Caught in the Middle : Being a Real Samaritan Not All Good

Times Staff Writer

Farouk Altif is looking for a good Samaritan, or even an average one, so long as she’s of marriageable age and willing.

Altif is himself a Samaritan, part of a tiny and ancient nation that is gamely hanging onto survival in the Holy Land. His particular problem is that among Samaritans, women are scarce; males outnumber females by a ratio of about 5 to 3.

Indeed, Samaritans in general are scarce--only 529 are known to exist. There are probably more Good Samaritan hospitals in the world than there are Samaritans.


So Altif, 37, like many of his fellows, is finding it hard to locate a wife. A 19-year-old he is eyeing is playing hard to get.

Life ‘Not So Easy’

“I am in negotiations. She ic selective,” Altif sighed. “It’s not so easy being a Samaritan.”

Being a Samaritan hasn’t been easy for a long time, and despite some population growth this century, things are only barely looking up. A wife shortage is but one of the plagues currently afflicting the Samaritans.

There are age-old problems: Viewed by scholars as descendants of ancient Israelite tribes, the Samaritans are despised by traditional Jews as heretics and by Muslims as infidels. To Christians, they are known mainly through the famous parable of the Samaritan who helped an injured stranger--but it is indicative of the Samaritans’ ill repute that a single good deed by one is still being talked about 2,000 years later.

‘Don’t Have Good Reputation’

“It’s true, we don’t have a good reputation. But one has to remember, these stories were written by others,” advised Israel Sedaka, a Samaritan who works for an Israeli government mint in Jerusalem.

If such notoriety were not burden enough, modern-day Samaritans are caught in a vise between Israelis and Palestinians as the two peoples fight to dominate the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The Samaritans’ ancestral home is in Samaria, as this part of the West Bank is known, which is a center of anti-Israeli violence. Nablus, where the Samaritans have lived for centuries, is considered the capital of resistance to Israeli rule.

Because many Samaritans work for the Israeli government, they are suspect in the eyes of the Palestinians. In addition, about half of the community has moved to Holon, a city near Tel Aviv where jobs are more plentiful, thus furthering the Arab view of them as an Israeli Fifth Column.

Since the beginning of the 17-month-old Arab uprising against Israel, two Samaritan shops have been torched in Nablus. The announced motive for the arson was a campaign by Muslim fundamentalists to end liquor sales.

Early this year, a Samaritan woman was severely burned when Palestinians threw a firebomb into an Israeli bank in Nablus where she worked.

Moved From Nablus

The attacks frightened the Samaritans into moving from their quarters in Nablus up to the top of Mt. Gerizim, outside the city. In the past, they had maintained only seasonal homes on the mountain in order to prepare for rituals and feasts. This Thursday, they will celebrate Passover with a ritual sheep sacrifice and barbecue, as they have for 3,700 years.

The evacuation from Nablus marked the first time in hundreds of years that the Samaritans had been forced from the city.

“We have a thousand and one problems. It is better that we stay up here,” said Maryam Altif, a schoolteacher who is Farouk’s sister.

Added Yusef abu Hassan, the blue-robed high priest of the Samaritans: “The Israelis think we are Arabs, and the Palestinians think we are Jews. What can we do?”

The dilemma of the Samaritans is a cautionary tale about the millennial struggle for survival among the people of the Middle East. The fate of the Samaritans as a dwindling and despised minority is what the Jews, the Muslims, the Christians, the Druze, the Alawites, the Maronites and others on the endless list of Middle East sects and nationalities have fought--and killed--to avoid.

3,000 Years of Trouble

Trouble began early for the Samaritans. More than 3,000 years ago, they were rivals to the Jewish tribes that based themselves in Jerusalem. Almost all the other practices of the two people were similar or identical, but the argument over the location of the holy of holies, Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim, separates the two peoples to this day. Their temple on Mt. Gerizim was once destroyed by an army of their Jewish cousins.

“Sometimes Jews get up and leave when I sit next to them on a bus,” Hassan said. “They consider us worse than the devil.”

