Tahini isn’t a product Israelis normally dwell on; while hummus is a cult favorite with well-documented “hummus wars,” tahini is a condiment that no one would describe as divisive—until now.
Last week, Julia Zaher, the CEO of Al Arz, an Israeli Arab tahini brand produced in Nazareth, made a donation to an organization promoting LGBTQ rights in the Arab sector, and the country exploded. Zaher’s contribution was made toward a project creating a support and aid line for LGBTQ members of the Israeli Arab community, for obvious reasons. Being gay is still considered taboo in the Israeli Arab community and coming out is considered risky; a year ago, an Arab teen had suffered an assasination attempt outside an LGBTQ shelter in Tel Aviv, and many similar acts of violence remain unreported. IGY, the Israeli LGBTQ youth organization, even has a special division working with Arab youth, Alawan, dedicated to creating protected spaces for teens who don’t feel safe in their communities and families.
Zaher’s announcement resulted in a social media festival like no other—on both sides. “At first I thought my life was over, with all the hatred toward me and the phone calls to the offices,” said Zaher in an interview to Walla News on Tuesday, before taking a break from the media blitz. “Then, a second wave of support and love came, and I could breathe a little.” The hatred she mentions included a slew of small grocery stores posting videos on Facebook, in which Al Arz tahini products are being removed from the shelves. There have also been calls to boycott the brand by Arab consumers, calling Zaher’s move “dangerous.” In the face of all this, the official response from Al Arz remained calm and collected: “We’re not affected by boycotts. Our product is good and speaks for itself and in the past, larger companies were threatened by boycotts, and they had passed,” was the response posted in Makor Rishon.
On the other side of the supermarket aisle, dozens of declarations of support for Zaher were spotted on social media—from prominent Israeli gay figures like the journalist Gal Uchovski, to the Facebook group whose name loosely translates to Condescending and Elevated Israelis in Relocation, with over 10,000 members who call Israel home but live elsewhere. In the group, the call to buy only Al Arz tahini from now on was pinned to the top of the Facebook wall by the admin, with Israeli members from all over the world later posting pictures of the brand’s tahini in food aisles.
While the negative feedback and the output of support are to be expected in a country divided by religious and secular views, what’s more fascinating is the way different political parties have responded to the small scandal. Meretz, a liberal left party whose numbers have been dwindling for the past few election cycles, went all out with a Facebook poster that reads “Proud of you” and a post that invited followers to “beat the LGTBQ-phobes, and buy only Al Arz from now on.” From the party Joint List, representing the alliance of the Arab Israeli parties, two different members were at odds: Party leader Ayman Odeh condemned the boycott, but lamented that it is “hypocrisy” to boycott Al Arz, but to “support brands that strengthen the settlements and the army,” a response the local media deemed “stuttering.” His fellow party member Aida Touma Sliman, on the other hand, simply wrote on Twitter: “I spoke to Julia Zaher and told her that her brave move is a clear statement to our society: LGBTQ rights are human rights.” With the government creating more and more antagonism due to its widely criticized navigation of the COVID-19 pandemic, tahini can certainly smooth things over—or add oil to the fire.
Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.