Get Sabra hummus off campus

December 2, 2010

The close association between Sabra-brand hummus and a notorious IDF brigade makes it the ideal target for a national boycott campaign, says Jonathan Corin.

A WEEK ago, administrators at DePaul University in Chicago agreed to remove a popular brand of hummus from university shelves after the campus' Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) shed light on the manufacturer's ties to an Israel Defense Force (IDF) brigade notorious for allegations of human rights abuses.

After issuing a "clarification" stating that the decision to stop stocking hummus produced by the Sabra Dipping Company was temporary, the administration has now gone back on its word, saying it will re-shelve the product while it awaits the results of an ethics review.

The events at DePaul are taking place against the backdrop of two ongoing campaigns, one in Philadelphia and one at Princeton University, against Sabra--and in the larger context of the growing global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Like the movement against South African apartheid, this struggle is aimed at forcing Israel to comply with international law and recognize the national rights of the Palestinian people.

Members of the Israel Defense Force's notorious Golani Brigade
Members of the Israel Defense Force's notorious Golani Brigade

Already, pro-Israel opponents of the BDS movement are trying to take DePaul's reversal out of context to try to paint it as a blow to activists' efforts. But they couldn't be more wrong. The events at DePaul are a prelude to the next round of struggle in an accelerating, multi-city BDS campaign.

PHILLY BDS included Sabra Dipping Company among its targets because the company is co-owned by the Strauss Group, an Israeli-held conglomerate that until last week boasted in its "Community Involvement Statement" on its Web site of its special relationship to the IDF's Golani brigade:

We have adopted the Golani reconnaissance platoon for over 30 years and provide them with an ongoing variety of food products for their training or missions...We have also adopted the Southern Shualei Shimshon troops from the Givati platoon with the goal of improving their service conditions and being there at the front to spoil them with our best products.

The Golani brigade has participated in nearly every IDF campaign involving the displacement and murder of Palestinian civilians since the Nakba in 1948, including Israel's 2008-2009 assault on Gaza that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, most of whom were unarmed non-combatants, in just three weeks.

In between wars, the brigade completes "anti-guerilla" missions through its Egoz reconnaissance unit--the "platoon" referred to in the Community Involvement Statement, which is akin to a Special Forces unit in the U.S. military. The Egoz unit currently operates in Gaza, the West Bank and southern Lebanon.

Adopting tactics pioneered by labor activists in California, Philly BDS staged a flashmob in October to pressure a supermarket chain to remove Sabra products from its shelves. After the video of the action went viral, Strauss Group removed the reference to the IDF from its Community Involvement Statement, explaining that the company "recently redefined the focus of its community involvement and adjusted it to suit developing industry trends in the world."

Strauss Group has since reintroduced the statement, replacing language describing the relationship as one of "adoption" with a rationalization that borders on deliberate mockery of the boycott campaign, explaining that the aid given to the Golani brigade is strictly for "welfare, cultural and educational activities," and "books and games" for the "soldiers' club"--as if this absolves the corporation of complicity in the human rights abuses the soldiers commit while violently defending Israeli apartheid.

For those still unclear about whether Strauss Group's relationship to the Golani brigade has actually changed, the company has done the favor of leaving the original statement (unaltered at time of publication) on the Hebrew language version of its Web page.

Last month, activists at Princeton University took a lead from Philly BDS and initiated a Sabra boycott campaign on campus.

The Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP) succeeded in petitioning to put a referendum before the student body requesting that more than one brand of hummus be made available for sale in university stores, arguing that the lack of choice is "particularly egregious and violent for Princetonians of Arab descent, who cannot eat the food that is quintessential to their culture unless they are willing to support crimes against their own people."

The pages of the Daily Princetonian reveal a vigorous debate on the referendum. After being struck from the ballot on a technicality--raised in the Student Senate, tellingly, by a member of an organization called Tigers for Israel--PCP submitted an updated referendum. Voting began last Monday.

While the outcome of the vote is not yet known, the high profile of the debate itself marks a step forward for the Princeton campaign. The campus controversy is compelling students previously unconcerned with the issue to take sides, providing an opportunity for public education about the issues involved and creating a new audience that activists can mobilize in the next round of struggle.

DePAUL's SJP members stood on the shoulders of these campaigns in launching theirs. DePaul only recently began carrying Sabra hummus, but the appearance of the new brand quickly caught the attention of Shirien, a member of DePaul's SJP chapter.

"My immediate reaction was disbelief and disgust because I had recently read some disturbing things about Sabra from Philly BDS," explained Shirien in an interview. "All of these students were being fed a brand that supports human rights violations, and they didn't even know it.

Shirien didn't hesitate in requesting that DePaul remove the brand from campus. "First, I set up a meeting with the president of the Student Government Association, who helped me look at steps I could take and key contacts in the administration that I should talk to," said Shirien. "I took his advice and decided to write an e-mail to the director of Student Centers and the director of Chartwells, who are in charge of the food products being sold on campus."

