‘Beni Israel’: The Samaritans of Palestine’s Mt. Gerizim


Claiming descent from ancient Israelites, Samaritans deny sacredness of Jerusalem and see contemporary Judaism as deviation from true faith

RAMALLAH, Palestine – On the summit of Mount Gerizim near the West Bank city of Nablus, members of the Samaritan community — one of the smallest religious communities in the world — build their homes, believing the spot to be the most sacred on earth.

Describing themselves as Palestinians, the Samaritans adhere to an Abrahamic religion closely related to Judaism.

While claiming to be the true descendants of the ancient Israelites (“Beni Israel”), they deny the sacredness of the city of Jerusalem and see mainstream contemporary Judaism as a deviation from the original faith of Moses and the Old Testament prophets.

The Samaritans, who claim to possess the oldest extant copy of the Torah (the Jewish holy book) — one which dates back 3,600 years — speak both Arabic and Modern Hebrew.

They are also fluent in ancient Hebrew, the language in which the Torah was written, according to Hosni al-Samiri, a Samaritan priest and religious researcher.

“We are Nablusis [i.e., from Nablus],” al-Samiri told Anadolu Agency. “We’re an integral part of the Palestinian people and we thank the Muslims, who have always supported us.”

According to al-Samiri, the 12th-century Muslim leader Salah Eddin al-Ayyubi (known in the West as “Saladin”) allowed the Samaritans to perform their religious rituals on Mt. Gerizim after they had been prevented from doing so by the Byzantines for 150 years.

The Samaritans believe Mt. Gerizim represents the most sacred place for the Beni Israel — the true Israelites — since their exodus from Pharaoh’s Egypt.

“Mt. Gerizim, the most sacred spot for the Samaritans, is mentioned in the Torah numerous times, where it is referred to as ‘Beit El’, or ‘House of God’,” al-Samiri said.

“As a religious researcher, I have counted 120 references [in the Torah] to the sacredness of Mt. Gerizim, while there is no single genuine reference to the sanctity of Jerusalem,” he added.

– Deviation

“The Jews broke away from the original faith,” al-Samiri told Anadolu Agency. “There is nothing called ‘the Jews’ [in the Torah]; there is only the people of Beni Israel.”

“The Israelites broke away from the original faith and took Jerusalem as their new holy place,” he said.

“There are thousands of differences between the ancient Torah and what the [modern] Jews claim,” al-Samiri asserted. “They have even changed the Hebrew language.”

According to the priest, the Samaritan faith is based on five pillars: that there is one God; that Moses is the prophet of God; the authority of the five books of the Torah (the Pentateuch); the sacredness of Mt. Gerizim; and that man will one day be judged by God in a final day of reckoning.

On the summit of Mt. Gerizim — almost 900 meters above sea level — the observer can see, on a clear day, the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the peak of Mount Hermon to the north.

“We are the true descendants of Beni Israel,” al-Samiri reiterated. “The word ‘Samaritan’ literally means ‘guardian of the Law’ in Hebrew.”

– Palestinians

Due to the special geopolitical circumstances in which they live, most Samaritans hold Palestinian citizenship, although some also hold Israeli or Jordanian nationality.

In a gesture of solidarity, they have collectively refused to relinquish their Palestinian citizenship in exchange for full Israeli nationality.

“We refuse to relinquish our Palestinian citizenship in exchange for Israeli nationality,” al-Samiri explained. “But we’re forced to hold Israeli citizenship in order to communicate with our fellow Samaritans who live in the Israeli city of Holon.”

The total population of the Samaritan community stands at a mere 785, scattered between Mt. Gerizim near Nablus and Holon, which is located near Tel Aviv in central Israel.

Considered one of the smallest — if not the smallest — religious community in the world, al-Samiri says the community’s population stood at 146 in 1917.

– ‘Bridge of peace’

“Samaritans don’t like to get involved in politics and would prefer to act as a bridge of peace between Jews and the Palestinians,” al-Samiri said.

“However,” he added, “living inside the [Israeli-occupied] Palestinian territories has led some of our young men join Palestinian [resistance] factions, which has led to their arrest by the Israeli authorities.”

Al-Samiri, for his part, supports a “two-state solution”: the establishment of a Palestinian state on territories occupied by Israel in 1967 — with its capital in East Jerusalem — alongside the State of Israel.

“The ongoing failure to establish an independent Palestinian state remains a threat to global peace,” he said.

Samaritans pray in the morning and evening each day and spend seven hours in prayer on Saturday (Shabbat), after performing ablutions similar to those performed by Muslims, in which they wash their hands, mouth, nose, face, ears and legs.

Also like Muslims, their prayers involve kneeling and prostrating before God.

According to al-Samiri, young members of the community do not serve in any armies. He goes on to note, however, that 21 Samaritans fought in the First World War alongside the Ottoman Turkish army.

The Samaritans traditionally celebrate seven main festivals: the Festival of Lights (Al-Faseh); the Feast of Unleavened Bread; the Festival of the Harvest; the Jewish New Year; Yom Kippur; the Feast of Tabernacles; and the Rejoicing of the Torah.

– ‘Model of coexistence’

Ghaliah, a 26-year-old Samaritan, works at the Samaritan Museum on the summit of Mt. Gerizim, which contains Samaritan artifacts and documents from throughout history.

“Mt. Gerizim is my home and my qibla [direction for prayer],” she told Anadolu Agency. “I’m a Samaritan by faith and a Palestinian by nationality.”

“I have Muslim and Samaritan friends and I live in Nablus as a Palestinian,” she said. “It’s my country, where I don’t feel like a stranger.”

A young Muslim woman who works alongside Ghaliah described the museum as “a model of coexistence”.

Badawiyah al-Samiri, a Samaritan journalist, has worked at official Palestinian news agency WAFA for 11 years.

“I write about the tribulations of the Palestinian people: the detentions, invasions and the victims of Israeli violence,” she told Anadolu Agency.

“I’m an integral part of the Palestinian people,” she asserted. “I have Muslim friends who I consider my brothers; who have always supported me in difficult circumstances.”