17 MAY 1991, Page 11

SAMARITAN SURVIVORS

Anton La Guardia finds out

what has happened to the descendants of the people despised by the Jews

Jerusalem THE SAMARITAN men gathered at dusk around a narrow trough on the slopes of Mount Gerizim, reciting holy verses in a lost language. The full moon glowed in the east over Jordan. Children held down sheep, one for each family, restless with anticipation of the fate about to befall the animals. Dressed in white robes and red fezzes, and shod incongruously with train- ers, boots or bedroom slippers, the con- gregation at times resembled an assembly of mad scientists.

With a full-chested crescendo of the primitively unmelodic chant, the sheep were turned on their backs and sacrificial knives were slipped through their throats. The animals kicked weakly for a few more minutes before the last flux of life drained away. The business done, the men rose with glazed eyes, smearing blood on their foreheads and on those of nearby relatives as the crowd cheered their work.

Modern technology was applied to the ritual in the form of a bicycle pump, the rubber hose of which was slipped under the skin of the sheep's leg. Air was forced through to help separate the pelt from the flesh. Once cleaned, the carcase was placed on a wooden stake and lowered into the ovens dug in the ground, six flaming nostrils where fires had been burning for several hours.

The Samaritans' Passover sacrifice, a living relic of antiquity, would have been a solemn occasion were it not for the flood- lights and the row of spectator seats around the site of the slaughter, and the jostling of photographers searching for the best pic- ture of gore. One American visitor begged a friend: 'Get me a piece, a bit of skin, anything.'

Thousands of tourists once came to Gerizim to watch the festival, but after three years of the Palestinian uprising, the. Intifada, few strangers venture at night into the heart of the West Bank. The sacrifice was remarkable for another reason. Among the spectators stood Palestinian activists and senior Israeli officers, Muslim figures and Jewish ministers, Arab street thugs and Uzi-toting Israeli settlers. In a land where neutrality and modera-' tion are often seen as treason by both Arabs and Jews, the Samaritans successful- ly inhabit the middle ground. The tiny community of about 500 people has con- trived to secure the protection of both the Israeli government and of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The Samaritans are best known in the West through Jesus's parable of the Good Samaritan. Detested by the Jews in Christ's time, they are the descendants of the ten Israelite tribes, now long dispersed, that made up the northern kingdom of Israel.

The kingdom had broken away from the two southern tribes of Judah after the death of Solomon. Its capital, Samaria, was destroyed by the invading Assyrians in 721 sc. Thousands of the inhabitants were carried away and replaced by colonisers from Babylonia, Syria, Elam and other parts of the empire. The resulting racial blend became known as Samaritan.

The southerners in Judah, who compiled the Old Testament, viewed the surviving Judaism in the north as suspiciously pagan. To them, the fate of Israel was divine punishment for idolatry. Before Israel's fall, Hosea prophesied: 'For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind . . .

Judah was soon destroyed by the Babylonians, the temple in Jerusalem was demolished and the inhabitants sent into exile. Upon their return, the southerners, now known as Jews, refused the Samar- itans' help in rebuilding the temple, con- sidering their brethren to be heretics. 'You have nothing to do with us,' they said.

The rift was completed by the construc- tion of a rival temple on Mount Gerizim, to which the Samaritans attribute many of the events which Jews believed took place on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, such as Abra- ham's intended sacrifice of his son Isaac.

During the Maccabean revolt, the Jews destroyed the temple on Gerizim and imposed the Jerusalem orthodoxy. The Samaritans enjoyed a revival in the fourth century AD, but their growth attracted Byzantine hostility, and the community was virtually wiped out when its revolt in 529 was crushed by Justinian. Repression and conversions under Muslim rule elimin- ated Samaritan enclaves in Damascus, Gaza and Cairo by the 18th century. In 1917, there were only 146 survivors living in Nablus, beneath Mount Gerizim.

The British Mandate and the arrival of Jews in Palestine allowed the Samaritans to expand once more. Despite the schism with the Jews, the Samaritans became eligible to emigrate to Israel after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.

The Samaritans spread their bets; some moved to Israel, where they live in an enclave outside Tel Aviv, while others remained in Nablus to become Jordanian citizens. Under King Abdallah and King Hussein, they were a protected minority in Nablus, partly because they were a tourist attraction, and partly as a useful element in the propaganda war against Israel. The Samaritans admit that the Six-Day War, despite its bitter legacy of occupation over the West Bank, worked to their advantage by re-uniting the two clusters.

It is perhaps because of their precarious existence that Samaritans have developed a strict code of behaviour to define their identity. The four Samaritan articles of faith are: a commitment to live forever in or near Israel; compulsory attendance of the Passover sacrifice; keeping of the sabbath and observance of Moses's laws of purity. For example, during her menstrual period a woman must not come in contact with the rest of her family for seven days. The Samaritans only recognise the first five books of the Old Testament. They may not live in Jerusalem and must marry among themselves. Outsiders are only accepted if they convert to Samaritanism.

Samaritans now seek to avoid theologic- al disputes with the Jews. Mr Benyamin Tsedaka, editor of the Samaritans' journal, argues that Samaritans and Jews are not two separate religions, but 'two traditions of one ancient Israelite religion'. Neverthe- less, Samaritans have with remarkable finesse managed to maintain cordial rela- tions with the Arab majority in Nablus, which has since become a major centre of resistance to Israeli rule.

The Nablus Samaritans speak Arabic and have retained their Jordanian pass- ports. They join Arabs when Israeli sol- diers force residents to clean up Palestinian graffiti. They stay indoors during curfews, mainly to avoid upsetting neighbours rather than because of fear of the soldiers.

In a small shoe factory at the foot of Mount Gerizim, Arab workers regarded the Samaritans with surprising warmth. 'They are just like us, they speak with a better Nablus accent than our own,' said one; 'some of them have even taken part in our demonstrations and marches. In the past, they were protected by Saladin be- cause they helped the Arabs conquer Nablus from the Crusaders.'

There are dissenting voices, however. Samaritans claim to be non-political. But they work mainly as teachers and in government ministries, and are vulnerable to Arab accusations of collaborating with the Israeli occupiers. Four Samaritan houses were burnt down in 1989, when their occupants refused to leave their government jobs. The PLO in Tunis de- nounced the attack, called for the punish- ment of those responsible, and secured compensation for the families.

The Samaritans are moving discreetly away from Nablus, spending more and more time in their second homes in a hamlet on Mount Gerizim to escape the turmoil of the Arab-Israeli dispute and enjoy the relative freedom afforded by their holy mountain.

'We have been part of Arab society for more than 1,000 years,' said Mr Salim Abdelatif Altif, a 34-year-old teacher. 'We share their happiness and sorrows. We will live under any ruler. If the Israelis leave this area, we will continue to live here.'

Anton La Guardia is on the staff of the Daily Telegraph.