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Like Jews, Israeli Arabs eat matzoh, but they like it

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 matzoh?

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

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

The matzoh 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 say they suffer discrimination and identify themselves as Palestinians.

Still, they love matzoh.

"We eat it from the start of the holiday to the end, and when we run out we buy more," said Umaima Igbaria, a 35-year-old Muslim woman who lugged a carton of matzoh out of a supermarket in the Arab town of Umm el-Fahm in northern Israel. She said she, her husband and their three sons all eat matzoh, 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 matzoh boxes stood in the entryway, all that remained of the more than 4 tons that owner Tariq Ifin ordered for the holiday, which began Monday night. He had no doubts the rest would sell.

In the Passover tradition, matzoh commemorates the biblical story of the Jews fleeing Egypt so quickly they had no time to let their bread rise. Jews also consider matzoh 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 matzoh with soup, cheese or butter.

Many Jews share his ambivalence, recognizing its traditional role while saying they get tired of it. Many say they wouldn't eat it if they had other options.

Thus their surprise when told that Israel's Muslim and Christian Arabs - who don't observe Passover - choose matzoh.

Arabs in several mainly Arab towns in Israel said they just like the taste.

"The kids love it. They eat it like cookies," said Wisad Jamil, 43, carrying a carton of matzoh for her husband and five kids at the Umm el-Fahm store. "Don't the Jews eat our bread? Fine, we eat their matzoh," she said.

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