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Amid conflict, Samaritans keep unique identity

By Dana Rosenblatt (Special to CNN)

Samaritan newspaper editor Benyamin Tsedaka.
Samaritan newspaper editor Benyamin Tsedaka.

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Gallery: The Samaritans 

The Samaritans

Cultural roots in Samaria, in today's northern West Bank.

Religious practices are similar to Judaism, though calendar is slightly different.

In the 4th century, Samaritan population reached 1.2 million. Dwindled to 146 people by 1917.

As of January,  330 Samaritans lived in Holon near Tel Aviv and 320 in Mount Gerizim in the West Bank.

Source: The Associated Press

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HOLON, Israel (CNN) -- Every Thursday, Benyamim Tsedaka prepares for his weekly visit to the West Bank for the Sabbath.

Armed with coffee mug and cell phone, the newspaper editor departs his home in Holon for the lush hills of Mount Gerizim, near Nablus.

There, he'll gather with friends and family and relinquish his casual button-down shirt and jeans to don the flowing white robe and red headdress that is traditional to the Samaritan Sabbath.

Despite their ties to both sides of the border that separates Israel and the Palestinian territories, Tsedaka and the people in his community are a distinct group, neither Jewish nor Arab.

They are Samaritans, members of a culture whose roots also reach back into Biblical times.

Samaritans are descendants of the ancient Israelites who broke from Judaism some 2,200 years ago and were centered mainly in and around the region of Samaria -- now a part of the West Bank.

Even today, many people associate the group with the parable of the "Good Samaritan" from the New Testament, and the term is often used to describe a person who helps another unselfishly.

In modern times, as they try to maintain their distinct cultural identity, the Samaritans find themselves caught in the middle of the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

"We are in the heart of the problem, trying to find ways to exist with both," says Tsedaka.

Their community numbers less than 700 people and is split almost evenly between the Palestinian controlled area of Mount Gerizim in the West Bank and the Israeli town of Holon near Tel Aviv.

The Samaritans are Israeli citizens and recognized as Jews according to the law of return. Yet, those who live in the West Bank also are represented in the Palestinian legislature. Palestinians commonly refer to them as "Jews of Palestine." Overall, they seek to maintain neutrality between both sides.

As a people, they are united by a common religion, tradition and language. They are one of a few remaining cultures that speak, read and write the ancient Hebrew language Aramaic.

They have vowed to keep the language and culture alive for centuries to come, though they speak modern Hebrew and Arabic in daily conversation.

In fact, Aramaic is one of four languages -- along with Arabic, modern Hebrew and English -- that are used in Tsedaka's community newspaper, A.B. - The Samaritan News, which he edits and publishes every two weeks.

Neither Jew nor Muslim

The religious practices followed by Samaritans are closely related to Judaism.

Although their calendar is slightly different from the Jewish calendar, they celebrate Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) and Passover, traditionally marked by the sacrifice of a lamb at Mount Gerizim.

Unlike the Jews, however, the Samaritans do not celebrate Hanukkah or Purim. Religious ceremonies are led by a Samaritan high priest and recited in Aramaic.

Despite their acceptance by both the Israelis and Palestinians, the Samaritans have not been untouched by the troubles in their native land.

Before the first Palestinian intifada broke out in 1987, a small number of Samaritans lived comfortably alongside the Palestinians in Nablus. A year after the uprising, they sought the nearby refuge of Mount Gerizim, the place where, according to the Bible, Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son.

Still, Nablus remains the cultural and economic center for the Samaritans of Mount Gerizim. There, they attend public schools and universities, and hold positions in the Palestinian ministry.

"The Samaritans of Nablus are Palestinian citizens, with the same rights and obligations," says Ghassan Shaka, mayor of Nablus. "They are part of us ... the same feelings, the same hopes, and the same destiny."

In 1996, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat granted the Samaritans a seat on the 88-member Palestinian Legislative Council.

At the same time, because they are Israeli citizens, the Samaritans from Holon are required to serve in Israel's military, a calling many of them heed with pride.

"A lot of people try not to serve in the Israeli army. But you will not find any of those to be Samaritan," says Tsedaka, whose 18-year-old son serves in the Israel Defense Forces. "For us it is a great honor."

Though they acknowledged the irony of holding a Palestinian legislative seat while many of their members also serve in Israel's army, the Samaritans were keen to accept the offer.

"We don't ask why. ... When he [Arafat] first mentioned the idea ... we were happy to," Tsedaka says.

A people divided

The Samaritans of Mount Gerizim are faced with the toughest challenges, says Daphna Tsimcchoni, a researcher at the Truman Institute for Peace at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"In the West Bank, they are caught between the Israeli army and the Palestinian population. They must remain neutral in the face of Palestinian and Israeli politics, differentiating from the two sides, and also their neighbors, Jewish settlers."

Entrance to the Samaritan synagogue in Holon, decorated with a menorah and Aramaic script.
Entrance to the Samaritan synagogue in Holon, decorated with a menorah and Aramaic script.

The Jewish settlement of Bracha, next to the Samaritan neighborhood, has been the target of several attacks from Palestinian militants.

Israel maintains a constant military presence in the area to ensure the security of the settlement and monitor Palestinian movement in and out of Nablus.

The Israeli military says the Samaritans pose no threat to the area and even serve as a peaceful buffer. But for the Samaritans, living in a militarized zone is not without hardship.

"The Samaritans know the value of having the IDF there, but on the other hand," says Tsedaka, "They are suffering from the situation."

Samaritans say the tanks have destroyed the sanctity of their neighborhood, making life unbearable.

"No one will help us," says Joseph Cohen, a Samaritan of Mount Gerizim. "The tanks remain in our front yard, and create dust and mess. When it rains, the mud is so bad, our children can't even go to school."

Beyond the inconvenience, transit through the Green Line, the border that separates Israel from the West Bank, can prove perilous, as Cohen lived to tell.

Last year, the father of three took an alternate route home on a road to Bracha.

He was ambushed by a group of Palestinian militants who mistook him for a settler, he says. Severely wounded, Cohen lost control of the car and rammed through an Israeli roadblock. Israeli soldiers took him for a terrorist and they, too, shot at him.

Left unable to walk without the aid of crutches, Cohen receives a small pension from the Israeli government for his wounds. But he says the money is not enough.

"We live here in a jungle," says Cohen. "I love the country of Israel. I know they have their own problems, but they need to pay attention to us. "

Asked if he would ever leave the mountain, Cohen remains adamant.

"We will not leave. This is our home."

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