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President Smith rejects Sabra boycott, SJP responds

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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.

A case for leaving hummus alone

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Last week, Students For Justice in Palestine wrote an op-ed in the Phoenix, calling for the college to stop selling Sabra products and claiming the effort was “about more than hummus.” To me at least, the question seems to be less to do with being about hummus, but why hummus. The larger movement efforts like these are associated with, B.D.S. calls for widespread boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel and entities associated with Israel. There is definitely something to be said for criticism of Israeli actions I certainly think Netanyahu has no interest in a just peace process and that the settlements in Palestinian territory are extremely problematic but the idea that Israel is uniquely worthy of condemnation, to the point of dictating hummus brand choices, is absurd.

Firstly, the idea that Israel is some horrific sponsor of repression, exceptional or extreme among nations, is wrong on the merits. Israel is the Mideast’s best-functioning (really only) democracy, with strong rule of law, an open liberal society, and vibrant freedom of speech and the press that extend to all its citizens, not just those of Jewish heritage. It also sends hundreds of millions of dollars a year in aid to the Palestinian Authority, of which at least 46 million is paid out by the authority to convicted terrorists and their families, in a very conservative estimate by The Washington Post. If the B.D.S. movement or S.J.P. were seriously concerned with calling Swarthmore to take action against state repression, shouldn’t we be boycotting products made in China, which is an authoritarian police state that violently suppresses unrest in Tibet? At least a little consistency in calling out human rights violations would be desirable. Even if the argument is made that it’s not an either/or, the notable lack of concern for human rights issues in countries other than Israel makes me wonder whether Israel, as I’ll expand on later, is held to a far higher and harsher standard than any other country. And to criticize Israel on the grounds that its creation expelled Palestinian people is certainly legitimate but does nothing to deal with the reality of a stable state that just turned 70.

To be frank, isn’t Hamas in the Gaza strip a far more severe violator of human rights than Israel ever has been? According to Human Rights Watch, Hamas censors speech and print counter to its ideology, uses cruel and unusual methods of punishments such as hanging, circumvents due process, tortured hundreds of Gazan supporters of Fatah, and actively celebrates unprovoked attacks against civilians.

The effect of the boycott is also nil, both to change how Israel acts and to bring more people into the B.D.S. fold. The actual actions that S.J.P. wants to protest, the performance of the Golani brigade in counterterrorism operations, are barely connected to Sabra. Sabra is partially owned by a company that sends the Golani Brigade care packages of hummus. Suffice it to say that if Sabra is pressured to cut off that support, the Golani Brigade will not have difficulty finding replacement hummus, or much care that Sabra is no longer sending them packages. It is Israel, after all. And do S.J.P. and their supporters really believe that stridently protesting hummus packages, essentially saying that any person or entity tangentially connected to Israel should be cast out of polite society, is going to convince people not already ideologically committed to opposing Israel? The whole affair really seems more like an effort to ritually purge the college of unclean Israeli products than any sort of meaningful action.

The stated methods of B.D.S. are also fairly extreme: boycotting all Israeli companies, academic, cultural, and sporting institutions, and expelling Israel from international bodies like the U.N. This is an unfair moral standard that we hold basically no other nation to; North Korea fields athletes in the Olympics and we allow brutal, theocratic dictatorships like Saudi Arabia to not only be in the U.N. but preposterously serve on the Commission on the Status of Women. Their associated movement in some parts of the academy, The U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, is even more problematic. Boycotting government grants of academic events supported by the Israeli state is an absurd way to protest, as if stopping research into, say, Mediterranean wildlife will bring down the Gaza wall. And while the organization says they do not want to ostracize individual academics on account of national origin, they have said on their website that their policies may stop Israeli academics from participating in the larger community, and people setting up academic organizations and events may want to “consider” if Israeli academics really need to participate. In other words, we don’t officially endorse discrimination, but we certainly don’t mind if you do.

