Samaritans hold fast amid chaos

May 01, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

MOUNT GERIZIM, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- The chants abruptly ended and flashing knives slit the throats of 40 sheep. Then, the gathered Samaritans reached into the blood to smear their faces, a red badge to prove they still survive after 3,000 years.

The sacrifice last Sunday on this Nablus mountain, where Samaritans believe Adam met Eve and Abraham readied to kill Isaac, marked the start of Passover for the ancient sect.

The violent nature of the old ceremony contrasts with the quiet adaptability of modern Samaritans that has helped them survive in a land torn by hatreds. Here they are neither Jews nor Arabs, but viewed with occasional suspicion by both.

"We have a policy not to be involved in any political event," said Benyamim Tsedaka, editor of a weekly newspaper for Samaritans.

Only 580 Samaritans remain. About half live among the Arabs near Nablus in the West Bank. The others live among Jews near Tel Aviv.

They continue to straddle both communities, despite the Palestinian uprising, despite the curfews, despite the peace agreement that could further separate their communities.

"They are quite elastic. What gives them some security is their ability to be at peace with their surroundings," said Abraham Tal, a professor at Hebrew University.

The Samaritans near Tel Aviv have adapted there. They are Israeli citizens, serve in the Israeli Army, and speak Hebrew. This despite the 2,500-year-old rivalry between Jews and Samaritans over who are the "true Israelites."

The Samaritans near Nablus have adapted there. They speak Arabic, work in the local businesses, and many support the Palestinian cause. This despite their traditions: they attend synagogues, keep a strict Saturday sabbath, and speak ancient Hebrew at their services.

This split personality is present even in their names. The chief priest is Yusef Abu Al-Hasan Cohen.

They now live in modern homes with cars and video recorders, and dress in western and Arab styles. But the insularity of their religion persists. Because of years of inter-marriage within dwindling families, there is an unusually high incidence of deafness and birth defects.

"The doctors said because we are married to each other, we have many children with something wrong," said High Priest Cohen. "The doctors are right."

Najla Cohen, a pretty 21-year-old, jokes about the lack of eligible suitors, and about the confines of her religion. But the joke has a cutting edge. "I would like to go away," she confides. "I'd like to be free." She does not think that will happen.

The Samaritans trace their line age to Moses. They note proudly they always stayed in the land of Israel, while Jews were absent -- by force or choice -- for periods of history.

"I think they have a true claim to be descendants of the ancient Hebrews," acknowledged Professor Shemarayu Talmon, a Jewish biblical scholar at Hebrew University. "It's at least as justified as our claim."

Ancient Jews rejected the Samaritans, refusing to let them participate in the rebuilding of the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem in 517 B.C. The rivalries between the two tribes led to battles, and in the time of Jesus, Jews still shunned Samaritans.

The split between the groups also was ideological. The Samaritans believe only in the first five books of the Old Testament. They believe ardently that Mount Gerizim is the most holy place, while Jews insist it is Jerusalem. Samaritans continue to practice animal sacrifices, which Jews abandoned more than 2,000 years ago.

Demography has made their competition moot. Both sects suffered as the rulers of the region changed more than a dozen times in three millenniums. The Jews were dispersed, but thrived and grew. The Samaritans did not.

"It was the same story: oppression, persecution, conversion by force," said Mr. Tsedaka.

"Samaritans were persecuted by everybody. Christians did not consider them a 'People of the Book,' Jews considered them enemies, Muslims put the death to them," said Professor Talmon.

From a high of more than a million in the sixth century, there were only 146 Samaritans left in 1917, according to a census then. The ancient faith seemed in danger of dying. There were few eligible women left in the faith to marry.

But they did not disappear. The British rule that started after World War I was benign to the Samaritans. Samaritans began leaving their traditional place in Nablus, and found good jobs and an improved standard of living in what became modern Israel. And, breaking a long practice, several Samaritan men took Jewish brides.

But while the physical division of their community helped them thrive, it also created difficulties. The Samaritans who moved to Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, have prospered and enjoyed the freedoms there. Those who stayed near Nablus have felt the weight of Israel's military rule and the Palestinian uprising.

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