LONG forgotten by history is a small Middle Eastern community that claims to be an even more legitimate heir to the Holy Land that the Jews and Palestinians have fought over for a century. But it is too busy trying to stay alive to attempt to assert its rights.
Yet for Levy Atef Nagi, the truth is blatant: ``We are the true Israelites,'' says the 75-year-old high priest of the Samaritans. His long white beard, red turban, and full-length robe bestow upon him an air of authority that belies the chaos and poverty of his office. He ignores the scattered newspapers, the rusty pieces of pipe, and decades of dust in a small room that opens directly onto a back street of Nablus.
``I can trace my ancestors back to 3,600 years ago,'' says the leader of a 600-member community whose fate testifies to the political and religious history of the Middle East. Rejected by mainstream Jews, massively converted to Christianity and later to Islam, the Samaritan community is split about evenly between Nablus in the West Bank and Holon, near Tel Aviv in Israel.
Contemporary Samaritans define themselves as descendants of the tribe of Joseph, one of the 12 sons of Jacob. They say that they alone respect Moses's Torah and that Judaism is a heresy. From the first-century Roman historian Josephus Flavius until today, the origin of the Samaritans has been a matter of debate among scholars.
Flavius wrote that the Samaritans came from an early schism among Israelites. This thesis, which still has some defenders, competes with explanations offered by such contemporary Jewish historians as Moshe Herr:
``The story told in the Bible, in II Kings 17:24-29, is quite accurate,'' says this Hebrew University professor. ``In the 13th century BC, the Assyrians destroyed the kingdom of Israel. They deported tens of thousands of people to the Western part of Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq. [They also] took a group of people - the Cuteans, who lived in what is now the border area between Iran and Iraq - and moved them to Samaria. These settlers came across Israelite clergymen who had escaped the exile.'' The clergy converted these people to Judaism.
Beyond the question of the account's historical accuracy, hard to establish, lies an essential dispute over who are the biblical people of Israel. To enforce their claim as the chosen people, explains Etienne Nodet, a Christian specialist who teaches at Jerusalem's le Biblique, ``the Samaritans, who had definitively separated from Jerusalem's Judaism in the 2nd century BC, edited their own Pentateuch with some amendments aimed at establishing their exclusive legitimacy.''
The relationships between Jews and Samaritans remained tense for a long time. The antagonism had not receded much at the time of Christ Jesus. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:30-37), for example, Jesus chooses the good deed of the Jews' enemy to make his point.
Today's Samaritans are ill-prepared to join in the scholarly debate. A very modest center began conducting scientific research last year, trying - among other things - to analyze the records the community has kept throughout the centuries.
Levy Atef Nagi is proud of his people's literate past. ``Until 200 years ago, we kept a collective record of our community life. Since then, every family does it.'' As the high priest, he has the largest library with about 400 hand-written volumes. He displays a Samaritan Bible he wrote when he was 18 years old. It took him six months to copy the five books of the Pentateuch, the only text the Samaritans recognize as holy. It is still written in ancient Hebrew, the Samaritans' sacred language. In daily life, Samaritans who live in the West Bank speak Arabic, and those who live in Israel speak Hebrew.
Between 1948 and 1967, it was not always easy to communicate between Holon, in the newly created Jewish state, and Jordanian-controlled Nablus. Since Israel's occupation of the West Bank at the end of the Six Day War, the two branches of the community have met at least once a year for the ritual sacrifice of lambs for Passover on Mt. Gerizim. The mountain, which dominates Nablus, is as holy for Samaritans as Jerusalem is for Jews.
The sacrifice is one of the four pillars of the Samaritan religion. The others are the requirements to live forever in the land of Israel; to celebrate the Sabbath as written in the Torah; and to adhere to the law of purity and impurity as prescribed in the Torah, the high priest explains.
His daughter Rivka does not object to the severity of those laws. She explains in a matter-of-fact way the strict isolation of women during menstruation and after the birth of a child - for 40 days if the newborn is a boy and 80 days if she is a girl. ``I don't mind these rules, because it has been by observing our traditions that we have kept alive,'' says Rivka, a modern-looking woman who has been trained as an English teacher, but who will not dispute her father's right to choose her future husband.
The Samaritans have only narrowly escaped extinction. At the beginning of this century there were just 175 left, and men greatly outnumbered women. Even though the community has opened to women converted from Judaism, the sect's strictness discourages many. Meanwhile, there have been centuries of inbreeding and a high percentage of children born with disabilities.
The community now is growing slowly, but its main concern remains self-preservation. This is the main reason the sect's high priest is careful to stay aloof from the region's political battles. ``Keeping to ourselves is our best protection,'' Levy Atef Nagi says. ``Nowdays, we are too weak. We can't define ourselves as a nation anymore, as we did a long time ago.''
The younger gen-eration is more at-tuned to current political developments, but the differences of opinion one can hear reflect the confusion of the community.
Rivka, born and raised in Israeli-occupied Nablus, has no doubt: ``I'm a Palestinian, even though the Muslims I meet for the first time think I am some kind of a Jew. I always have to explain,'' she confides, smiling.
Shadaya Tzadkah, also from Nablus, married her cousin from Holon, thus ``immigrating'' from the West Bank to Israel. But she claims her Israeli nationality so strongly that she demands the same ``new immigrant'' rights as Jews get.
The historic Israeli-Palestinian agreement last September has brought mixed feelings to the Samaritans. On the one hand, they rejoice at the prospect of peace. On the other hand, they worry about the risk of another geographical division that a future Palestinian state could bring to their fragile community.
The high priest, who makes a living from his modest office in downtown Nablus by giving out ``magic formulas,'' casting spells, and reading horoscopes in a very ecumenical way to Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Samaritans alike, keeps to himself his predictions of his people's future. ``Let's just pray that we will keep growing,'' he says cautiously.