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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.

Living our values

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The humanitarian crisis in Gaza has been troubling for many years, but as a result of the Israeli Defense Forces’ attacks on Gaza protesters this spring, we have noticed far more media attention on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than past atrocities in the conflict. In the last month, the I.D.F. has killed more than 30 Palestinians and injured hundreds more. One of these 30 Palestinians was a journalist, Yaser Murtaja, who was shot to death by the I.D.F. while covering the protests along the Gaza border.

We have noticed that Swarthmore students, perhaps because of the recent violence in Gaza, are engaging more with the larger issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, so we wanted to add our voices to the mix. While both of us feel a strong cultural connection to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as American Jews, we believe this is an issue that affects all members of the Swarthmore community. Inclusive dialogue that respects the viewpoints of all participants is essential since, for so many of us, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is sensitive and emotionally charged.

Israel was created after the atrocities of the Holocaust so that Jews would have a homeland where they would not be persecuted. But the historical persecution of our people does not justify oppression of other people. We therefore think it is wrong when Israel denies Palestinians their right of return — a right guaranteed by the United Nations — and excuses this denial with the fact that if every Palestinian refugee came to Israel then Jews would no longer be the majority

Israel grants citizenship to all Jewish people because they believe Jews deserve the right to live in the land of their ancestors. But Palestinian refugees, many of whom were displaced during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, have ancestors who lived in the very same land.  Even in the case of family reunification, Israel denies Palestinians the right of return to their ancestral homeland. Allowing Jews across the world to move to Israel and gain citizenship while barring Palestinians from doing so is blatant ethnic discrimination.

The problem is made worse because many supporters of Israel view criticism of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism, which makes meaningful dialogue impossible. Authors like attorney Alan Dershowitz pioneered this strategy of conflating even modest critique of Israel with anti-Semitism. We recognize that some critics of Israel may be anti-Semitic, but it should not be the case that all criticism of Israel is impermissible because of the scourge of anti-Semitism.

We unequivocally and wholeheartedly condemn anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism forced Ben’s grandparents out of Poland after World War I. Emily’s grandfather had to flee Nazi Germany; the Nazis murdered her great-great-grandparents because they were Jewish.

We know that anti-Semitism is still alive today and is on the rise in many countries. We even see it in our own lives. The Jewish Community Center where Emily celebrated her bat mitzvah was the target of anti-Semitic vandalism. Mere acquaintances have made jokes about the Holocaust to both of us without batting an eye. But we do not think that discrimination against Palestinians will protect our community from anti-Semitism. Nor do we believe anti-Semitism should be used as an excuse to condone violent and illegal actions taken by the State of Israel.

We have a responsibility to call out Israel’s oppression of Palestinian people because of our Jewish identity — not in spite of it. In the Torah portion “Mishpatim,” or laws, there exists a commandment which is crucial to Judaism: “And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20).  This law appears multiple times in the Torah, even in sections not reserved for the recitation of laws, such as Leviticus 19:33: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.”

The principle of treating strangers well is also one of the main messages of Passover. When we read “you shall not mistreat a stranger” during our Seder service, the message we hear is that Jews must never be the oppressor because Jews know what it is like to be oppressed, “for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This message applies today just as it did in biblical Egypt.

Being oppressed is, in many ways, synonymous with being “the stranger” even in your own land. This is the whole point of Passover and why we invite strangers to our Seder table.

So this year at Passover, as we read aloud the importance of showing kindness toward strangers, we felt the tragic irony. At the same moment we were reading our Haggadahs, members of the I.D.F. were violently attacking protesters in Gaza. The State of Israel, “the Jewish State,” was violently oppressing “the stranger” during the same holiday that teaches Jews to do the opposite.

Our Jewish values teach us that we must seek answers to difficult questions. How can Israel allow its military to kill and injure Palestinian protesters? How can Israel continue to blockade the Gaza Strip when millions of Palestinians living there are suffering? How can Israel restrict the movements of Palestinians within Israel and the West Bank? By raising these questions and expressing our concerns about these policies, we seek to be true to our Jewish values.

