In the occupied and largely segregated West Bank, Jews live in fortified settlements and Palestinians in Arab towns and villages. There are also the 440 villagers of Al Tor, on top of a mountain, who float between the two worlds.
As children, they grew up speaking Arabic. As teenagers, they studied in schools run by the Palestinian National Authority. As retirees, many habitually smoke shisha in the Palestinian city of Nablus, on the slopes of Mount Gerizim.
But they also have Israeli citizenship, often work in Israel, pay for Israeli health insurance, and visit relatives in a Tel Aviv suburb. In the Israeli elections, many say they voted for the right-wing Likud party, in favor of the Jewish settlements in Palestine. But the Samaritans are still represented on the dormant board of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
That’s life in Al Tor, a five-street village known as Kiryat Luza in Hebrew, whose beige houses are home to the last members of the Samaritan religion, an ancient derivative of the Israelite faith. Their original Samaritan identity – they are neither Muslims nor Christians, but not exactly Jews – allows them to wander, sometimes with difficulty, 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.”
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, Cohen played semi-professional basketball for teams in Ramallah and a nearby Israeli settlement – a contradiction he ignores.
“If I’m in Tel Aviv, I feel Israeli,” Cohen said. “But if I’m in Ramallah, I feel Palestinian.”
If this ability to function in both worlds is often advantageous, it also has its downside, sometimes dangerous.
During the second Palestinian uprising in 2001, Cohen’s father, Josef Cohen, now 76, said he survived an ambush by Palestinian militants but was shot dead minutes later. by Israeli soldiers as he ran to a military post on his way to the hospital.
“I am a victim of terror on both sides,” Cohen Sr. said.
But the complexity of the Samaritan experience also prompts optimism: At a time when Israelis and Palestinians feel more divided than ever after war and ethnic unrest this year, Al Tor offers a paradigm that respects ethnic differences and religious, while allowing its inhabitants access to all parts of the Holy Land and the rights therein.
By some estimates, the Samaritans numbered over one million by the 5th century, but after centuries of persecution that number has dropped to around 800, many of whom bear the surname Cohen.
About half of them 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 increase the population, the community arranged several marriages between Samaritan men and women from Eastern Europe.
They see themselves as descendants of the original Israelites, and worship in synagogical versions, keep Shabbat, and follow the Samaritan version of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. But they see Judaism as a departure 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, in which a “Good Samaritan” helps a man who was robbed and beaten on a road.
“It’s the New Testament,” 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 annoyed.
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 as a child decades ago he was told about the lynching of an Israeli who entered the West Bank.
“People said he was Jewish, but I didn’t even understand what that meant,” said Cohen senior, now a Samaritan priest. “I considered myself a Palestinian Arab,” he added.
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 them to leave their ancestral homes in Nablus for Al Tor, where the IDF could better protect them, or for Israel itself.
“If it weren’t for Israel, we wouldn’t be living,” said Cohen senior.
But former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has always enjoyed good relations 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 his father, who was a Samaritan high priest, HaCohen said Arafat called to offer his condolences.
“Your father is dead, but you have a second father,” Arafat said, according to HaCohen. “I am a father to you.”
The complexities of Samaritan identity and disputes over his allegiance were clear at his annual Easter sacrifice in April. Most of the Samaritans of the world gathered at Al Tor, all dressed in white clothes.
When the sun went down, this white-clad army cornered dozens of sheep in a small arena, where they prayed in unison before slaughtering the animals and removing their skins. Then they threw the carcasses into several fires, their white clothes now spattered with blood.
The Samaritans who still live in Al Tor spoke Arabic, but their younger cousins, who live in Israel, spoke mostly Hebrew. And his guests were mostly Israelis: several army and police officers, two government ministers and the head of the local residents’ council.
Palestinian governor of Nablus, Ibrahim Ramadan, telephoned the head priest to congratulate him, but chose not to participate in person. The governor was concerned about the coronavirus – most Palestinians had not yet been vaccinated – but he also feared he would be seen normalizing relations with Israeli government officials and the settler community.
“This obviously created an uncomfortable environment for us,” Ramadan said.
In addition to overcoming these tensions, the Samaritans have an even more pressing challenge: to avoid extinction.
Some Samaritans are leaving the small community, while generations of intermarriage between parents have caused a multitude of genetic problems. To rejuvenate the population, the Samaritan leadership wanted to bring in new members without complicating its relations with the Israelis and the Palestinians.
So 20 years ago, they turned to an international couples training service, which put them in touch with women from a poor village in Ukraine. Since then, the community has managed 17 marriages between Samaritans and women from Eastern Europe.
Adam Rasgon and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad, from Jerusalem collaborated
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves