First Published: 2008-04-24

Israelite Samaritans mark Passover with blood and fire in West Bank

Children of Israel wrestle dozens of animals to the ground, slitting their throats in 5,000 year-old ritual.


Middle East Online

By Joseph Krauss - MOUNT GERIZIM, West Bank

Chanting ancient Hebrew over the sheep

Men chant in ancient Hebrew over the sheep, their white garments and knives lit by the fading dusk as they ready a sacrifice for the God of Israel in the heart of the West Bank.

The voice of the high priest crackles from a megaphone, the chanting reaches a climax and they wrestle dozens of animals to the ground, slitting their throats in a 5,000 year-old Passover ritual that may predate Judaism.

The faithful are Samaritans, a community of 710 people living in Israel and the occupied West Bank who trace their lineage to the ancient Israelites Moses led out of Egypt, an event they remember every year on a grassy hilltop near the Palestinian town of Nablus.

"We put blood on our foreheads so that our God will know we are the children of Israel," says Naif Ismail, a middle-aged father of three, his smiling face and white coveralls spattered with sheep's blood.

"We put blood on our doors with bitter herbs just like in ancient times. Whatever they did in those days we do now."

As the men skin the carcasses and sprinkle them with salt, others light bonfires in sunken cauldrons, flames licking at the darkening sky as wood smoke and burning entrails mingle with the cool spring air.

The Samaritans believe they are the inheritors of the religion of Moses as laid down in the Torah, that the God of Abraham lives on Mount Gerizim, and that they can be modern ambassadors of peace in a troubled region.

They have won the affection of both Israelis and Palestinians by maintaining a strict policy of neutrality towards the decades-old conflict, with some members serving in the Israeli army and others in the Palestinian police.

"We are speaking of a small community where the main motto is survival," Benyamim Tsedaka, a community member and an expert on Samaritan culture, says. "We are trying to survive in the most sensitive place in the world."

Samaritans hold Israeli citizenship but half hail from the occupied West Bank and half from the seaside Tel Aviv suburb of Holon.

The West Bank Samaritans lived in Nablus until the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, when clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians drove them to relocate to Mount Gerizim.

"We are an Israelite entity, but we are the only one in the West Bank that is not surrounded by fences. And none of us are armed. We don't have guns here, only our smiles," Tsedaka says.

The West Bank Samaritans remain close to their former neighbours, and many Palestinians from Nablus, including the governor, visit the Passover ceremony and exchange warm greetings with longtime friends.

The ceremony also attracted two off-duty Israeli army reservists in olive uniforms and with M-16s hanging from their shoulders, who join dozens of other tourists pointing camera phones on the carcasses and the fires.

"We were close, and how often do you get the chance to experience something like this?" one of the reservists, 32-year-old Amir Toledano, says.

The worshippers trace their history to the ancient kingdom of Samaria in the north of what is now the West Bank and see modern Jews as the descendants of the southern kingdom of Judah with its capital of Jerusalem.

"What the Jews believe, this is something that developed later on in the history of the development of the people of Israel," Tsedaka says.

"The southern tribes wanted to have their own cult place" which led to the construction of the First Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by the legendary King Solomon in the 10th century BC.

But Tsedaka says the Israelites prayed on Mount Gerizim centuries earlier, citing passages in the Torah that mention the site.

After Solomon's death the two kingdoms drifted apart, with the northern kingdom of the Samaritans falling to the Assyrian empire in 722 BC and the southern kingdom overrun by the Babylonians in 597 BC.

In the centuries that followed, as Jews were scattered across the ancient world the Samaritans remained in the Holy Land, where their numbers dwindled from 1.5 million in the fifth century AD to fewer than 150 in 1917.

"Every regime that came to the Holy Land persecuted the inhabitants of the Holy Land. The same thing happened to the Jews, but they set up centres outside," Tsedaka says.

The Samaritans' fortunes started improving under the British Mandate -- when colonial officials sought to rescue the community they associated with the "Good Samaritan" parable of Jesus -- and after the creation of Israel in 1948.

Their high priest receives holiday greetings from Israeli and Palestinian leaders annually, and when the Islamist Hamas movement won parliamentary elections in 2006 they too embraced the Samaritans, Tsedaka says.

"They gave us the same promises as all the others, to help the community and to protect the community," he adds.

As the night wears on the worshippers skin the goats, mount them on long wooden spears, and stoke the cauldrons with bitter herbs and deadwood while elders sit in a circle nearby and belt out songs in ancient Hebrew.

The meat will be buried in the underground ovens, cooked and eaten that night, and the remains will be incinerated, all according to biblical law.

Those who have come to view the ceremony -- Christians, Muslims, and Jews -- look on with a mixture of horror and wonder at the ancient wellspring of their three faiths, a primordial sacrifice on a holy mountain.

"It was probably like this in the time of the temple," says Yigal Kann, a middle-aged Israeli Jew from Jerusalem. "I'm sure they sacrificed lots and lots of animals. It was probably horrible."


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