In an all-campus email sent out on Monday, April 30, President Valerie Smith announced that Swarthmore would continue to sell Sabra products, despite calls from Students for Justice in Palestine and allied campus groups to boycott the company for its ties to the Israeli Defense Forces. Instead, Smith declared that the College will begin selling an alternative brand of hummus alongside Sabra hummus.
“Following discussions with colleagues and representatives of various student groups, and having now conducted background research, the College has decided that this solution best addresses the concerns that have been raised,” Smith wrote.
In March, members of S.J.P. began circulating a petition calling upon the college to boycott Sabra. Over 500 Swarthmore students signed the petition. Several campus groups, including Swarthmore Queer Union, Swarthmore African-American Student Society, and Muslim Student Association, released statements in support of the boycott.
S.J.P.’s boycott is part of the larger Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, a Palestinian-led movement which seeks to end the Israeli occupation by targeting companies that support Israel. S.J.P. has specifically highlighted how the Strauss Group, which is a co-owner of Sabra, has ties to the Golani Brigade, an IDF infantry that S.J.P. describes as being particularly violent toward Palestinians.
Prior to President Smith’s official decision, several S.J.P. members met with President Smith to discuss the boycott. Members of Swarthmore Students for Israel also met with administrators.
Once President Smith sent out her email, S.J.P. quickly released a statement denouncing the college’s decision. In their statement, they referred to her email as “deeply disturbing and morally indefensible.”
“On a personal level, I was deeply frustrated and disappointed with the email,” S.J.P. member Abby Saul ’19 said. “We think that, by continuing to support this company, Swarthmore continues to remain complicit in the occupation and in the atrocities of the Israeli Defense Forces who continue to kill unarmed protesters.”
Smith did not take an official position on the boycott on behalf of the college in her email, but instead offered students an opportunity to purchase a different brand of hummus on campus. However, Saul feels that by not ending its purchase of Sabra products, the college is making an immoral decision.
“[The email] shows that the administration has made a choice,” she said. “They have chosen to continue to support this company that is intimately involved in human rights violations. We think that is a really reprehensible choice.”
However, Swarthmore Students for Israel President Matt Stein ’20, who met with President Smith recently to express his opposition to the boycott, was happy with her statement.
“We were definitely pleased that she took a stand for anti-discrimination policies and for ensuring free speech on this campus,” Stein said.
He feels that Smith made the right decision to let students decide whether or not to purchase Sabra products on campus.
“Students have every right to buy whatever they want,” he said.
On Wednesday afternoon, S.J.P. rallied in Parrish against the administration’s response to the hummus boycott. S.J.P. members erected four giant pieces of plywood in Parrish to symbolize the Israeli West Bank border wall. They had painted the wall with the initials of students who signed the petition and symbols of Palestinian resistance.
“Today we will be installing our own wall in Kohlberg courtyard to shed light on the magnitude of the occupation as a concrete reality, to show that this is about more than hummus,” Ozsu Risvanoglu ’20 said. “We hope the installation will prompt reflection not only on the wall and on Palestine, but also on the walls that both enact and obscure violence in the U.S.”
S.J.P members delivered impassioned speeches to the crowd, criticizing the college for its decision not to boycott Sabra.
“Swarthmore, you say you’re committed to justice and social and ethical concerns, yet in the face of occupation, human rights violations, and ongoing atrocities, you cannot even discontinue a hummus brand,” Najla Nassar ’21 said.
S.J.P. members were particularly dismayed by the last few lines of Smith’s email, where she defended her decision as a way of furthering “dialogue” on campus.
“Our community is passionate about addressing issues of public concern,” Smith wrote. “While that passion is commendable, we must continue to value the importance of remaining in dialogue with each other, especially those whose views and experiences differ from our own.”
At the rally, S.J.P. members repeatedly denounced Smith’s call for dialogue as a diversionary tactic.
“We need more than just dialogue,” Nassar said. “The ongoing violence of the occupation demands concrete action. The occupation is not just an individual issue, it is actively upheld by institutions and structures and thus requires an institutional response. As long as the college continues to purchase Sabra products, it continues to endorse the murders of nonviolent protesters in Gaza.”
Samme Sheikh ’19 talked about President Smith’s decision in the context of the ongoing “Right of Return” protest in Gaza. Nearly 50 Palestinians have been killed by IDF soldiers since the protests started on March 30.
“That Swarthmore should, at this crucial historical moment, find it conceivable, whether through willful blindness or conscious decision, to align itself with these tendencies under the guise of a desiccated and sterile notion of dialogue, is beyond distressing,” Sheikh said. “This indicates to all members of the Swarthmore community who are conscious observers of the situation in Palestine and the world more broadly, there are leaders at the college who are drawing us all deeper into a relation of complicity.”
Killian McGinnis ’19 also read from a petition from several Palestinian and Jewish alumni in which they expressed their support for S.J.P. and call on President Smith to rescind her statement. The alumni began to circulate the petition on social media on Wednesday afternoon.
When the rally came to a close, S.J.P. picked up the walls and carried them through Parrish. Rally attendees poured out the doors and into the Kohlberg courtyard, chanting “Hey hey! Ho ho! Sabra has got to go!”
The walls will be up through at least the end of week, according to S.J.P. members. They will also hold an event to take down the walls. For now, the walls stand in Kohlberg courtyard as a concrete symbol of S.J.P.’s continued calls for a Sabra boycott.