[caption id="attachment_938" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="Samaritans perform their traditional slaughter of the Passover sacrifice ceremony at Mount Gerizim, north of the West Bank town of Nablus."] [/caption]
Photographs by Ammar Awad / Corbis
The Samaritans have thirteen names for Mount Gerizim, which rises four hundred meters above Nablus, on the West Bank, including the House of God, Mountain of the East, the Chosen Place, Gate of Heaven, the Everlasting Hill, Bethel, One of the Mountains, and The Lord Will Provide. And it is on the ridge below this sacred mountain, in the village of Kiryat Luzah, that they celebrate Passover, a ceremony that each year draws thousands of spectators, Israeli and Palestinian—always without incident, according to the elderly priest who invited me to witness it. He was of the opinion that the Samaritans, the world’s smallest religious-ethnic group, could build a bridge of peace between Israelis and Palestinians—the first constructive idea that I had heard on the subject in my travels through the region—and so one day in late April I arranged to drive from Jerusalem to Kiryat Luzah with a young Palestinian named Maath, who took an interest in the Samaritans. Summer was coming on—hay was baled in the fields—and as we cruised along a winding road built to connect the settlements Maath told me some of his story.
He had returned to his homeland after completing a degree in information technology in Dubai, and what he discovered was that Palestinians fell into one of three camps concerning the occupation: those who were so frustrated that they resorted to violence; those who would give up anything for a peace agreement; and those, like him, who kept pushing for their rights. An Israeli police van sped past, its lights flashing. Maath admitted that this third group was lost.
“If they resist, they’ll be confused with the fanatics,” he said. “And if they go into politics they’ll be confused with the Palestinian Authority, who will give everything away. So they do nothing and wait for magic, like the Americans stepping in to throw the Serbs out of Kosovo.”
The soldiers manning the watchtower and checkpoint at the base of Mount Gerizim eyed the cars approaching the roundabout, stopping some, waving us through, and as we started up the mountain, toward the settlement of Har Brakha, Maath said that he and his friends liked to debate what was permissible in resisting the occupation—whether, for example, it was just to kill soldiers (yes, they agreed), civilians (no), and settlers (yes, if they were armed). The wounded presented a dilemma. Those who vowed to finish them off might not be able to pull the trigger, if it came to that, Maath believed. It was easy to speculate about right and wrong until you were in the heat of battle, when all bets were off. Nevertheless he could understand the frustration that led some of his friends to contemplate killing the wounded.
[caption id="attachment_938" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="A Samaritan boy pets a sheep before it is to be slaughtered."] [/caption]
[caption id="attachment_938" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="Onlookers crowd the stands surrounding the traditional Passover site."] [/caption]
Har Brakha occupies the ridge leading to Kiryat Luzah, and from the frame of a doorway in a long one-story building under construction a boy watched us pass. Buses were parked at the edge of town, tourists and settlers milled among the soldiers on the main street, and the air was thick with the smell of lambs grazing in a nearby sheepfold. The Samaritans, all 742 of them, had brought lambs to celebrate the account, in Exodus, of the freeing of the ancient Israelites from the slavery of the Egyptians. Passover is a story of survival, which carries particular meaning for a community that in Samaritan lore once numbered in the millions. Persecuted by Jews, Romans, Christians, and Muslims, massacred and assimilated and exiled, by 1901 the Samaritans were down to 152 people, genetic disease was on the rise, and it is a miracle that they survived at all; their five-fold increase in population is a testament to the decision taken to allow men to marry outside the community, providing that the women—Jews, Turks, Russians, and Ukrainians, who answered newspaper ads to move here—convert to the faith. On my first trip to Kiryat Luzah, in March, I was amused to see a bulky blonde-haired woman walking down the street.
“A mail-order bride,” a Palestinian friend explained.
The Samaritans live in two places—on the outskirts of Holon, south of Tel Aviv, and in Kiryat Luzah, the Nablus branch of the community having moved here during the first intifada, in 1987—navigating carefully between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli government offers them the same right of return as other Jews, since they descend from the original tribes of Israel, and Palestinians claim them as part of their culture, since they hail from Samaria. One day a year they are the objects of fascination for their warring neighbors, and as we walked by the Center of Forgiveness the talk of a third intifada seemed a distant possibility. It was said that the next battle would begin in East Jerusalem, where plans to build new settlements on Palestinian land continued in spite of Obama administration entreaties to the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze construction. Seven soldiers were marching a man in plastic handcuffs down the center of the street, under the reproachful eye of a settler with an M-16 slung over his shoulder. Three teenagers had been detained by a Humvee parked at the entrance to the Passover site—because they lacked permits, said a man who worked for a cell phone company. Maath pointed to the Israeli flag hoisted above the stands built for the tourists.
“I don’t care how the Israelis define it,” he muttered. “This is the West Bank.”