Our Jewish values also teach us that we must reject oppression wherever we see it. We reject oppression in Yemen, Syria, Burma, North Korea, Chad, Saudi Arabia, the United States — and in Israel. And because Israel is a Jewish State and the United States strongly supports Israel, we feel the need both as Jews and as Americans to speak out about oppression in Palestine/Israel.

We hope this article can continue the dialogue that exists on campus in a nuanced and inclusive manner.  Our goal is to start conversations, rather than ending them, and we hope that anyone who wishes to engage with either of us personally feels free and welcome to do so.

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?

Israel/Palestine Film Series Prompts Discourse

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After its successful debut last year, the Israel/Palestine Film Series is returning this semester in an attempt to supplement the analytical study of Israeli and Palestinian politics and to shed some light on the underlying emotional complexities of the conflict.

Last Wednesday, the film “Walk on Water” was screened in LPAC Cinema. It was the second of six films which will be shown throughout the months of September and October. The film series is curated and hosted by visiting assistant professor of peace and conflict studies Sa’ed Atshan. Attendance of the screenings is required for students currently enrolled in Professor Atshan’s Israeli-Palestinian Conflict class (PEAC 053), but the series is open to the public as well.

The goal of the film series, according to Atshan, is to provide a human aspect to the politics of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

“The purpose for my students is so that they not only study the conflict from a cerebral, intellectual, abstract, academic realm, but that they understand the human, visceral, emotional component of this,” Atshan said. “And so I think that the six films play a very powerful role in humanizing both Israelis and Palestinians.”

Personally, Atshan added that he also very much enjoys organizing and hosting a film series in general.

“I love films,” he said. “I very much appreciate films. I think it’s an incredible human invention. And it was really really fun to be a curator and to choose six films that are diverse in terms of different genres … that cover such a range of themes.”

“Walk on Water” follows Eyal, an Israeli Mossad agent assigned to hunt down an ex-Nazi officer. Eyal befriends the man’s two grandchildren, brother and sister Axel and Pia, to get closer to his target. Along the way, Eyal’s beliefs are challenged when he learns that Axel is gay and when he meets Axel’s friend Rafik, an Arab man. In turn, Axel also learns about and struggles with the role his family played in the Holocaust.

The drama/thriller was directed by Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox. Fox was born in New York and moved to Jerusalem with his parents when he was two years old. He attended the Tel Aviv Film School before joining the army where he struggled with his homosexuality. Following his military service, Fox worked in television for a number of years before directing big screen films. In his films, Fox explores questions of identity in the midst of national conflict. “Walk on Water,” his fourth feature length film is critically acclaimed internationally and has won a total of four awards including Best Music and Best Sound from the Israeli Film Academy.

For students majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies or for students who have taken a class or two in the department, the humanizing aspect of the films seems to add an emotional dimension to their studies of words on paper about the complex politics of the Israel/Palestine conflict. For community members who may have had limited or no exposure to the conflict, the films are a reminder of how the events in the news affect the people living there.

“Last week, a faculty member, a biology professor, shared that in the discourse on the conflict, he had forgotten these were everyday people doing everyday things,” Atshan said. “And that was just such a powerful realization [for him] that, in the midst of the conflict, ordinary life has to go on.”

Jasmine Jimenez ’19 experienced a similar realization when she attended last year’s film series. Prior to the screening, Jimenez did not know much about the Israel/Palestine conflict.

“I was not aware of the issues that the series concerns itself with until I saw that movie,” she said. “It literally showed me a world and … an entire paradox that is so apparent [but is] still ignored and … dismissed for whatever reason.”

Jimenez went on to discuss how a student she knows went on a trip to Israel and Palestine with Professor Atshan and saw the conflict in person.

“He [mentioned] how profound of an experience it was to witness that kind of disparity and aggression … and the fact that it was solely based on identity: political, religious, ethnic,” Jimenez said, “and since then, whenever it’s mentioned, I definitely have this perspective of it’s not as simple as anyone can make it.”

