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More than hummus: renewing the call to boycott Sabra

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

On March 3, 2018, Students for Justice in Palestine launched a petition to end the sale of Sabra products on campus. Within days of launching, over 500 students and other community members had signed. Today, three weeks after the initial launch, the number of signatures continues to rise.

We are calling on the college to end its sale of Sabra products because of the company’s documented ties to human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Sabra Hummus is a joint venture between PepsiCo and the Strauss Group, a multinational corporation and Israel’s largest food and beverage company. The Strauss Group materially supports and sends care packages to the Golani Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, a fact that was once stated on the company’s website but has since been removed due to pressure from pro-Palestine groups. Even by the abysmal human rights standards of the IDF, the Golani Brigade is particularly brutal: since its inception, the Brigade has carried out countless human rights violations against Palestinians — particularly in Hebron and in the siege on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) from 2008-2009 — including arbitrary murders, assaults, detentions, home invasions, and arrests of children. Furthermore, the Brigade’s role as an occupying force violates international law: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and its 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem are all illegal according to the United Nations. For many Palestinians, including Palestinian students at Swarthmore, the Occupation is a painful and constant reality.

The campaign to boycott Sabra at Swarthmore is situated within a broader international movement to hold Israel accountable for human rights abuses and abolish its “three-tiered system of oppression: colonialism, occupation, and apartheid.” In 2005, Palestinian civil society called for the boycott of, divestment from, and sanctions of Israeli state institutions as a nonviolent strategy to pressure Israel to comply with international law and universal principles of human rights. Modeled after the successful South African anti-apartheid campaigns of the last century, the BDS movement aims to highlight the immoral and illegal occupation of Palestinian land, and to stigmatize the many human rights violations that continue to be an everyday reality for many Palestinians. Since 2005, dozens of companies, university student governments, workers’ unions, churches, and other organizations have publicly joined the BDS campaign by changing their institutional policy and practice to adhere to its goals. Prominent artists and academics — including singer Lorde and gender theorist Judith Butler — have also engaged in the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which similarly calls on members of the international community to refuse to attend academic and cultural events supported by state funding from Israel.  

At Swarthmore, this effort isn’t a new one. In 2012, SJP, then Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine, first launched a campaign to boycott Sabra. Initially, the group’s requests were denied, given the reservations of the vice president of the office of facilities and services about boycotts as effective strategies for change. This position contradicted the 1989 Board of Managers’ decision to divest from South African apartheid and the college’s decision in 2006 to boycott Coke as part of a larger national campaign. Drawing on Swarthmore’s commitment to social responsibility and our history of engaging in principled boycotts, SJP continued to advocate for the boycott, and after a few months, Sabra hummus disappeared from campus shelves. Tired of controversy, it seemed, the college had quietly removed the products in response to the community’s demands.  

But today, Sabra products are back, sold as hummus and guacamole packets at Essie Mae’s and the coffee bars in Kohlberg and the Science Center. Since Swarthmore reinstated Sabra products after the SJP members involved in the original campaign graduated, the vast majority of our current community members are unaware of the group’s past activism — and its outcomes. Yet Swarthmore continues to profess its commitment to teaching students responsible citizenship, citing values of social and ethical concern. Thus, not only does the sale of Sabra products on campus contradict our professed values, but it is also inconsistent with our past practices.

Furthermore ending the sale of Sabra products would not be an inconvenience to our community; there are many alternatives to Sabra hummus available. For example, local, Philadelphia-made alternatives to Sabra hummus include Bobbi’s, Helen’s, Wakim’s, and Moshe’s.

Given the structure of the global economy in which corporations have the power to influence state actions, we cannot deny the political nature of our preferences as consumers. Especially given our college’s unique position as a private institution with significant political clout and financial agency, it is clear that stocking Sabra hummus is not just a question of chickpeas; rather, the choice reflects our community’s stance on defending human dignity. By providing resources to the Golani Brigade, the Strauss Group both endorses and normalizes the IDF’s brutal practices. By continuing to sell Sabra products, Swarthmore joins in that tacit endorsement. The continued sale of Sabra products on campus should be disturbing to every Swarthmore student who cares about human rights. This is not merely a question of brands, but about an immoral and illegal assault on Palestinian lives and dignity. It is a question of Swarthmore’s commitment to using its institutional power to intervene in situations of injustice: will we choose to affirm the fundamental human rights of all people, including the many Palestinians who have suffered at the hands of the Golani Brigade and continue to live under occupation? Or will we, again, stay silent?

