The world’s last Samaritans, straddling the Israeli-Palestinian divide
MONT GERIZIM, West Bank – In the occupied and largely segregated West Bank, Jews live in closed Israeli settlements and Palestinians live in Arab towns and villages. And then there are the 440 inhabitants of the hilltop village of Al Tor, who float between the two worlds.
As children, they grow up speaking Arabic. As teenagers, they study in schools run by the Palestinian Authority. As retirees, many regularly smoke shisha in the Palestinian city of Nablus, further down the slopes of Mount Gerizim.
But they also have Israeli citizenship, often work in Israel, pay Israeli health insurance, and visit relatives in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. In Israeli elections, many say they are voting for the pro-settler right-wing Likud party. Yet the Samaritans are still represented on the dormant board of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
So it is in Al Tor, a village of five streets, known as Kiryat Luza in Hebrew, whose beige houses are home to some of the last members of the Samaritan religion, an ancient branch of the Israelite faith. Their unique Samaritan identity – neither Muslim nor Christian, but not entirely Jewish either – allows them to drift, sometimes uncomfortably, between Israeli and Palestinian societies.
“We cannot say that we are Palestinians, and we cannot say that we are Jews,” said Tomer Cohen, 37, lawyer at Al Tor. “We’re Samaritans, that’s the only thing I can say.”
Mr. Cohen drives daily to Ramallah, a large Palestinian city in the West Bank, where he works as a legal advisor for the Palestinian Basketball Association. But when he needs health care, he goes to Israel. When he was younger, he played semi-professional basketball for teams in Ramallah and a neighboring Israeli settlement – a contradiction he ignores.
âIf I’m in Tel Aviv, I feel Tel Avivi,â Mr. Cohen said. “But if I am in Ramallah, I feel Ramallahi.”
While this ability to operate in both worlds is often advantageous, it also has drawbacks, some of them dangerous.
During the second Palestinian uprising in 2001, Mr Cohen’s father, Josef Cohen, now 76, said he survived an ambush by Palestinian militants, before being shot dead within minutes. late by Israeli soldiers as he rushed to a military checkpoint on his way to the hospital.
âI am a victim of terror on both sides,â Elder Cohen said.
Yet the complexity of the Samaritan experience also prompts optimism: At a time when Israelis and Palestinians feel more separated than ever, after war and ethnic unrest this year, Al Tor offers a paradigm that respects religious differences. and ethnic, while providing its access and rights to residents in all parts of the Holy Land.
By some estimates, the Samaritans numbered over a million people in the fifth century. But after centuries of persecution, their number has dropped to around 800, many with Cohen as their last name.
About half live in Holon, on the southern edge of Tel Aviv, and the rest live on Mount Gerizim, where they believe the Prophet Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son Isaac. To strengthen their population, the community arranged several marriages between Samaritan men and women from Eastern Europe.
They see themselves as the descendants of the original Israelites, and they worship in their own versions of a synagogue, keep the Sabbath, and follow the Samaritan version of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. But they see Judaism as a deviation from the original Israelite faith and believe that Mount Gerizim, and not Jerusalem, is the holiest place in the world.
And forget about the parable attributed to Jesus in the Christian Bible, where a âgood Samaritanâ helps a man who has been robbed and beaten along a road.
âIt’s the New Testament,â said Shachar Joshua, 71, a Samaritan and former banker who grew up in the West Bank but then moved to Israel. “We have nothing to do with it,” he added, a little gruff.
Before Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, the Samaritans had no official connection to the Jewish state and did not speak Hebrew.
Josef Cohen remembers being a child, seven decades ago, of the lynching of an Israeli who entered the West Bank. âPeople said he was Jewish, but I didn’t even understand what that meant,â said the elder Mr. Cohen, now a senior Samaritan priest.
âI saw myself,â he added, âas a Palestinian Arab.
The occupation made the life of the Samaritans more complex.
Israel later granted them citizenship, a right denied to other Palestinians in the West Bank. During a Palestinian uprising in the 1980s, some Palestinian activists increasingly associated the Samaritans with the State of Israel. This forced most of the Samaritans to leave their ancestral homes in Nablus for Al Tor, where the IDF could better protect them, or for Israel itself.
âIf it weren’t for Israel,â Elder Cohen said, âwe wouldn’t have a life.
Yet Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader, has always maintained good ties with Samaritan rulers, said Aharon HaCohen, a Samaritan priest who has spent most of his life working for Palestinian civilian institutions.
After the death of Mr. HaCohen’s father, a former Samaritan high priest, Mr. HaCohen said Mr. Arafat called to offer his condolences.
âYour father is deceased but you have a second father,â Mr. HaCohen recalled, saying Mr. Arafat. âI am a father to you. “
The intricacies of Samaritan identity and quarrels over their allegiance were visible during their annual Passover sacrifice in April. Most of the Samaritans from around the world gathered in Al Tor, all dressed in whatever white clothes they could find – a chef’s overalls, a dress shirt, even a lab coat.
As the sun set, this white-robed army gathered dozens of sheep in a small arena, where they prayed en masse before slaughtering and butchering the animals. Then they threw the carcasses into several large homes, their white outfits now speckled with red with sheep’s blood.
The Samaritans still living in Al Tor talked to each other in Arabic, but their younger cousins ââbased in Israel spoke mainly in Hebrew. And their guests were mostly Israelis: several senior army and police officers, two ministers and the head of the local settler council.
Palestinian governor of Nablus, Ibrahim Ramadan, called the high priest to offer his greetings, but chose not to attend in person. The governor was wary of the coronavirus – most Palestinians had not yet been vaccinated – but he was also wary of being seen as normalizing relations with representatives of the Israeli government and the settler establishment.
âThis obviously created an uncomfortable environment for us,â Ramadan said.
Besides dealing with these tensions, the Samaritans have an even more urgent challenge: to avoid extinction.
Some Samaritans are leaving the small community, while generations of marriages within it have resulted in a number of genetic defects. To rejuvenate the population, the Samaritan leadership wanted to bring in new members, without further complicating their relations with the Israelis and the Palestinians.
So two decades ago, they turned to an international twinning service, which put them in touch with women from a poor village in Ukraine. Since then, the community has arranged 17 marriages between Samaritan men and women from Eastern Europe.
Shura Cohen was the first bride to arrive, getting married in the community in 2003, at age 19.
Born into a secular Christian family, Ms. Cohen arrived at the height of the Second Intifada, speaking neither Arabic nor Hebrew, and knowing nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was an unlikely arrangement, Ms. Cohen admitted. But it was also perfectly consensual, she said, dismissing suggestions that she and other newcomers weren’t there by choice.
âLook,â Ms. Cohen said. âWe have been here for so many years and no one has left.
Ms. Cohen changed her name from Aleksandra Krasuk and quickly became trilingual, adding another layer to the palimpsest of Samaritan identity. She speaks Russian with her fellow immigrants, Arabic with her in-laws and Hebrew with the Israelis. She takes her children to Palestinian primary school every day and visits her parents in Ukraine every year.
“I am a Samaritan,” said Mrs. Cohen, “and I am also a Ukrainian.”
But, she added, with a clarity that most other members of the community lack: âI am Israeli, not Palestinian.
Adam rasgon and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting from Jerusalem.