Samaritans: Alive and Doing Better

From Edmund Sanders, LATimes:

Samaritans, who trace their roots back about 2,700 years, are best known for clinging to strict biblical traditions that have largely disappeared, including animal sacrifice, isolation of menstruating women and, until recently, a ban on marrying outsiders.

But after facing near-extinction and being devastated by a high rate of birth defects because of inbreeding, the community is using modern science — including genetic testing, in vitro fertilization and abortion — to preserve their traditional way of life.

“It’s changing our blood,” said Aharon Ben-Av Chisda, 86, high priest of the 750-member Samaritan community, which is split about evenly between the West Bank village of Kiryat Luza near Nablus and the Israeli city of Holon, south of Tel Aviv.

The white-bearded priest said genetic testing was breathing new life and optimism into the once-besieged community. He noted that he and his wife, who is a second cousin, had four children before genetic testing was available: Three are deaf and one can’t walk. Most other families at Mt. Gerizim tell similar stories of health problems and handicaps among the older generation, though lately such problems have begun to disappear.

Samaritans are one of the world’s oldest religious sects. Similar in practice, beliefs and ancestry to Jews, they follow the Hebrew Torah. But instead of Jerusalem, they revere a temple their ancestors built on this remote West Bank hillside.

Mentioned several times in the Bible, Samaritans are also considered one of the most inbred communities in the world, with 46% marrying first cousins and more than 80% marrying blood relatives, according to research by Israeli geneticist Batsheva Bonne-Tamir, who spent most of her career studying the community.

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  • Michael Todd

    Can I now start calling it “The Parable of the Good Inbred”?

  • Pat Pope

    This is interesting. Are they still looked down upon? I would imagine if so, part of it has to with their isolation and inbreeding, but then that all probably started as a result of rejection by society. So, it’s just one vicious cycle it seems, but good to know they’re trying to break out of it.

  • Katherinez

    They’re resorting to killing off their babies via abortion and in vitro fertilization (and subsequent destruction of genetically deformed embryos I’m assuming) so as to preserve their ancestry? This is a good thing?!