Last year, some students who took PEAC 053 had the opportunity to travel with Professor Atshan to visit the region which the class is concerned with. The students enrolled in the course this year will have the same opportunity over winter break.

“I think [this is] a topic that does not get as much attention as it deserves,” Jimenez said, “and however that can be helped I think is in a positive direction.”

Other students agree that it is important to discuss the conflict. George Abraham ’17, a Palestinian-American student also enrolled in Atshan’s class, expressed his appreciation for it. He feels that the class does a good job in allowing students to talk about the conflict.

“The class promotes discussion in a very constructive way and not in a way that’s harmful to any particular perspective,” he said.

Abraham acknowledged that because the conflict in Israel-Palestine is such a contentious topic, there is always a bit of tension in class. However, he believes discussion is important.

“No matter who you are you’re going to get challenged in this class,” he said. “There’s a devil’s advocate in every discussion and your views are going to be challenged, and I like that.”

It is important to note that, while many members of the community agree that PEAC 053 is a fantastic class and that the film series promotes valuable discussion, it is by no means a unanimous sentiment. The complexities of the conflict in Israel and Palestine transfer over into the Swarthmore community. Some voices are significantly underrepresented on campus and in discussions of this controversial topic. In fact, many individuals decided to stay out of this particular article altogether, wary of the potential repercussions of voicing an unpopular opinion. This caution further illustrates the fact that these issues are far more complicated than many feel capable of expressing.

While opinions differed on the film series overall, many community members felt that the first film, a documentary entitled “Promises,” successfully illustrated the complexities of the conflict.

“It’s not possible to jump into the conflict in 2016 without an understanding of what has been taking place for the better part of the last century,” one student, who requested to remain anonymous, expressed. “But the first movie did a good job of giving a balanced perspective of what people are currently feeling.”

Centered around Jerusalem, the documentary interviewed children of all backgrounds in Israel and Palestine. Some were very religious and some were very secular. The focus on children provided a powerful awareness of how conflict impacts people living on different sides.

“[The children] had very mature and complex emotions on what was going on. It was like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” Abraham expressed. “They interviewed refugee children and it’s amazing how they learn to adapt and survive.”

At the end of the documentary the filmmakers asked the children if they wanted to meet some of the others. Abraham described their responses.

“Some of the kids said no and were very racist,” he said. “It was interesting to see there were some kids on the extreme [ends] in both cases.”

Other kids, however, who fell more in the middle of the spectrum, agreed to meet each other and ended up getting along. Abraham said that it was touching to see these children from such different backgrounds become friends.

In general, many viewers appreciated the honesty with which the documentary illustrated how the conflict affects the day-to-day lives of Israelis and Palestinians.

The third film, “The Gatekeepers,” was shown yesterday, and there will be three more films in the remainder of the series. “The War Around Us” will show on Wednesday, September 28, “Paradise Now” on October 5, and “Eyes Wide Open” on October 19, following Fall Break. The films are also on reserve in McCabe and can be borrowed by anyone who cannot make it to the screening.

SPJP constructs model of West Bank wall on campus

in Around Campus/News by
photo by Simona Dwass '19
photo by Simona Dwass ’19

 

 

Swarthmore Students for Peace and Justice (SPJP) recently constructed a model wall near the Kohlberg tunnel in an attempt to start a discussion and send a message about human rights violations in Palestine.

In 2002, Israel built a wall that separated the Palestinian West Bank from Israel proper. At the time, the wall was explained as an attempt to increase security in Israel, but was mostly constructed on Palestinian territory. The wall has been controversial due to the restrictions it imposes on the mobility of Palestinians in the region.

“There are limits to how far you can go for security,” commented SPJP member Timmy Hirschel-Burns ’17.

The group originally planned to repeat a similar project from three years ago, which was meant to represent a mock checkpoint and members of SPJP would act as soldiers at the checkpoint. The wall was going to be built along Parrish, but the group was limited by administrative concerns and resources.