College screens “Boycott” in honor of MLK

in Arts by

Last Thursday, as part of the college’s week of activities to commemorate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Black Cultural Center hosted a screening of the 2001 American television movie “Boycott” in the LPAC cinema. Students, faculty, and members of the Swarthmore community filled the cinema to view the film and reflect on Dr. King’s life and legacy. The screening was followed by a Q&A session with filmmaker Clark Johnson, who directed and played a small role in the film.

The film is based on the Stewart Burns book, “Daybreak of Freedom,” which tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The film begins with the arrest of Rosa Parks, portrayed by Iris Little Thomas, who refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white man on December 5, 1955. In protest, the Montgomery Improvement Association organized a boycott of the Montgomery public bus system with the assistance of Dr. King, played by Jeffery Wright, and his close friend and fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, portrayed by Terrence Howard. The boycott lasted 381 days, during which Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, faced a number of threats. Tiauna Lewis ’19, who is also taking History v. Hollywood with Professor Allison Dorsey, enjoyed the film’s representation of Mrs. King.

“My favorite part of the film was being able to see Coretta Scott King in a more prominent role than she plays in a lot of King-focused narratives….She was a part of the journey but oftentimes is only inserted in the narrative as the widow she eventually becomes. Johnson, however, depicted her as being right there in the movement like she always was,” said Lewis.

In the film, Mrs. King is portrayed by Carmen Ejogo, who would go on to play Mrs. King again in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film “Selma,” which the college screened during its MLK celebration last year. “Boycott” ends with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision that declared public bus segregation in Montgomery illegal, but, of course, marks only the “daybreak” of the Civil Rights Movement.

The film was awarded the Peabody Award and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Television Movie, Mini-Series, or Dramatic Special, and has been particularly praised for its nuanced retelling of the boycott that illuminates narratives of Dr. King’s personal conflicts. The film also evoked a contemporary documentary through specific camera techniques, decidedly drawing history into the present.

“Clark Johnson has worked on both sides of the camera of some of the most important projects of the past twenty years—projects that have in common their ability to wed aesthetic innovation with incisive social critique,” President Valerie Smith said in her introduction of Johnson after the film finished. She went on to discuss the originality and brilliance of the film.

“This is a film that I love because it brings together aesthetic experiment with intellectual rigor. It brings musical and visual complexity together with historical nuance. And it does this, I think, in order to not only deepen our understanding of pivotal moments in U.S. history but also more broadly … [give] us a more complex view of what it means to be committed to social activism.”

“After seeing the film I was forced to think more about what it was like for Dr. King to be a man who was deeply invested in family and had to face threats against his family constantly… I had to think about what that would do to his heart and spirit over time and it made me respect him and the team of people around him a lot more I think,” Lewis said.

After President Smith’s introduction, Johnson rose to the podium to answer questions and discuss the film with the audience.

“I’m still proud of this film,” said Johnson. He described the final scene of the film, which was unscripted. Wright walked out into the streets of Atlanta dressed as Dr. King in between takes, and this inspired Johnson. In the final shot, children in contemporary dress look up at Dr. King in reverence, and two police officers drive by in their patrol car.

“I thought, ‘What would Martin think of us today?’ Which leads me to the next hundred days … We have social work that needs to be done,” said Johnson.

Screened the night before the inauguration, Johnson’s film prompted students to ask questions about both his artistic decisions as well as the project’s social and historical elements. This response was partially due to the purposeful aesthetic and artistic decisions Johnson made sixteen years ago in telling Dr. King’s story, but also due to our current historical moment. It comes as no surprise, then, that Johnson also spoke the following day at the collection held in honor of Dr. King by the college.

“I say that now, starting tomorrow, for the next hundred days, we should see that the revolution continues and that it’s expanded … History repeats itself. We’re absolutely doomed if we don’t listen,” Johnson said after the screening, commenting on his film’s connection to today.

Screening films like “Boycott” or last year’s “Selma” play a distinct role in the college’s commemoration of Dr. King. Lewis pointed out that they engage students in MLK’s legacy in a way that other events might not.

“I think film screenings are super important for any of the college’s major events or event series,” she said. “Especially with MLK commemoration week. We’re trying to have conversations about history, activism, social theory … [With] film screenings we can watch a movie and then have a conversation.”

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