How one of the world's most isolated and ancient religious communities made mating exceptions to be sure it doesn't disappear from the face of the earth.
The razor sharp 30 centimeter-long blade swiftly and silently slits the throats of the petrified lambs. Blood flows everywhere. Especially at the fatal moment, the pinnacle, perfectly synchronized, quick as lightning after the long Aramaic prayer and its millennium-old choreography.
The men, the “throat cutters” in particular, wear white from head to toe – it represents equality between believers and the purity of the paschal lamb. Their immaculate clothing will soon be stained with blood, this “chrism” is then applied on everyone’s forehead, children included.
None of the 45 animals let out a bleat, as if they knew deep down what was coming. They now lie in puddles of their own blood, still twitching, their throats and guts hanging out, later to be skewered and roasted in underground ovens. They will be eaten around midnight by the entire community and their many guests. You can see Israeli and Palestinian public figures, diplomats, Tsahal soldiers bearing arms and, of course, priests and elders, easily spotted thanks to their colorful clothes and their red fez hats.
The Samaritan Easter that was celebrated on April 23rd, took place in the village of Kiryat Luza on Mount Gerizim, above the Palestinian city of Nablus. This is an ancestral, religious and colorful - hence touristic - event.
All the better for the Samaritans whose descendants came a long way to get here. In the beginning, they were the descendants of two tribes from Joseph: the tribe of Ephraim and the one of Manassé. The kingdom of Israel – around 1050 BC - was full of Israelites. The Samaritans are proud to claim that they were there at the time and have never left, something the Jews don’t really agree to.
The Schism happened around 500 BC during the Second Temple period as the Samaritans preferred to choose Mount Gerizim as the center of all things – Isaac’s sacrifice, Moses’ tomb - instead of Jerusalem. They are Jewish by tradition, but consider themselves Palestinians; in their synagogues, the prayers are executed, the Muslim way: on a carpet, and on their knees. Around the fourth century, the Samaritans counted about 1.2 million souls, only to plummet to just 147 in 1917.
More modern traditions
Many persecutions later, the Samaritans managed to overcome it all, despite the obstacles on the road due to the respect of a strict religious and ethnic purity. They needed to bear many offspring to secure their survival -- so they mated between cousins. The Samaritans are the smallest religious community in the world, maybe the oldest, but definitely the most “homogeneous”. According to Israeli geneticist Batsheva Bonne-Tamir, these blood relations led to a rate of genetic disease ten times the national rate in Israel.
The leaders of the community have avoided speaking openly about this. The new high priest Abdallah Wasser Al-Samiri and the community spokesman Ishak Al-Samiri share the same belief: “Today, the genetic diseases can be cured, it’s not an issue,” says the first one. “Marriages between cousins were not a problem and genetic tests are now mandatory anyway,” adds the other.
The Samaritan community is growing again, but slowly: 750 people divided in two camps, one in Gerizim, the other in Holon, a Tel Aviv suburb. The numbers are on the rise “naturally 10 to 15 people a year,” says Ishak Al-Samiri.
But it didn't happen by itself: new measures were needed because it had become difficult to find women on Mount Gerizim, where the man-to-woman ratio was two to one. The community took liberties with its sacrosanct rules: in 1973, the high priest allowed marriage with Jewish women, and in 2002 with…Ukrainian women.
Why Ukrainians, you say? The matchmaking agency was run by Ukrainian Jews. This is how eight blond Ukrainian women born in Kiev and Kherson landed in Kiryat Luza and Holon, they even blended in pretty well.
One of the first to sign up for the Ukranian option was Wadah Abd Moïne. In his small living room, two ostensibly mentally disabled 50-something men are snoozing. They are his brothers: “I didn’t want my children to suffer from genetic diseases,” as he points at them, “so I went to Ukraine and met Alexandra.”
Wadah walks with the help of crutches and adds that the Tel Aviv agency asked for $25,000. The prices have increased a bit since. Azzam Altif, 55, paid $28,000. Among 17 Ukrainian girls, he picked Alla Evdokimova, 26, and asked her to get married on Mount Gezirim. He willfully recognizes the courage it took for her to abide by the strict rules applied to Samaritan women.
Is the future of the community safe? Rajai Altif is worried that last year, most newborns were male. “If you know any French girls willing to settle here,” he says with a smile, “they’re welcome.” Be warned.