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‘The Samaritans: A Biblical People’ Exhibit to Open in Washington, DC

“The Samaritans: A Biblical People” will open at the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 15. This multimedia exhibition, international in scope, is a partnership of the Yeshiva University (YU) Center for Israel Studies and Museum of the Bible.

“The Samaritans: A Biblical People” is a centerpiece of the Center’s YU Israelite Samaritans Project, which includes scholarship, a cookbook, a book for children and a celebrated full-length documentary.

People often ask me, “Why the Samaritans?” I answer that the YU Center for Israel Studies, which I founded and direct, is committed to exploring Israel in all of its glorious complexity. We study and present the “real” Israel with love and curiosity for the betterment of our students, our community and the world.

Samaritans are a small but fascinating part of modern Israel. They are neither Jews nor Arabs, but both and neither—all at once. Some are Israelis and serve in the IDF, while others are citizens of the Palestinian Authority. They are Israelites, descendants of Ephraim, Menashe and Levi, and have their own high priest, Torah version and holy mountain. Only 850 survive (up from 119 in 1900), half in Holon and half in a village built atop Mt. Gerizim, near Nablus. Pretty complex, right?

For me, this complexity has deep resonance. Some years ago, when my eldest son was in fourth grade, he was studying in a Mishnah class at the start of the academic year. It was Chodesh Elul, and the rebbe was guiding the boys through masechet Rosh Hashanah. The group arrived at Mishnah 2:2, the story of the nefarious Kutim. The rabbi began to explain how 2,000 years ago, these awful Kutim ruined the communication of vital information relating to the new moon from the Jerusalem Temple to the Galilee, Syria and ultimately to Babylonia. He told the boys that the Kutim were descendents of false converts, always attacking “us.”

The rebbe must surely have told this story many, many times to many children—and learned it himself as a child. After all, Rashi, al ha-daf, right there in the Talmud, calls Kutim “lion converts”— insincere proselytes who fell back into idolatry (Kiddushin 75a).

Soon my son looked rattled, and his loving rebbe noticed. “What’s wrong?” the attentive and kind teacher asked. “Rabbi, my abba has a friend who is Samaritan. Calling Samaritans ‘Kutim’ is like using the ‘N’ word.”

The teacher had no answer and went on with the lesson. At carpool, he sought me out to tell me this story and ask for more information about Samaritans.

Our project responds to this kind of curiosity.

Interestingly, Samaritans once told their children similar things about Jews, relating that our ancestors nefariously changed the Torah, abandoned blessed Mount Gerizim and caused animosity against the Samaritans. This mutual hatred and distrust is millenia old, though at times chazal showed respect for Samaritans and during the middle ages Jews and Samaritans lived amicably.

Negativity between Jews and Samaritans began to break down in the modern world after the Jerusalem chief rabbi—haham bashi—Rabbi Abraham Hayyim Gagin (d. 1848) saved the Samaritan remnant from imminent destruction by zealots in Nablus. The rabbi testified to the Turkish authorities that Samaritans are “Israelites who believe in the Torah of Moses.” This act of kindness, hatsalat nefashot, saved the Samaritans from extinction, and opened a new chapter.

Revitalizing his community was the life’s work of the legendary high priest Jacob ben Aaron (d. 1916), and then of a young Samaritan named Yefet Tsedaka, who in 1909 took into his Jaffa home a young pioneer named Izhak Ben-Zvi who wanted to learn Arabic. This connection had inestimable significance for the Samaritans. Ben-Zvi became their main benefactor. Having a leader of the Zionist movement as their patron had great benefits, and the president of the new state even more so. Ben-Zvi’s last public act as Israel’s second president was the dedication of the synagogue in Holon in 1963. The Israeli Samaritans declared the feud over, as did President Ben-Zvi. As far as they were concerned, the Israeli Samaritans and the Jews were one nation once again.

Sometimes invisible to Israeli society, the Samaritans are a piece of modern Israel—of its “fabric,” its cultural “mosaic.” The Holon branch— about 400 people—is completely integrated into Israeli society, while the Mt. Gerizim community has a far more complex place in the web of relationships between Israel and the Palestinians. Some Mt. Gerizim Samaritans work in family businesses in Nablus, while others work in factories in the Israeli city of Ariel. Three work at Ben Gurion Airport. Another is a school principal in Nablus. Samaritan tehini is world famous, manufactured by the sons of the high priest on Mt. Gerizim, featured in Forbes magazine, and bears badatz hashgacha for the benefit of the Jewish community. One is a member of the Central Committee of the Likud, another of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Samaritans, today a “micro-people,” are one of the many “tribes” of modern Israel. They are a piece of Israel’s amazing complexity, a lesser known and less studied element of a dynamic multicultural society.

The Samaritans, neither Jews nor Arabs, both and neither all at once, are a challenge. They are the “other Israel”—but who are they? The Yeshiva University Israelite Samaritans Project is a meeting place and an opportunity to learn, both about this fascinating community and about ourselves. Most of all, our project, especially our exhibition and documentary, is a bold and confident exploration of Israel in all of its amazing complexity, led by the diaspora’s premiere Jewish university, in the spirit of torah u-maddah.

The public is invited to the Museum of the Bible, eat lunch in its kosher sukkah, and view the amazing multimedia exhibition (https://www.museumofthebible.org/exhibits/the-samaritans-a-biblical-people).

“The Samaritans: A Biblical People” will run from Sept. 15 through Jan. 1 at the Museum of the Bible and from March-September 2023 at Bibelhaus in Frankfurt, Germany.

Steven Fine is the Dean Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and director of the YU Center for Israel Studies and the YU Israelite Samaritans Project. Fine is curator of “The Samaritans: A Biblical People.”

This article is the second in a series presented by the YU Center for Israel Studies.

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