Israeli-Arab Tahini Tycoon Goes Viral After Standing Up for LGBTQ Rights
Israel’s “Queen of Tahini” caused a conservative backlash when she funded an Arabic-language LGBTQ support hotline—but she found support in unexpected places.
Julia Zaher wanted only to be a good citizen and a good businesswoman, running her prize-winning Nazareth tahini factory. But controversy got in the way.
Last month, in honor of Pride, Zaher decided to provide a critical service to Israel’s large Arab minority—20 percent of the country’s population—by funding a dedicated Arabic-language hotline for LGBTQ youth at the Aguda, Israel’s national LGBT Association.
The Aguda announced it to the public on July 1, in a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic post expressing gratitude “for the assistance of Al-Arz tahini, a company working together with us to create a more accepting and a safer environment.”
But very quickly, Zaher’s simple act of goodwill went awry. Offended by what they viewed as Al-Arz mainstreaming gay rights into Arab society, a number of conservative Muslim clerics in the Galilee, where the company is based, called for a boycott. Following suit, shopkeepers in Israeli-Arab towns started posting Facebook videos showing them denouncing “homosexual rights” and angrily dumping entire shelves of the distinctive red, green and white containers of tahini into the trash.
In a radio interview, former parliamentarian Talab al-Sana, who is Bedouin, lent his support to the boycott, saying “This [homosexuality] is not acceptable in Arab society, or from a religious point of view. Giving legitimacy to this phenomenon is forbidden.”
But surreptitiously, a revolt was underway—a backlash to the boycott that revealed a vibrant, far-from-homogeneous culture that refused to be cowed by preachy orthodoxy, and also exposed a major disconnection between Arab citizens and those who claim to be their religious leaders.
Aida Touma-Sliman, who serves for the majority-Arab Joint List party in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, posted a counter-video passionately calling on “everyone to buy Al-Arz tahini and oppose the boycott.”
Hailing Zaher’s generosity, Touma-Sliman declared that “LGBT rights are human rights. The boycott of Al-Arz Tahini,” she said, “is an attempt to silence and intimidate Julia and the company.”
Zaher is not new to fame. She is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Israel’s fancy food sector, and the rare female CEO in Israel’s heavily masculine business world. She is also the only woman in Israel to lead a major Arab-owned company.
And since 2015, when her smooth, creamy product was named the “best in the business” by the Manufacturers Association of Israel, Zaher, 65, has been known as Israel’s “Queen of Tahini.”
Unwittingly, she has now become the symbol for contemporary Arab-Israeli society’s liberal transformation.
“I thought my life was over with the initial shock that came with the wave of hateful phone calls,” Zaher said to a journalist from the WallaNews portal. “But when the second wave came, with all that support, I was able to breathe a little.”
The status of LGBTQ youth within Israeli-Arab society varies widely. Though Israeli law ensures equality in almost every aspect of life, certain groups remain conservative and even oppressive towards gender-nonbinary members. This affects LGBTQ youth in ultra-Orthodox Jewish society and in traditional Muslim towns most acutely. Five percent of Knesset members are openly gay, the fourth-highest number in the world, and last week, a bill criminalizing conversion therapy passed a crucial preliminary vote despite resistance from parties representing the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and the Islamic Movement.
Because of the heightened sensitivities, when party leader Ayman Odeh followed Touma-Sliman, he chose a softer line, denouncing only “the hypocrisy of boycotting Al-Arz tahini while leaving the products of Israeli companies who proudly support West Bank settlements and the army on their shelves”—and the blowback was immediate.
“As usual, Ayman Odeh sputters when it comes to the LGBTQs,” fumed Mohammad Zoabi, a political activist and campaigner for gay rights, in a column in Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s widest distribution daily. “He likes to talk about equality, but only until it touches on gay rights in Arab society.”
Khader Abu-Seif, another LGBTQ activist, wrote in the liberal daily Haaretz that the backing of an Arab-owned company was “an historic moment for Arab society in Israel.”
“How delightful,” he wrote, that the transformation “began with one tahini maker supporting one community… It may be somewhat of a stigma or bias (lumping Arabs and tahini together), 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.”
Zaher is well-known in the Israeli gastronomic scene as the woman who single-handedly turned a family tragedy, the 2003 death of her husband, Assad, who left her a struggling tahini factory, into a symbol of national pride.
“It is excellent tahini, for starters,” Haifa chef Alaa Musa, said in an interview. “My feeling is, people can do what they want. If Al-Arz’s owner supports LGBT rights, it is her business.”
Musa, the chef and owner of Lux, a high-end seafood restaurant in Haifa’s fashionable port, said “people are making too much noise about it, and they’re harming her business. We’re living in the 21st century, man. Disagree with her, fine, but it is her right.”
Al-Arz has not released any data about its July earnings, but the economic damage may, in fact, be negligible, as the boycott appears to have backfired.
In viral retorts to the videos of shop owners tossing their Al-Arz tahini, supporters posted images of sold-out shelves of Al-Arz.
The Nazarene tycoon’s two factories pump out more than 20 tons of top-of-the-line tahini a day, ground in a stone mill from choice Ethiopian sesame seeds that undergo a 17-step process of roasting and blending.
Al-Arz is omnipresent in Israel and it is exported to 18 countries, including the United States.
Zaher has a long history of philanthropic donations aimed at improving the lives of her fellow Israeli-Arabs. In a film made when she won the 2015 award, she said, of the time she took over her husband’s company, “Arab society stood by me at a time when I was in need, so now that the company is successful and I have the ability, I feel I’m giving back.”
“She can do whatever she wants with her own money, said Ahmad Muna, owner of Jerusalem’s Educational Bookshop, who said he hadn’t yet tasted Al-Arz tahini but had every intention of doing so. “People waste energy instead of focusing on areas that are a lot more important, like COVID-19 and the fact that Israeli democracy is not really being a democracy.”
“Maybe Palestinians supporting Al Arz isn’t what you expect,” he acknowledged, “but we live in a world in which people are much more open-minded. Palestinians have a cause, and inspired by our own struggle they are a lot more understanding and aware of wanting and being whatever you want to be.”