good Samaritans

When people think about the Israel-Palestine situation they talk about Jews, Muslims and very occasionally the Palestinian Christians. Together these three communities account for most – but not all – of the people living in this region.
There is another group – religion or ethnicity if you will – who has lived in the Holy Land since the earliest days of the bible. The tiny Samaritan community has friendly relations with all its neighbours but has suffered quietly over the past 40 years.
Reputed to be the smallest ethnic group in the world – with less than 850 members left – these people live in two distinct communities, one near the West Bank town of Nablus and the other near Tel Aviv, in Israel.
The two groups are fairly separate – the Israeli Samaritans tending to speak modern Hebrew in their day-to-day affairs, while the Nablus Samaritans speak fluent Arabic and pray in ancient Hebrew or Samaritan Aramaic.
After many years living in Nablus, the Palestinian Samaritans were forced to retreat to a gated community on a nearby hilltop to escape the second intifada.
I was lucky enough to visit the Samaritan village on Mt Gerazim – considered by them to be their holiest site – during my month in Israel and Palestine, and to meet with one of its elders, an ebullient middle aged man named Khader Samaritan, who talked me through some of their traditions and the issues they face today.
Centuries ago, the Samaritans inhabited the biblical land of Samaria. They always had good relations with the successive powers that have occupied the West Bank – the Ottomans, the British, the Jordanians and now the Israelis.
Today, this mean Samaritans get more rights than their fellow Palestinians. Those of them who live in the West Bank have three official nationalities – Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian – and carry the passport of Israel. This bestows on them all manner of priviledges that the Muslims and Christians of Nablus can’t get. They can cross the security barrier into Israel, visit friends and relatives that side of the border and fly, if they wish, from Ben Gurion airport.
Their cars carry the white Israeli number plates (Palestinian plates are green), meaning they get waved straight through the dreaded army checkpoints.
Khader explained that Samaritans believe theirs is the true faith of the ancient Israelites. Unlike Jews, they do not recognise the sanctity of Jerusalem and instead revere Mt Gerazim as being the holiest site.
Their faith has five pillars – God is one; belief in Moses and his bible; the ‘old Torah’ or first five chapters only; Mt Gerazim is the most holy site, and judgement day. They keep the Jewish holy days including Passover and Yom Kippur, and have in their possession the world’s oldest Torah – a scroll they claim is more than 3,600 years old. Animal sacrifices remain an import part of their tradition.
“We pray like Muslims, bowing down on the floor, rather than sitting on chairs. We don’t put any paintings, icons, music in the synagogue. On the Sabbath we wear traditional clothes and can’t smoke, cook or do any work. We only go to the synagogue and read the Torah,” said Khader.
“We believe this mountain is holy because it’s the place where Abraham came to slaughter his son Isaac. Joshua built a temple here on Mt Gerazim. This area is mentioned in the Torah as that important site.
“We hope to be at peace with everyone. We would like Mt Gerazim to serve as a bridge for peace between all the people living here.”
The biggest challenge facing the survival of this tiny community however, is genetics. Samaritans have been persecuted and assimilated to the brink of extinction and have been left with serious issues as a result. Traditionally reluctant to accept converts, members have been forced to think again and look outside their community for partners to overcome a skewed population that has left two men to every woman, and high rates of genetic disease.
The tiny gene pool and implications it brings means that all marriages within the Samaritan community must first gain the say-so of a geneticist at Israel’s Tel HaShomer Hospital.

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