The e-mail Shirien and her fellow activists sent to administrators explained Sabra's relationship to Strauss Group and the Golani brigade, gave examples of human rights abuses committed by the brigade, and explained why any association with Sabra, Strauss Group and the IDF is inconsistent with DePaul's institutional values and religious tradition.

To Shirien's surprise, the letter alone prompted administrators to remove Sabra, but the university's subsequent announcement that the decision has yet to be made permanent means that the real battle is still to be won.

Shirien expressed optimism about the prospects for a successful pressure campaign, should it be necessary: "The temporary suspension of Sabra at DePaul is a small victory, but I think something like this gets people pumped up and ready for more...When it comes to something like justice for Palestine, every little victory eats away at the monster of injustice and brings us one step closer to victory."

The growing profile of the BDS movement has not gone unnoticed by Israel's defenders, who now acknowledge it as a very real threat. While it is a kind of backhanded compliment, this development cannot be taken lightly, and what it means for BDS activists is only beginning to take shape.

In October, an umbrella of pro-Israel organizations pumped $6 million into launching the Israel Action Network (IAN), an organization whose aims include the strategic and financial "catalysis" of locally-led fights against "delegitimization," which is their codeword for the BDS movement.

Campus activists should take note of Hillel's subsequent announcement of a strategic reorientation that includes greater centralization and special counter-BDS training for paid Hillel organizers, under the auspices of a newly created Israel Engagement Center.

Central to the strategies being field-tested by these organizations is control over vocabulary, exemplified by their use of the term "delegitimization" to refer to the BDS movement. In campus debates, activists can expect this "update" to the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism to appear as often as the charge of anti-Semitism itself.

One such field test was recently foiled at Rutgers University, where members of Rutgers Hillel issued a press release attacking the legality of a fundraiser to benefit the U.S. to Gaza project--which seeks to send an American-flagged vessel along with the next international humanitarian aid flotilla to Gaza--on the grounds that some of the aid might find its way to Hamas. Their spurious accusations evidently had little effect, as the fundraiser drew upwards of 350 people.

Other potential applications of the new approach are still in development. Blogger James M. Wall argues that the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) intends to pervert provisions in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act--provisions that protect, among other groups, LGBT and disabled students--to pressure universities that receive federal funding into muzzling critics of Israel's oppression of Palestinians on grounds that "delegitimization" should be recognized under Title VI as a species of anti-Semitism.

While it is unlikely that ZOA litigators could convince a jury that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, they likely hope that the mere threat of litigation will be enough to get universities to clamp down.

It is extremely important that activists do not respond to such charges by retreating from anti-Zionist politics, because doing so plays into the hands of those seeking set the terms of the debate by establishing control over the vocabulary. Rather, activists must confront these charges head on, by continuing to be clear, for example, that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, that the provision of humanitarian aid to an oppressed population has nothing to do with terrorism, and that Israel is its own best "delegitimizer."

REHEARSING THESE arguments is an important way that campus activists can prepare for the coming struggles, but the best defense is a more concentrated and stronger offense.

The significance of the events at DePaul lies in their having followed upon the heels of gains made in Philadelphia and at Princeton. The May 31, 2010, attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla opened many people's eyes to the reality of Israel's occupation of Palestine, giving activists a huge audience and creating an unprecedented potential to enlarge the movement.

Under such conditions, it becomes possible for social movements to experience explosive growth. The succession of events in the Sabra boycott campaign shows that the BDS movement, despite the furious hand-waving on the part of pro-Zionist propagandists, enjoys a potentially massive audience, but only insofar as activists find a way to organize in the current climate.

Public opinion is on our side, but the Zionist pushback shows us that they have a plan to change that. The present favorable moment exists only insofar as we can understand it: the momentum of Palestine solidarity work must be actively increased if it is to be maintained at all.

The Sabra campaign has already proven capable of attracting media attention vastly disproportionate to its size. If we can keep it in the news--for example, by starting new campaigns and staging actions calculated to raise the visibility of existing ones--we can connect with a much broader audience and capture the imagination of activists looking for a means to connect injustices in Palestine to the daily lives of students in the U.S.

Initiating new campaigns isn't easy, but that's mostly because of the difficulty of finding suitable targets, even with the assistance of excellent resources pooled by other activists.

But again the Sabra campaign shines as an example of a target that is both far-flung--some 156 colleges and universities across the U.S. contract with Chartwells for their campus food services, according to blogger Sami Kishawi--and yet local. After all, there aren't many things more intimate than the food you eat.

Even if only a minority of those 156 campuses have SJP chapters and even if a boycott campaign may not fit with the available resources at each campus that does have activists, we should see these as strategic problems to be worked through, not objections to the viability of the project.

Depending on whether and how these problems can be solved, there are potentially 156 opportunities to add to the momentum of a movement that is already causing alarm within Israel's political establishment.

The Israel Action Network and campus chapters of Hillel may have multimillion-dollar budgets, but we have justice on our side. It's time to get to work.

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