I want to be clear that I am in no way accusing S.J.P. of anti-semitism. It’s a charge that gets tossed around far too much in this debate. And I am outraged as much as anyone about the bulldozing of Palestinian homes, the harassment of Palestinian citizens, and the fearmongering and regressive rhetoric of Netanyahu. But the larger movement associated with these actions certainly gets pretty close to the line. And recent events in my home state are concerning. At schools like U.C.L.A., S.F. State, and Cal, as reported by The New York Times, Haaretz, and The Jerusalem Post,  students were excluded from sitting on disciplinary boards because they were Jewish and schools invited speakers who advocated for terroristic violence. Thankfully, Swarthmore seems far from getting to that point. However, the demonization of Israel over basically all other countries, the obscuration of facts on the ground, and the hardline views of B.D.S. hold very little to be commended. And the expectation for Swarthmore, a supposedly non-sectarian and liberal-arts school, to declare that disagreeing with the goals of B.D.S. is morally and intellectually indefensible seems beyond reason.

SJP Sabra Boycott Gains Traction

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On Wednesday, Swarthmore Students for Justice in Palestine held a rally in Parrish Parlors with the aim of halting the sale of Sabra Hummus on campus. The rally, which followed a petition that garnered over 500 signatures, has attracted national attention from news sources like Fox News and has even been targeted by members outside of the Swarthmore community through Facebook advertisements.

The boycott of Sabra Hummus is a part of S.J.P.’s broader objective to utilize boycott tactics to help end Israeli occupation. S.J.P. supports Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, a Palestinian-led movement against Israeli occupation, techniques to target companies that support Israel. The B.D.S. website states that it is a movement invested in “ending the occupation and colonization of Arab lands” and “recognizing the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

According to an email sent out by Arunima Shiney-Ajay ’20 about the rally, the motivation for stopping the sale of Sabra Hummus on campus stems from the fact that Sabra Hummus is a joint venture between PepsiCo and the Strauss Group. An article published by The New York Times in 2010 found that the Strauss Group had formally endorsed the Israeli Defense Forces and the Golani Brigade, an Israeli Infantry brigade, on its official website. While the Strauss Group has removed their statement of support for the IDF and the Golani Brigade from its website, some speculate that ties between the groups remain.

“The Brigade has carried out countless human rights violations against Palestinians …  including arbitrary murders, assaults, detentions, home invasions, and arrests of children,” Shiney-Ajay and Killian McGinnis ’19 wrote in a recent Op-Ed for the Phoenix.

S.J.P.’s campaign against Sabra Hummus is not the first of its kind. In 2012, The Phoenix reported that S.J.P., known as S.P.J.P. at the time, was leading a boycott against Sabra Hummus.

The rally on Wednesday, which was attended by 100 students and faculty, began with Zaina Dana ’21 introducing the motivations behind the ban and the recent deaths of Palestinian protesters near the Gaza border on March 31.

According to an article from the BBC, at least 16 Palestinian protesters were killed by the I.D.F. during the protest. The protest, named the Great March of Return, is a six-week march to the border between Gaza and Israel. The primary demand of the protestors is for the return of Palestinian refugees to the state of Israel.

“Over the course of the day, I.D.F. soldiers killed 16 of my brothers and sisters and wounded hundreds more. The I.D.F. has openly admitted that they will meet nonviolent protest with violence,” Dana said. “We want to take a moment and remember why we are here today, this campaign is not just about hummus, it is about Swarthmore being complicit in the ongoing occupation of Palestine.”

Leaders of the rally held a moment of silence for those who died on the Gaza strip before S.J.P. members, Abby Saul ’19 and Gabi Rubinstein ’20, discussed the idea that Jewish liberation did not signify Palestinian oppression.

“We recognize, as proud Jews, that liberation is a key part of our Judaism, and we cannot talk about our liberation or our exodus from Egypt without talking about the liberation of all peoples,” Saul said. “We cannot spend another Passover talking about our personal liberation without talking about what’s happening in Israel and Palestine.”

Saul announced that shortly after the rally, a meeting would be held between members of S.J.P., President Valerie Smith, and Vice President of Finance Greg Brown to discuss plans for a halt on the sale of Sabra Hummus on campus. Sabra Hummus is still currently being sold on campus at Science Center Coffee Bar, Kohlberg Cafe, and Essie Mae’s. Linda McDougall, director of dining services, has not seen a change in the sales of Sabra Hummus in the past few months. According to Saul, President Smith was hesitant to make any public statements about the removal of Sabra Hummus from campus but wanted personally to look more into the matter.

