Opinion |

Seeds of Hope? Arab Tahini Maker's Backing for LGBTQ Rights in Israel Shows Change Is Underway

Khader Abu-Seif
The Al Arz Tahini factory in Nazareth, northern Israel.
The Al Arz Tahini factory in Nazareth, northern Israel. Credit: Gil Eliahu
Khader Abu-Seif

Last week, an amazing, brilliant and revolutionary thing happened – the opening of a hotline for Arabs in Israel who are part of the LGBTQ community. The hotline is funded by a local Arab company, Al Arz Tahini. This action is so courageous and exceptional, and attests to the fact that Arab society in Israel is starting to show the first buds of hope regarding the rights of LGBTQ Arab citizens. We no longer have to wait for or expect Arab Knesset members to wake up and understand that there is such a community in Arab society, one that needs some oxygen and some help. This was a step taken by one company and one amazing woman whose heart, head and funds are all in the right place.

This is a particularly unusual step showing that there is a change in opinion underway in how members of the LGBTQ community are still perceived in Arab society today, namely as people who are shunned, ostracized, seen as less than successful, or who have failed to integrate – to cite the more delicate epithets used in describing them.

The move by Al Arz did not escape the notice of various religious councils, which have decided to boycott their tahini. Day by day, there is an accumulation of online posts by Arab grocery stores and supermarkets that have decided to remove this tahini from their shelves.

Participants, some of them wearing masks, at last month's LGBTQ Pride rally in Tel Aviv, held under the shadow of the coronavirus. Credit: Meged Gozani

I am not a belligerent or quarrelsome person, which is why I propose that for every tahini removed from a supermarket shelf, you buy one jar made by Al Arz. Anyone who won’t let religious dictates tell him or her what to do, how to live, what to eat or drink, should buy one jar. This is how we’ll exert our communal pressure, together with pressure from our natural allies, to show that we can give as good as good as we get.

These days, our reality is unbearable. The pandemic is illuminating in a harsh light all the strengths and weaknesses of all the communities I’m familiar with. And yet, help and support and solidarity will provide the clearest and strongest response to primitive and unenlightened attitudes.

We should not be dragged into a pointless and fruitless argument with benighted people. Let’s bring some light and color to a community that really needs it. I salute Al Arz Tahini and Arab society, which for the first time is holding such an open conversation about Arab LGBTQ citizens, an issue Arab lawmakers are routinely afraid to touch.

Julia Zaher and her son Yousouf Zaher, founders of the Al Arz Tahini company in Nazareth. Credit: Gil Eliyahu

This is our power. We’re no longer alone. Along with numerous slanderous posts calling members of the LGBTQ community “deviants and contaminated,” there are thousands of other ones by Arabs who defend us and understand our needs.

This is a historic moment for Arab society in Israel, and how delightful that it began with one tahini maker supporting one community. I can’t think of any product that can better represent me than tahini in the Middle East. It may be somewhat of a stigma or bias (lumping together Arabs and tahini), but hey, today more than ever I feel like a helping of hummus and tahini, with chickpea kernels in the colors of Al Arz and the rainbow.

The writer is an activist for the rights of LGBTQ people in Arab society.

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