August 12, 2020 at 10:10 pm PDT | by Sa'ed Atshan
The Gay Tahini controversy explained

Julia Zaher, Israeli Arab Christian owner of the Al Arz Tahini company in Nazareth. (Photo Facebook of Hananya Naftali)

In recent weeks, a local controversy over tahini, the sesame paste that forms the basis of hummus, LGBTQ rights, and Palestinian communal relations has made international headlines.

Julia Zaher, a Palestinian citizen of Israel from Nazareth, has been at the center of this firestorm. She’s the owner of the Al Arz tahini factory. A mother, widow, and former teacher, she took over the family business in 2013 after her husband passed away from a heart attack. Zaher catapulted the business to its current success of millions in profit and exporting globally. She is also a philanthropist, with contributions to causes such as disability services, women’s organizations, and most recently, LGBTQ social welfare.

The trouble started with Zaher’s decision to donate to The Aguda, an Israeli LGBTQ organization, to start a support hotline for queer Palestinian citizens of Israel. Her decision hit a sensitive nerve with many Palestinians, particularly after Aguda publicly expressed their appreciation for Zaher’s contribution on July 1.

Some queer Palestinian activists publicly criticized Zaher for supporting an Israeli organization and not donating the funds to an established hotline run by Al-Qaws and Aswat, the two major queer Palestinian organizations. Many of these individuals are also concerned about pinkwashing: an Israeli state-led campaign to draw attention to Israeli LGBTQ rights in order to detract attention from Israel’s gross violations of Palestinian human rights.

Other queer Palestinians expressed their understanding of Zaher’s decision, believing that having an additional hotline is beneficial. They recognize that there are queer Palestinians who would prefer to utilize Aguda’s hotline. For instance, individuals may feel more secure when it comes to anonymity or confidentiality, or they could have differences in opinion with the queer Palestinian organizations’ political platforms and approaches to community organizing.

As I document in my recently published book, queer Palestinians are just as heterogenous as any population. Many of these individuals also recognize that Palestinian citizens of Israel often have no choice but to utilize services from Israeli institutions, such as government agencies, universities, hospitals, and employers; they do not believe in an exception prohibiting LGBTQ Palestinians from accessing resources within queer Israeli organizations.

Then international media became involved, with some Palestinian activists accusing the New York Times of “erasing” Palestinian queer organizations, including their existing hotline service, from its coverage. These activists declined to be interviewed for the story unless the NY Times journalist agreed to not interview the Aguda, leading the journalist to reject that stipulation, and things took off on social media.

However, missed by the media’s coverage of this controversy is that it actually reflects a growing openness towards LQBTQ people in traditionally conservative Palestinian society, particularly inside Israel.

Nearly two million Palestinian Arabs reside in Israel today as minority citizens and indigenous people in their ancestral homeland. They must confront systemic racism and discrimination within a settler-colonial context, and struggle for equal rights within the state.

The elected representatives of Palestinian Christian and Muslim citizens of Israel in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) play important roles in enabling the Jewish Israeli majority to hear Palestinian voices.

Two of these Palestinian members of the Knesset, Aida Touma-Suleiman and Ayman Odeh, have been particularly outspoken on LGBTQ rights as an intersecting struggle for equality. Touma-Suleiman is eloquent and known for her pioneering feminism and leadership. While Odeh, leader of the Joint List, the third largest faction in the Knesset, is also widely respected in their community.

Last month Odeh gave a televised interview with an Arab-Israeli channel, articulating the reasons he voted in favor of recently-passed legislation outlawing gay conversion therapy. Odeh, who is married to a woman and posts photographs online of their family, addressed Palestinian citizens of Israel directly and unapologetically defended his position, referencing the insights of Arab medical professionals that conversion therapy is inhumane, psychologically damaging, and a form of torture.

Of course, not all Palestinians are so progressive.

Both Odeh and Touma-Suleiman have faced formidable opposition to their principled positions. They, and of course Palestinian LQBTQ people themselves, must deal with resistance from homophobes in Palestinian and Israeli communities, including homophobic politicians and religious leaders.

Palestinians today are deeply splintered geographically, with varied experiences in diaspora or refugee communities, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and within Israel. The divides that Palestinians face are both external and internal, resulting from Israeli-imposed control and intra-communal political and social contestation. Increasing public debates surrounding LGBTQ rights further reveal these fault lines.

As for the tahini tempest, Zaher has heard from queer Palestinians who appreciate her solidarity.

Throughout all of the scrutiny she has faced, including backlash from both homophobes and a subset of queer activists, Zaher has maintained graciousness, emphasizing her belief in the importance of more social services for LGBTQ Palestinians.

With her contributions, and those of others such as Ayman Odeh, there is a notable rise in prominent Palestinians who are committed to LGBTQ rights and progress. Palestinian citizens of Israel are leading the way.

— Dr. Sa’ed Atshan is Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College. He is the author of Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (Stanford University Press, 2020)

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