“We [S.J.P.] talked about the demands of the community and why we were there. It’s not just about hummus or Sabra, but at the time we were there, we really wanted to reiterate the urgency of the situation due to the massacre that had happened just five days previously in Gaza,” Saul said. “Even though we made it clear that the community needed a concrete answer, President Smith was reluctant to do so. She wanted to do some more research on her own and did not want to drag out the decision, and she recognizes the impassioned response from the community.”

Austin Yanez ’21 decided to attend the rally on a whim but was glad he did so, because he believes it brought attention to an otherwise little known issue.

“I didn’t know about [Sabra’s] contributions to Israel until I came here. I don’t blame Swarthmore for selling their products, as I myself was also ignorant of the actions of their company,” Yanez said. “But I believe that now that students have brought this issue to light, the administration has a responsibility to act.”

The movement started with an online petition that garnered over 500 signatures from both students and faculty. Other student groups on campus, such as the Swarthmore Indigenous Students Association, Swarthmore Queer Union and Swarthmore African-American Student Society, have expressed their backing for the campaign with letters of support.  

The campaign has also garnered national attention from Fox News and The Blaze, which have published stories such as “Pro-Palestine students petition college to ban Sabra hummus from campus” and “Pro-Palestinian student group wants college to ban hummus brand over Israel ties. Yes, hummus.”

Recently, advertisements that target the S.J.P. Sabra Hummus campaign have appeared on Swarthmore students’ Facebook feeds. “Do you like hummus? Do you think Swarthmore students should have better things to do than try and ruin your lunch?” the advertisement asks.

While the origin of these advertisements remains unknown, Saul believes that these advertisements are not sponsored by someone in the Swarthmore community but by pro-Israel groups outside of the community.

“We don’t have a lot of information on it, but we believe that it’s someone outside the community who supports Israel at any cost. We think it’s a group that has had the domain for a while and has changed the name of the college depending on what college has launched campaigns,” Saul said. “We’re also keeping an eye on it, and we think it’s very interesting that someone outside that community is that concerned about what’s happening.”

Swarthmore Students for Israel have denounced the campaign against Sabra Hummus due to their belief that B.D.S. is a discriminatory movement.

“The rally was illustrative of the general tendency for S.J.P. to present extremely un-nuanced points of view on the conflict which lead people to support one-sided ‘solutions’ like B.D.S. B.D.S. is a discriminatory movement which shuts down dialogue and only moves us further from peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” Matt Stein ’20, the president of SSFI, said in an email to The Phoenix. “Sabra is being targeted simply for being Israeli, which is completely wrong, and we should not stop serving it on this campus. No one is forcing any students to purchase this product, but the decision to do so should not be taken away from individual students.”

According to the B.D.S. website, boycott campaigns “target the Israeli state because of its responsibility for serious violations of international law and the companies and institutions that participate in and are complicit in these Israeli violations. The B.D.S. movement does not boycott or campaign against any individual or group simply because they are Israeli.”

Saul notes that S.J.P. is willing to opening communication between S.J.P. and S.S.F.I. but believes that it should be done so in the correct environment.

Recently, a member of Swarthmore Students for Israel approached S.J.P., at an open meeting focused on the Boycott Sabra Campaign, to learn more about Israeli occupation.

“[S.J.P.] does think dialogue is important,” Saul said. “We had members of S.J.P. schedule a meal with that individual to talk. We think that this campaign has opened dialogue on campus, but we want to make sure S.J.P. is taking concrete actions and we’re not just lost in dialogue.”

Stein also expressed reservations about creating a dialogue between the two groups but is open to the idea of it.

“As for our relationship with S.J.P., we are not opposed to having a relationship with any campus groups, but it is quite difficult to have a working relationship with a group that denies your right to exist. National S.J.P. does not recognize the right for the Jews to have their own state in their homeland, and B.D.S. is a movement which seeks to end Jewish sovereignty in Israel,” Stein said in the email. “We are open to balanced dialogue but wish to have that dialogue in a setting that at an absolute minimum accepts the most basic right, the right [of Israel] to exist.”

Though the status of Sabra hummus on campus remains unclear, Saul looks forward to SJP’s future activism and hosted events.

“We’re really excited about engaging the student body and the community and making people aware that this is not just about our campus,f but that atrocities are happening daily [in Israel and Palestine].”

More than hummus: renewing the call to boycott Sabra

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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?

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