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Who are the Holy Land Samaritans – Part 1

On May 4, 2012, the Samaritan’s of the Holy Land will celebrate the annual Passover sacrifice. But who are the Samaritans? And how is it that this community continues to survive in the Holy Land?  Part 1 in our series of the Holy Land Samaritans

 

In 722 BCE, 200 years after the split between Solomon’s sons Jeroboam and Rehoboam, the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians. Much of the vanquished population were deported as slaves to Mesopotamia (present day Iraq). Vassal peoples living in what is now Syria and the border between Iran and Iraq were brought in their stead to settle the barren land.

 

Jewish tradition maintains that the Samaritans are the descendants of these colonizers who adopted some Israelite rituals (II Kings 17:24-29), a charge adamantly denied by Elazar and his fellow Samaritans.

 

The enmity between the Jews and Samaritans continued for centuries. The Hebrew prophets continually upbraided the northerners for their sins. Isaiah delivered a tongue-lashing against “the drunkards of Ephraim” (Isaiah 28:1) and the name Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, has become a synonym for impudence and licentiousness.

 

The parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospels (Luke 10:2-37) obliquely refers to the acrimonious relations between the rival faiths. Jesus uses the Samaritans as a metaphor of despised, yet helping people, i.e. the good Christian.

 

In the Talmud, the Samaritans are disparagingly called “Cutheans” after the Babylonian city of Kuthah, one of the places from which the Assyrians relocated settlers.

 

At the beginning of the Christian era, upwards of one million Samaritans were living in the hill country and plains of central Palestine, and Shechem had developed into a major city. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus recounts the ancient love story which led to the construction of the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim in 332 BCE. According to Josephus, a Jerusalem high priest named Menashe flouted Jewish law by marrying a Samaritan woman named Nikaso. Menashe was given the choice of leaving his wife or the Temple cult. Nikaso’s father Sanballat, leader of the Samaritans, promised to build him an exact replica of the Jerusalem Temple and make him high priest there.

 

In 170 BCE the Seleucid ruler Antiochus I converted the Temple into a shrine to Zeus. Both the pagan sanctuary and the city below were razed by John Hyrcanus in 113 BCE. (The zealous Hasmonean king also conquered Idumea to the south, the homeland of the biblical Edomites, whom he forcibly converted to Judaism.)

 

This tradition of persecution was continued by the Christian Byzantines – who built the Church of Mary Theotokos atop the ruins starting in 484 CE. Throughout the centuries the Samaritan population gradually dwindled, decimated by invasion and forced conversions.

 

With the conquest of the Holy Land by Islam in CE 632, the Samaritans became a pariah people restricted to their ghettos and compelled to wear distinctive dress.

 

By the time of the Crusades, they were reduced from a great nation to a scattered and broken sect – one segment in their ancient homeland, another in Damascus, and a third spread thinly along the coastal towns between Jaffa and Egypt.

 

By the middle of the 19th century, all settlements other than Nablus had been abandoned and their remaining members concentrated in the enclave at the foot of Mount Gerizim.

 

In 1918, towards the end of the First World War, when the British army’s advance precipitated the collapse of the tottering Ottoman Empire, the Samaritan population had been reduced to 146 souls. It seemed this ancient culture was on the brink of extinction.

 

The custom of endogamous marriage had led to dangerous inbreeding, resulting in a high percentage of genetic defects including colour blindness, congenital respiratory deficiency and deaf-mutism. Many Samaritans exhibit unmistakable signs of inbreeding, such as bullet-shaped heads and big ears. Moreover, male births outnumbered females two to one, resulting in an acute shortage of potential spouses.

 

The Samaritans were rescued from ultimate oblivion by Zionism and the beginning of large-scale Jewish immigration to Palestine in the early 1920s. At that time, some 54 Samaritans left the primitive conditions of the Nablus ghetto to live in Holon, a new Jewish settlement near the then predominantly Arab port city of Jaffa and the newly-founded Jewish town of Tel Aviv.

 

Most of the settlers were members of two clans – the Tsedakah and Marhib. In 1924 one of these settlers – Yefet Tsedakah, met and married a halutza (a Zionist pioneer) who had recently immigrated from Russia.

 

Their union was the first between the lines of Israel and Judah since the time of King Solomon. A number of such marriages have taken place in the ensuing decades, all between Samaritan men and female Jews. There is no male conversion procedure.

