Israel’s Arabs Loving Matzoh this Pesach


matzohBen Hubbard reports for the Associated Press from Umm El-Fahm, Israel: Many Jewish Israelis can’t stand the stuff, so there’s something mind-boggling about their Arab compatriots: Why in the world do they choose to eat matzo?

Despite decades of uneasiness in their coexistence with the Jewish majority, Israel’s Arabs have developed a love affair with matzo, the dry, crunchy wafers observant Jews eat as a substitute for leavened bread during the weeklong Passover holidays.

Weeks in advance, Arab-owned stores across Israel stock up on matzo, knowing their customers will clean it out.

The matzo craving among Israel’s Arab citizens – about 20 percent of the population – reflects their ambiguous place in the Jewish state. While they speak Hebrew, carry Israeli passports and wear Israeli brands, many identify themselves as Palestinians and say they experience discrimination.

Still, they love matzo.

“We eat it from the start of the holiday to the end, and when we run out, we buy more,” said Umaima Igbaria, 35, a Muslim woman who lugged a carton of matzo out of a supermarket in the Arab town of Umm el-Fahm in northern Israel.

She said she, her husband and their three sons eat matzo, usually with tea and slathered with chocolate sauce. She said they didn’t care if it was “Jewish food.”

Inside the store, a 5-foot-tall stack of matzo boxes stood in the entryway, all that remained of more than 4 tons that owner Tariq Ifin ordered for the holidays, which began Monday night.

In the Passover tradition, matzo commemorates the biblical story of the Jews fleeing Egypt so quickly they had no time to let their bread rise. Jews also consider matzo to be poor man’s bread, eaten to remind them of their ancestors’ hardships.

Few consider it a culinary delight.

“I don’t like it much, but it’s part of the holiday,” said Simon Mizrahi, 44, an observant Jew from Jerusalem who eats his matzo with soup, cheese or butter.

Many other Jews share his ambivalence, recognizing the crisp bread’s traditional role while saying they get tired of it.

Thus their surprise when informed that Israel’s Muslim and Christian Arabs – who don’t observe Passover – choose matzo.

The answer to the mystery is simple, said Arabs in several mainly Arab towns in Israel: They like the taste.

“The kids love it. They eat it like cookies,” said Wisad Jamil, 43, woman lugging a carton of matzo and tub of chocolate spread to her car for her husband and five kids at the Umm el-Fahm store.

“Don’t the Jews eat our bread? Fine, we eat their matzo,” she said.

Indeed, the mixing goes both ways, with Arab dishes such as hummus and falafel now favorites of Jewish Israelis.

“You can’t say Arabs and Jews are one people,” said Ifin, the store owner, “but we share the same land, so why not share the same food?”

{Seattle Times/Noam Newscenter}