanian travel documents. That well-known fact places them in a potentially precarious position within Palestinian society. On March 19, when the elderly Samaritan high priest Aharon Ben Av Hisda suffered a fatal cardiac arrest, it was military and Israeli ambulances from the nearby settlement of Har Bracha that rushed to resuscitate him.
“You know what they say: Samaritans have three faces,” Ghanem of Nablus confided to me. “They’ll tell you what you want to hear.”
A Samaritan would phrase that differently.
“We are fine with the Arabs and fine with the Jews. We are peaceful people who don’t want trouble,” said Nava Cohen, Badawiya Samiri’s mother, who runs the local Samaritan heritage museum with her husband, the priest Yeffet Cohen.
She pointed to a glass cabinet where trophies in Hebrew and Arabic stood on display. The most recent award came from the PA, honoring a new book published by her husband on the travels of the Children of Israel through the Sinai desert, complete with colorful maps adorned with arrows.
Next to it stood a gift from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose entire staff visited the community last month.
“He’s a good man, Netanyahu,” Cohen said with a smile.