 

Throughout the years of British rule, the enclave in Holon remained static numbering between 40 and 50. Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the War of Independence and Jordan’s annexation of Judea and Samaria (renamed the West Bank), the Samaritans were divided in two. Families left Nablus to join their kin in Holon, making the two communities roughly equal in number.

 

The Samaritans of Holon were recognized as Children of Israel under the Law of Return, Israel’s repatriation act, and became full-fledged citizens of the nascent Jewish state.

 

Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president, took a personal interest in their integration. Due to his efforts a self-contained neighbourhood- Shikun ha-Shomronim – was built in Holon in 1954. Nine years later a kinshah or synagogue and community centre were added.

 

The Samaritans of Holon gradually adjusted to the ethos of a modern Westernized society. The younger generation has become progressively more acculturated though so far resisting religious assimilation. In external appearance, the Holon Samaritans are indistinguishable from their Jewish neighbours and serve together with them in Zahal (the Israel Defence Force).

 

The 1949 truce secured in Rhodes, ending hostilities between Israel and its Arab neighbours, contained a proviso guaranteeing the Israeli Samaritans the right to visit their relatives in Nablus and to participate in the Passover pilgrimage to Mount Gerizim. However, the Jordanians honoured this agreement mainly in the breach, claiming it would infringe on security.

 

For the next 18 years, the Passover celebration was the sole occasion when most of the community was united. The paschal lamb sacrifice became an annual assembly for matchmaking. In consultation with the High Priest, prospective couples decided which partner would join the other to live in Israel or Jordan.

 

During this period the Holon community became progressively more established and prosperous, and the Nablus community more impoverished and persecuted.

 

With the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, the two communities were free to meet all year long. A feeling of national renaissance took hold. Never faltering in their belief that they are God’s Chosen People and that the day will come when Providence will again favour them, the Samaritans interpreted the reunion of their divided community as a divine omen.

 

Israel’s Civil Administration has indeed proven to be a blessing. The Samaritan presence in Nablus dovetails with rightist Israeli desires to settle the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria, notwithstanding Israel’s 1996 withdrawal from the city of 130,000. That year the Nablus Samaritans were granted Israeli citizenship.

 

A settlement called Qiryat Luza has been built on Mount Gerizim, strategically overlooking Nablus, an-Najah University and the Balata refugee camp, all hotbeds of Palestinian nationalism and scenes of rioting during the first and second Intifadas. The settlement, now home to the entire community, provided a housing alternative to the hopeless overcrowding of the medieval ghetto.  There are 72 families in Holon. Two synagogues have been constructed, one in Holon and the other at the ceremonial site of the Passover sacrifice. A community centre cum museum and kindergarten have also been built with the assistance of a U.S. $185,000 donation from the Vatican’s Pontifical Mission to the Holy Land.

Apartment blocks at Mt. Gerazim

A water pipe has been laid and a road paved to serve the new community on the holy mountain. The settlement has been connected to Israel’s national electricity grid.

 

Archaeological excavations were carried out for 18 years beginning in 1982, led by Yitzhak Magen – the Israeli Civil Administration’s chief archaeologist for the West Bank – as if to further strengthen the connection between past and present. In 2000 the Israel Antiquities Authority dedicated a 100-acre archaeological park comprising the Samaritan temple and other remains that reveal the ancient city had a population of 10,000 living in a sophisticated urban environment.But few tourists venture deep into the West Bank to see the ruins.

 

The once fierce controversy over the true Temple Mount has been put aside. Israel’s past president, Chaim Herzog, has assured Samaritan leaders, “Whatever the political settlement, I promise that the Samaritan community will never again be separated.”

 

Samaritan Museum at Mt. Gerazim

The Samaritan Museum in Mt. Gerazim; photo courtesy Travelujah

 

The 3,000-year-old rift between Jew and Samaritan has been healed. The Samaritans today may be seen as the pitiful remnant of a once-sovereign nation whose system of religious beliefs has been seemingly arrested in time.

But they are also an illustration of how ethnic and religious conservatism can safeguard a minority group that would otherwise have vanished almost without a trace.

 

If you go:

There are no regularly scheduled group day tours to Mt. Gerazim, however, a tour to the area can be arranged using a licensed Israeli tour guide. The site is proximate to other biblical sites such as Shilo and Nablus, all of which could be included in a private day tour of the area. For more information please contact info@travelujah.com.

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Gil Zohar is a licensed tour guide and journalist and he blogs regularly for Travelujah – Holy Land Tours, the leading Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land.  People can learn, plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travleujah. Gil can be contacted at gilzohar@rogers.com

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