Throughout the unending stream of wars that has washed over Samaria, including attacks by the Greeks, Assyrians, Romans, Crusaders, French, Muslims, Turks, British and Israelis, the Samaritans have clung to Mt. Gerizim. Emigrating Samaritan communities ventured only so far as Cairo and Damascus and eventually disappeared.

This stay-at-home approach made the Samaritans the prey of the powerful conquerors who often compelled them to convert to new religions--or sometimes just slaughtered them.

“Islam took a real toll on the Samaritans. The Muslims were very aggressive converters,” said Nathan Schur, a historian who has written a new book on the Samaritans.

Vulnerability to invasion was not the Samaritans’ only weakness. They built social barriers around themselves that made them distinct, but also encouraged many Samaritans to leave the community while attracting little new blood from outside. So sensitive were the Samaritans to their distinctiveness that the priests once changed the color of their turbans to red so they would not be confused with Muslims, who often wear white headdresses.

Like the Jews, the Samaritans adhere to numerous biblical rules that set them off from their neighbors. They do not eat pork, for instance, and never cook on the Sabbath, a day of absolute rest. For many years, daily life as well as spiritual well-being was in the hands of the high priest, a practice only changed by the Samaritans a decade ago, when communal secretaries were elected to handle temporal affairs.

The high priest’s role is now limited to ritual, marriage, divorce and burial.

Women are kept apart from the community seven days during menstruation, 40 days after they give birth to a son and 80 days after the birth of a daughter.

“Some of the rival religions, notably Christianity and Islam, appealed to a wider public. The appeal of Samaritanism diminished. They may have been guilty of building too high a wall around their society to keep others out,” said historian Schur, who pointed out that not until the 19th Century, when the problem of declining female births arose, did Samaritans accept converts.

“You cannot survive if your precepts are too narrow,” Schur concluded. “It’s a fact of Samaritan life.”

Even now, the Samaritans are having a hard time keeping members within the community. One young man, who married a Jewish woman in Holon, recently left the Samaritans--and worse yet, took his children with him.

Religions Too Similar

“He wanted the freedom he saw around him,” recalled Abraham Ruhan, the deputy high priest who presides in Holon. “It is dangerous for the Samaritans to be so close to the Jews, because our religions are too similar. The powerful will eat the weak.”

“It is the most miserable crime possible to leave the community,” remarked Radwan Samri, the community secretary in Mt. Gerizim.

Modern life is luring loyal Samaritans from strict observance of community norms. For instance, the Samaritans who live in Holon come into frequent contact with the relatively gay, uninhibited life of nearby Tel Aviv. Some Samaritans even want to go the beaches there, where men and women swim together.

“It is, of course, forbidden for the sexes to view naked flesh or to see each other in their underclothing,” said Ruhan, the deputy high priest.

The Samaritans do not entirely shun contact with the outside, however. They own cars, watch television and read their own newspaper, although this weekly deals with subjects of mostly community interest. One recent issue, for instance, detailed such widely disparate events as the writing of the Ten Commandments, the latest travails of a Samaritan basketball team in Holon, a scandal over the vote for community secretary and new findings that place the Samaritans in the Holy Land at the same time, if not ahead, of the Jews.

At the same time, in such a small community the goings-on of each and every member are almost sure to be known to everyone else.

Last week, when the daughter of high priest Hassan gave birth to a girl, the 529th Samaritan, it was the talk of the town for days. Emotions were mixed because in patriarchal Samaritan society, it would have been preferred for a boy to be born; the high priest already has three granddaughters.

But because of the shortage of wives, a girl was considered a blessing. The population of Samaritans has increased from a low of 130 at the turn of the century, when their extinction was widely predicted.

“I look at it as a blessing for the community,” said the priest, diplomatically.

Farouk Altif would like to contribute a blessing of his own, if he can only persuade his prospective mate. Ironically, his brother, who is 32, has the opposite problem. His girlfriend wants to get married, but he is in no hurry.

“Interesting, no?” the eager Altif asked, laughing. “God works in strange ways, certainly.”