His people had been on this mountain for 3,600 years, the Chief Rabbi, who sits across from me in an Ottoman era Turkish Fez, tells me somewhat defensively.
He is the leader of a 770 person community of Jewish Samaritans, living in the Palestinian city of Nablus, high on a mountain. They are integrated members of Palestinian society with a status all their own, protected in the Qur’an, along with Jews and Christians, as a “people of the book.” But it is all so anomalous that it seems I am having a conversation with Papa Smurf.
His community are not Jews, he emphasizes, though they follow Moses and the Torah. They predate the Jews; Solomon was not supposed to build the temple in Jerusalem, rather their home is here on Mount Gerzim.
His people live on a tightrope between Israel and Palestine. They are quite integrated into the Palestinian people, though he says extremists on both sides persecute them. Studiously neutral in the “conflict,” he favors a two-state solution, opposes the Jewish settlements, and wishes for his people to remain on the Palestinian side.
It is the kind of anomaly that often gets chalked up to fanaticism.
But as his defensiveness falls away, the wisdom in his position begins to shine through. He envisions peace and harmony between two peoples that must remain separate. “The Jews will always want to take the whole of the land, the Palestinians will want to outnumber the more slowly populating Jews,” to paraphrase from memory.
The good Samaritans can play a mediating role in the conflict.
It is a position which was probably honed over multiple generations, as his people were killed off by this or that group as they veered too far in either direction of the conflicts they experienced. And I cannot swallow the idea that they have been on this same mountain for so long.
These sorts of memories obscure the sort of movements of peoples which serious sociological histories never fail to trace. His history is as convenient as the Zionist claims to the whole of “Judea and Samaria,” but his own position is much more modest and reasonable and also presents a brilliant mytho-historical narrative of unity.
There is a live-and-let-live tolerance I have found amongst Palestinians. Having read the Qur’an numerous times, I can say with confidence that it clearly grants respect to multiple religions in multiple places, integrating prophets like Moses and Jesus, even as it occasionally lashes out against Christians and Jews in specific places. Under multiple Islamic empires, these religious communities became self-governing and largely autonomous, a peace that only really began to unravel as Europeans looked for a foothold in the Middle East through these communities and as Israel began to appear to them a beachhead of European colonialism.
That is how you can find a community like the Samaritans in the West Bank.
Of course, there is an irony in the Rabbi’s position. The two peoples must be kept separate because they cannot integrate, but here he is, living in a well integrated community, in the middle of the West Bank, wanting to stay put.
Even as he argues for two-states, his life speaks louder than his words and I yearn to see two peoples, in all their many varied hues, dancing together as one. And I long to find a deeper connection to something older and more earthy than the blood soaked Jerusalem.
He says that Solomon was never supposed to build the temple in Jerusalem. And in this I hear a wisdom that reminds me of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers and Mohammad smashing idols.
Their numbers may be smaller, but the story he tells is more vast and beautiful and promises greater peace. And I wonder who will write the bestseller that takes this best of myths and makes it a reality.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Catherine Monkman