WIN EXCLUSIVE: Meet the ancient, tiny sect that called Israel home since antiquity

Numbering just 820 people, Samaritans have successfully maintained their ancient traditions throughout countless conquests and invasions. Now they’re battling dwindling numbers, political conflict, and modernization.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

“Welcome to the smallest sect in the world!” Samaritan priest Husni Yefet Cohen greeted me as I stepped into his well-appointed home in Kiryat Luza, just outside of Shechem (Nablus) in Samaria.

Perched on a hill steps away from the site where Samaritans slaughter hundreds of sheep every year as part of their Passover ritual, Cohen’s house has seen guests ranging from international diplomats to major players from the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.

A smattering of awards and certificates of appreciation in the foyer of Cohen’s home — some from the IDF and leaders of local Jewish councils, some from the Palestinian Authority and educational institutions affiliated with it — testify as to how the Samaritan community deftly straddles both sides of the conflict.

The members of the 820-person sect claims direct descent from the ancient Israelites and practices what they believe is a Torah-observant form of religion, although they are not Jewish. The community is almost evenly split between a compound in Holon, south of Tel Aviv, and this outpost deep in the heart of Samaria.

Although the community lived in Nablus for thousands of years, the first intifada sparked a Samaritan mass exodus from the city. They sought refuge on Mount Gerizim — the holiest site in their religion and a pilgrimage point visited on major holidays — and established their 90-house town of Kiryat Luza in the early 1990s.

The Palestinian Authority provides electricity and trash collection to the locality; Israel provides water. This foot-in-both-worlds approach encapsulates the unique circumstances in which the Samaritans live. The community has learned not to pick sides in clashes and instead turns its focus inwards, with a steadfast commitment to sustaining its traditions despite plunging birth rates.

A bridge between peoples

As the only people in the world to hold both Israeli and Palestinian identification cards, as well as Jordanian and Israeli passports and Palestinian travel documents, the sect considers itself as a neutral Switzerland in the midst of the conflict.

Husni Yefet Cohen

Samaritan Priest Husni Yefet Cohen (Lauren Marcus)

“We have good relations with the Jews and we have good relations with the Palestinians,” Cohen said.

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The Samaritans’ careful approach to diplomatic relations was born of hard-won experience. After suffering invasions and subsequent massacres at the hands of the “Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Egyptians, and everyone else,” the community favors keeping a low profile and nonviolent resolution to conflict.

“War is a disaster for everyone,” said Cohen. “There are no winners. We pray for peace, for real peace.”

He recounted how thousands of years ago, the Samaritans were said to number in the millions. But Muslim invasions and the Crusades saw many convert to Islam and Christianity. Others were simply wiped out during the various takeovers by some of history’s biggest empires.

Down to such a small number, drastically reduced from their historical peak, Samaritans have survived endless war and understand the importance of peace, Cohen said.

“The moment there will be real peace between Israel and the Palestinians, in this region, there will be world peace,” he said.

Cohen, who has three daughters and two sons, said that the community prides itself on its ability to get along with its neighbors. Two of his daughters currently live in Nablus, with one working as a medical professional for the PA’s Health Ministry and the other a journalist.

While Samaritan women do not pray in synagogues like men, save for special occasions such as Yom Kippur and other high holidays, they learn in coeducational settings and study the Samaritan language and Torah alongside boys.

Salwa Cohen, the priest’s daughter, said that growing up in the small sect means that Samaritan women know from a young age who they’ll marry – one of the 30 to 40 boys in their age group.

An educated woman who worked in Israel’s high-tech industry for years, Cohen is one of many in her peer group who are redefining the role of a Samaritan woman. But she acknowledges that the leap forward comes with its own unique set of problems.

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A marriage crisis

“The shortage of girls” is the biggest challenge currently facing the Samaritan community, said Cohen, referencing a marriage crisis and stagnant birth rates in the sect.

For their tiny community, Cohen emphasized, “every single person is precious.”

Samaritan script

‘Shema Yisrael’ prayer written in Samaritan script. (Lauren Marcus)

Access to the internet, increased exposure to pop culture from around the world, and modernization have caused arranged marriages, which were once the norm, to fall by the wayside.

Many Samaritan women now hold college degrees, and on average they have more formal education than their male counterparts. The higher levels of female educational attainment have led to more women than ever before working outside of the home.

Today, the majority of Samaritan families average just one or two children. One generation ago, Cohen said, families of five children or more were the standard.

Adding to the demographic challenge is the disproportionate amount of male to female births in Samaritan families, which means that a significant number of men are left without a marriage partner.

The crisis triggered Samaritan elders to relax millennia-old prohibitions on marrying outside of the faith. Around a decade ago, they permitted Samaritan men to wed non-Samaritan women for the first time, albeit with a caveat that the brides officially convert to the Samaritan religion before marrying.

When asked about the conversion process for women, Cohen laughed. “We really need girls, so it’s like — welcome!”

She clarified that female potential converts must meet with the high priest, study the religion, and spend time in the community to learn its cultural practices — a process which usually takes around six months.

Samaritans trace their lineage via patrilineal descent, so men interested in converting are not met with the same warm welcome as women.

Non-Samaritan men could potentially convert and snag a Samaritan bride, further weakening marriage options for men born into the community – a scenario which the group strives to prevent. A woman who abandons tradition to marry a non-Samaritan man would be effectively excommunicated.

“She would be cut off, and nobody would talk to her anymore,” Cohen said, though she noted such occurrences are extremely rare.

A united community, miles apart

Despite the physical distance between Kiryat Luza and Holon, the Samaritans consider themselves a single entity. On major holidays, such as Passover, everyone gathers on Mount Gerizim. Parties, holidays, and social events also bring the community together. Marriages between Samaritans from Holon and Samaritans from Kiryat Luza are common.

Because of the dual residency rights possessed by Samaritans from Kiryat Luza, there’s never a situation in which a marriage means that someone must permanently leave his or her home community – a not-uncommon occurrence among Israeli Druze and Syrian Druze, who face the impossible choice of separating from their families forever when they marry someone across the border.

But the right to live anywhere from Israel’s central district to Samaria doesn’t mean there are no potential causes for conflict.

“Here in Nablus, because we have Palestinian ID cards [along with Israeli documents], we do not serve in the Israeli army,” Cohen said. However, their coreligionists from Holon, who hold only Israeli citizenship, are drafted into the IDF.

In order to stymie potential tension with neighboring Palestinian localities, community elders reached a compromise with the military. Samaritans are never assigned to roles that would have them serve in Judea and Samaria.

For their community to survive, Cohen explained, unity is key. Her father echoed her sentiments, adding that he believes that Samaritan inter-group loyalty is the reason for their against-all-odds existence.

“One hundred years ago, National Geographic came here,” he said. Their goal was to document a dying community for posterity. At that time, the Samaritan population numbered in the low hundreds, even smaller than in 2021.

“They said, ‘This is the last time we’ll see the Samaritans.’ But look at us. We’re still here.”