Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Around 400 Samaritans live concentrated in the village of Kiryat Luza, near Nablus and their holy site of Mount Gerizim. They claim descent from Israelites from before the Assyrian exile of 722 BCE. Their sole norm of religious observance is the Pentateuch. They are Arabic speakers who use Aramaic as a liturgical language. They live in semi-isolation, usually only marrying within the community.
Samaritans have often faced persecution, including during the Roman Empire. Then, under Byzantine rule in the fifth and sixth centuries, the community’s population fell from the hundreds of thousands to near extinction. Through persecution and assimilation, the community persevered at the brink of disappearance.
In 1917 there were only 146 Samaritans in all of Palestine, though since then their numbers have grown to around 400 in the West Bank, with a similar number residing within Israel, in Holon near Tel Aviv.
Samaritans have managed to maintain a position of neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, meaning their community – despite being located in an area characterised by regular conflict – has largely avoided the violence. Samaritans are the only community to hold both Israeli and Palestinian identity cards, providing them with unrestricted access within Israel. Nevertheless, younger community members have reported some difficulties navigating these divisions.
The small population of Samaritans in Palestine has significantly fewer women than men. Some Samaritan men have reportedly sought wives in Eastern Europe and Russia who were willing to convert to the Samaritan religion and adopt its culture and traditions.