Nestled on a hilltop overlooking the West Bank city of Nablus is the small, and seemingly nondescript, village of Kiryat Luza. Just a 10 minute car ride from the Palestinian city below, you would be hard pressed to pin-point any identifiable differences that would set this particular village apart from its local environs. Upon closer inspection, however, youth from the city below can be seen sheepishly buying supplies of alcohol from the local supermarket – a practice prohibited in the dominantly Muslim city of Nablus. As you wander deeper into the village, an impressive Menorah can be found printed upon a wall on a large plaza between homes. While Kiryat Luza might share architectural and topographical similarities with its local surroundings, its inhabitants find themselves curiously positioned between peoples who are famous for not getting along.
Kiryat Luza is one of the two homes of the last remaining Samaritans, a religious group who claim to be the original Israelites who never left the land. Having once numbered well into the millions during the Roman era, their numbers dwindled down to just 114 in 1917. Now at a population size of around 750, the world’s entire population of Samaritans live in just two villages – Holon, south of Tel Aviv in Israel – and Kiryat Luza, on the southern slope of Mount Gerizim outside Nablus. Believed to have been the site appointed by God as his holy dwelling with his people, their veneration of Mount Gerizim is just 1 of 7,000 theological differences which set the Samaritans apart from their Jewish cousins. Seeing themselves as the custodians of the original laws and rituals given by God to Moses, they consider themselves to be the authentic and true followers of the Torah.
Unsurprisingly given their location, questions of identity are important. Palestinians refer to them as Jewish Arabs. Israelis refers to them as Jews. Yet their own self-identification is more nuanced. Insistent that they are not Jews by religion, they are neither Arab by culture nor Palestinian by nationality, they instead use terms such as ‘Israelites’ or ‘Sons of Israel’. Noticeably frustrating for their neighbours, both Palestinians and Israelis like to claim them for their own in order to support their own claims of land ownership, as well as an example of how pluralistic a society they are. In fact, some Samaritans have an impressive collection of Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli passports as each power has sought to officiate their presence for their own cause. Indeed, their presence is a testament to the fact they have seen multiple powers rise and fall, claiming to have withstood exile and conversion for centuries. Their inability to fall comfortably within one side or the other is demonstrative of the fact that the lines which are drawn to create such labels and identities do not always neatly delineate the communal groups which they inevitably encompass.
Sharing the southern slope of Mount Gerizim, Kiryat Luza is neighbour to the Jewish settlement of Har Brakha, home to approximately 2000 settlers. Its presence brings with it an IDF military post stationed between the two, with a conspicuously strategic view over the city of Nablus, from which they are able to launch incursions into the city and its many refugee camps. Kiryat Luza’s geographic position, situated between a Palestinian city and an Israeli settlement, is mirrored by their political one – adamantly a-political, again to the frustration of their neighbours. In fact, many of the village’s inhabitants used to reside down the mountain in Nablus until the First Intifada, the first mass-uprising of Palestinians against the Israeli occupation in the mid 1980’s. During the city’s tumultuous years, Samaritans decided to remove themselves from its increasingly unstable environment to seek out quieter environs near their holy mountain. Yet their children continue to be found in Nablus’ schools, frequenting street corners with their Palestinian playmates as they call out cheeky comments in Arabic to passers-by. As a village of less than 400, most are employed in Nablus, in positions ranging from the municipality, to schools and hospitals. While Samaritan families may have felt the need to remove themselves from the Palestinian city, this clearly did not result in complete isolation and exclusion.
Yet even as the Samaritans of Kiryat Luza did not purposefully seek sequestration, they nonetheless find themselves facing very real questions of survival. A chronic shortage of women, combined with an ancient prohibition of exogamous marriage, saw an increase in intermarriage over the last few generations which lead to serious birth defects and disabilities in an ever-decreasing gene pool. Yet while the Samaritans may be a religious group steeped in ancient traditions, they were not unwilling to use innovative methods to ensure their survival. Under the leadership of the religious elders, the decision was made to allow Samaritan men to marry female converts to the religion. Nevertheless, as female converts were non-existent in their local surroundings, a specialist internet-based agency was employed to find suitable brides. To date 15 brides, most from Christian backgrounds in Ukraine or Russia, have converted to the religion and relocated to their new home through an internet agency who brokered their marriages. A full commitment to the religion’s disciplines is expected, including dietary laws, observing the Sabbath, as well as isolation during menstruation and after giving birth – 40 days after having a boy and 80 after a girl. Other Samaritans have turned to methods less drastic, but equally modern, in their reliance on pre-nuptial genetic tests to ensure a marriage in such a close-knit community will not result in further birth defects for subsequent generations.
The Samaritans of Kiryat Luza are proud of their heritage and unashamed of the methods they have used to ensure their survival. The recently opened Samaritan Museum is a testament to this, and what indeed drew me up the steep road from Nablus to explore this intriguing village nestled amongst its neighbours; a Palestinian city, a Jewish settlement and an IDF military post. Each represent very real and very significant issues, but my encounter with this small and surprising group of people who are hardly known by the outside world prompted me to consider the wonderful plurality of this small piece of land, the many different people who have called it home over the millennia, and the great shame that lines and labels prevent many from appreciating that.