Martha Cohen
Martha Cohen

Truth and Za’atar: Don’t look for it in the labeling

Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott? 

Scott: This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.                      —“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” 1962

The other day, I came across the spice called za’atar in a most interesting package.

At the top it was labeled “Za’atar, Ecological and Fair.” On the bottom, the label told us where it came from — Canaan, Palestine. Considering that the land of Canaan disappeared thousands of years ago, well before Christ, and that there is yet to be a country named Palestine, what does this packaging mean?

Inspecting the reverse side, I saw that the explanation continues there. It calls za’atar “a traditional Palestinian spice” and tells us that Canaan Fair Trade is “an integrated part of our local community and we guarantee that each of our farmers is fairly paid.” The reader is invited to read about its “extensive ecological and social commitment on

The website is a piece of masterful marketing aimed at the socially conscious and college educated, exactly the type of people who shop at the market where I noticed the product. The headings on the site include “Canaan Ecology,” “Sustainability Stance,” “Our Farmers,” and “Awards.” It also has seven social initiatives, including the “Clean Palestine Campaign,” “Women Empowerment,” and scholarships. You can donate to all of them directly.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to help young people go to school, empower women, or keep Palestine clean? (Again, there is no country of Palestine.) However, when you delve a bit deeper and research the founder of Canaan Fair Trade and its various partners, another picture begins to emerge.

Nasser Abufarha, the founder, was born in a town outside of Jenin in 1964. He came to the United States for college and has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and international development from the University of Wisconsin. According to noted historian Martin Kramer, Abufarha made the following speech at an April 2002 rally in Madison:

“In 1948 the State of Israel stole Palestine of its people, its land. In 1967, the Israelis occupied the remainder of Palestine after stealing the nation as a whole…. They came to Palestine and forced us, the Palestinians, to pay the price for their troubled history — and we are still paying with our blood and tears…. I salute my people in Jenin for defending our city in the face of the most brutal, murderous army, supported by the most lethal American weapons…. Our message to Powell and Bush: Join the world community that has called to impose sanctions on the apartheid state of Israel.”

The “defenders” Abufarha was saluting in Jenin were those who succeeded in 23 of 28 attempted suicide attacks against Israelis from the end of 2000 up until operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, following the brutal massacre of 29 men, women, and children celebrating Passover in Netanya. According to a document retrieved during the operation, Jenin was called “the martyrs’ capital” by the Palestinians themselves.

Though the Israeli command knew that Jenin was a command center for terrorist operations of the Palestinian Authority/Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, the densely populated area compelled them to send the army door to door, even though it knew that there were booby traps laid for the troops. They did this in order to avoid massive Palestinian Arab casualties, and they lost many soldiers because of this decision. A massive propaganda campaign by the PA and Hamas, accusing Israel of a massacre, followed. A United Nations investigation later rejected that claim.

In 2004, at a Palestine solidarity movement conference at Duke University, it was reported that Abufarha applauded Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. At the 2005 Middle East Studies Association meeting, as a grad student, he presented a paper called “The Making of a Human Bomb: State Expansion and Modes of Resistance in Palestine.” According to a review in the Middle East Forum, he referred to Israelis as “Zionist targets” or “immigrants” and to Israel as a “colonial” and “expansionist” state and he portrayed Palestinian fellaheen as fighting against “colonialist Israel.” Thus, everything is justified when it comes to fighting the so-called Israeli occupier.

Unfortunately, upon reviewing his other website, Canaan Fair Trade, it seems that Abufarha’s opinions have not changed. Many of the group’s interfaith and affiliate partners support BDS and campaigns against anti-BDS legislation and use their platforms to spread deadly lies about Israeli torture of Palestinian children. They activate their followers to engage in campaigns such as #Stolen Homes to stop AirBNB from listing vacation homes in Judea and Samaria. A quick review of some of the leaders in its “Affiliate Partners — Shared Values” category shows that it includes such notorious anti-Israel advocates as Rashid Khalidi, Cornel West, and Diana Buttu. Aside from being a former PLO spokeswoman, Buttu infamously said in a 2012 Harvard speech that “not one Israeli was murdered by a suicide bombing in Israel from the years 1997 to 2000.” Perhaps a visit to all the graves of those killed and families that will never be whole will remind her.

What does this package of za’atar have to do with the classic film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”? The movie is about the killing of a sadistic outlaw named Liberty Valence (Lee Marvin), who terrorized a prestate frontier town. It’s now 1910 in the film, and the former governor, now senator, Ransom Stoddard and his wife (James Stewart and Vera Miles) are returning from Washington to give their old friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) a proper burial. It is a somber scene; no one other than Doniphon’s sideman, Pompei, joins them there. Senator Ransom agrees to talk with the press and reveals that he was not the man who killed Valence, though at first he thought he was. In fact, it was Doniphon who killed Valance; it was Doniphon who saved the town. Doniphon eschewed the attention, but it is this incident that catapulted Ransom to political fame. When he finishes speaking, the newspaper editor tears up the notes because legend far outweighs facts.

And this is the goal of Canaan, Palestine’s za’atar bottle — bringing propaganda into the marketplace as fact while strategically incorporating the lexicon millennials demand. And it is the ignorance of history, especially in our own community, that makes falsehoods wrapped in self-empowerment and tikkun olam marketing so powerful. It is the blood libel all over again, wrapped in 21st-century social justice language. Here, the Jew is the evil, racist occupier, abusing the indigenous Palestinian Arab population with torture and humiliation. There is only one conclusion to such inhuman actions — not only do its perpetrators not deserve a homeland, they do not even deserve the right to exist.

And we are seeing this play out on the world stage. Venezuela, Great Britain, and Germany are just a few countries where Jews are in trouble, but who would have imagined that the Jewish community in France, the world’s third largest, is at risk of disappearing altogether? France was the only European country that had more Jews in 1995 than it did before World War II. Still, less than 25 years from the community’s peak, we are seeing families leave the country they love because of hatred instilled by lies like those left unchallenged on a box of za’atar. They are leaving as the result of the methodical pernicious influence of those spreading these lies in front of ignorant, well-meaning people.

If we want to reverse this trend, education throughout the entire lifecycle is key. Let’s begin with the newest canard, implicit in the za’atar fabrication, that the Palestinian Arabs are the direct descendants of the Canaanites. That is their attempt to predate any Jewish claim to the land of Israel. According to a 2017 scientific finding by Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, it is the Lebanese who are most directly descended from the Canaanites.

Early in “Liberty Valance,” Doniphon says to Ransom, “I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.” It is up to each one of us to demand that our leaders, both religious and secular, teach historical fact. It is up to us to raise our voices in unison, in perpetuity if necessary, when others try to extinguish our rightful place in history, in our Jewish homeland, and our right to live in peace throughout the world. It is up to us to demand justice for those who desire to obliterate our very existence.

About the Author
Martha Cohen is an award winning producer and creative executive. She is a Berrie Fellow and currently sits on the JFNNJ JCRC and StandWithUs East Coast Boards. She chaired the JFNNJ Partnership2Gether when the Young Leadership program was developed and executed; and, continues to be closely involved. Martha and her husband David live in Fort Lee with their son, Harry.