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Tahini: The food at the center of an Arab gay rights battle

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — TEL AVIV, Israel — When Julia Zaher, the owner of a company that makes some of the most popular tahini in Israel, made a donation to an Israeli gay rights group recently, she saw it as an unremarkable act.

“When I see people in a tough place, I always like to help them,” Zaher, 65, an Arab citizen of Israel, said in an interview. “If everyone turns their back on this community, who is going to help?”

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The backlash in Israel’s socially conservative Arab community was swift and unforgiving.

Activists called for a boycott of her company, Al Arz. Videos circulated on Facebook and Twitter of Arab shopkeepers pulling Al Arz’s tahini from their shelves and throwing it in the garbage. An executive at one of the largest Arab-owned grocery chains in Israel, Al Mashadawi, said it was considering dropping Al Arz from its 14 stores.

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“We have values that we follow,” said Jabr Hejazi, a supermarket owner in the northern town of Tamra who abruptly stopped carrying the brand. “It’s a simple matter.”

But gay rights activists say the controversy has had the welcome side effect of focusing attention on a group whose problems have been ignored for too long: gay and transgender members of Israel’s Arab minority, who say they are marginalized and discriminated twice over.

“This is a huge event,” said Khader Abu-Seif, 33, an LGBT rights activist in Tel Aviv. “Of course, we’re seeing ugliness, but we’re also seeing support from people who never spoke out openly for us in the past.”

Zaher, a mild-mannered, strong-willed mother of two from Nazareth, may seem an unlikely catalyst for the controversy.

A schoolteacher for decades, she took over her husband’s tahini business when he died after a heart attack in 2003.

The company was in poor financial shape, she said in an interview Saturday in Tel Aviv. But she poured herself into it, paying off debts, convincing the bank to lend her more money and upgrading the manufacturing process.

Today, her company’s two plants in the Nazareth area produce a whopping 20 to 25 tons of tahini a day. The thick paste they make from Ethiopian sesame seeds is nearly ubiquitous at supermarkets and restaurants in Israel and is exported to 18 countries, including the United States. And Zaher became the rare woman to lead a major Arab-owned company.

No stranger to philanthropy, she had made previous donations to benefit women’s rights and people with disabilities.

The donation she made to Aguda, a national LGBT rights organization, was to help set up a hotline for Arabic-speaking Israelis.

The group’s CEO, Ohad Hizki, declined to say how much Zaher had given but called it “significant.” He said the hotline would be open for calls by next month.

The controversy erupted when Aguda thanked Zaher publicly on Twitter on July 1.

Mouad Khateb, one of the most prominent opponents of the donation, expressed the views of many critics, saying that he had no objection to whatever gay and transgender people do in private but that the donation would contribute to “normalizing” their “unnatural” way of life to the Arab public.

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“What’s most problematic is when Arabs are participating in these efforts,” said Khateb, who has used derogatory terms to describe members of the LGBT community and claimed that they suffered from “psychological disorders” requiring “treatment.”

But the boycott has also drawn public opposition from supporters of gay rights.

“I’m with Al Arz against the boycott,” wrote Hana Amoury, a resident of the port city of Jaffa, on Facebook. “Those still saying and thinking gay people are ‘abnormal’ need to do some reading.”

Abu-Seif, the activist, noted that an Arab lawmaker from Acre, Aida Touma-Sliman, had spoken out in defense of the LGBT community — a rare instance, he said, and a sign that it was becoming more difficult for Arab politicians to remain on the sidelines when the LGBT community was under assault.

Aside from the anti-gay backlash, some gay Arabs also criticized the donation for going to an Israeli organization, which they contend supports policies that work to erase the Palestinian experience, instead of a Palestinian one. Aguda denies the accusation, saying it advocates equal rights for all gay and transgender people in Israel regardless of their religious or national background.

Al Arz’s donation was only the latest in a series of public demonstrations of support for Arab gays and lesbians, activists say.

In May, thousands of mourners attended the funeral of Ayman Safiah, a gay dancer who drowned in the Mediterranean after helping save the life of a friend. And in August, hundreds of people protested in Haifa after the stabbing of a young transgender Arab.

“What we have been seeing is the taboo slowly being broken down,” said Fady Khoury, 35, a gay civil rights lawyer from Haifa. “Everything that happened in the past year is the culmination of the work that has been done over the past two decades — all the efforts activists have made to promote social change on this issue.”

But Zaher, whose phone has been ringing constantly over the past week, said she was still puzzled by the uproar.

“I never could have imagined that something like this would happen,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense: You do something positive, and then you get something negative in return.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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