“We had to rethink our project in terms of space and manpower but still getting the same message across,” explained SPJP member Joelle Hageboutros ’16. They used the same materials, but instead constructed a mock wall with graffiti messages that could potentially be on the real wall.

The mock wall was meant to raise awareness about the situation in Palestine and how Palestinian communities are impacted.

“We had an outline of wall construction and how it was deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice and how construction still continues to this day,” said Hageboutros.

The project challenged viewers by asking them to think about the idea of having checkpoints on campus.

“We chose to put a message, have you ever gone through a checkpoint on your way to class? Trying to get people to put themselves in other people’s shoes,” Hageboutros commented.

As might be expected, this mock wall was not met with full support among the community. Some students did not agree with the message, but still supported the act and respected the right to free speech on campus.

“The initial reaction was to ask those who had put up the demonstration to remove it, but we pretty quickly decided that this was not an appropriate course of action,” remarked Swarthmore Students for Israel member Jessica Seigel ’16, “They have every right to speak their minds and have a presence on this campus, just as we do.”

Seigel did not speak for the group as a whole, but noted that even within the group many members had different opinions about the wall.

I think the diversity of thought even within those who support Israel shows how difficult and contentious the issue of this wall remains,” Seigel commented.

Because the project was met with opposition, there was a desire by some members of the Swarthmore Students for Israel to engage in a dialogue and have their voices heard as well.

“Some people in the group hoped that we could try and start a dialogue regarding how such a demonstration could make some individuals feel unsafe” said Seigel.

Students from around campus had different reactions to the piece. Connor Keane ‘19 noted that the project effectively communicated the intended message and helped to facilitate thoughts on the issue.

I think that they succeeded in expressing their message. By making me aware of new dimensions of these issues in a fairly objective manner, the walls caused me to question the ‘standard narratives’ of these conflicts and want to inform myself further, which is perhaps the most important consequence such signs can have,” he said.

Hopefully the wall continues to spark informed discussion about the issue and serves to help students better understand the situation itself.

I am not a tough Jew

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

I am not a tough Jew, and I don’t want to be one, either. Last week, Bill Fedullo wrote an op-ed about how the image of the “tough Jew” impacts diaspora Jews’ perceptions of the State of Israel. I’m not sure whether Fedullo is familiar with the extent to which contemporary Jewish studies scholars have come to critique this trope, and I don’t blame him if he isn’t; the tough Jew is pervasive, and the field of Jewish studies is esoteric. But I nonetheless do not want to be lumped in with a general Jewish population assumed to idealize the tough Jew, because I definitely don’t. So I’m writing this op-ed.

An Israeli army physical fitness book published following the 1967 war does a nice job of summarizing what has come to be called the  “new” or the “tough” Jew: “The ‘traditional Jew’ of Eastern Europe was known, in the past, for his capability to bear mental sufferings and moral tortures and for his physical weakness…With the new Israel it is quite different. The citizen is taller, he has broad shoulders and his muscles are stronger.” It’s worth noting as well, as Todd Samuel Presner does in his book “Muscular Judaism,” that the new Jew is, as indicated by the many “he’s” in the above excerpt, decidedly male, as well as defined by his ability to inflict violence. This widely disseminated exercise manual—my family owns a copy—paints old country Ashkenazi Jews as impotent and needing to be replaced by a more masculine and powerful image. I don’t want to see my ancestors as impotent, and I don’t think they were. Some of them were eighteenth century scholars of Jewish law, whose works are still studied today. My grandparents were not passive victims, but ingenious resistors of Nazi control both prior to and during their imprisonment in concentration camps.

Let’s switch gears to what I really care about: Jewish religious texts. In I Samuel, the Israelites plead to Samuel to appoint them a king “to judge us like all the (other) nations” (I Samuel 8). Samuel warns the people of the oppression that will ensue if he coronates a king, but after being convinced by God, he begrudgingly does so. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work out so well for the Israelites. As a note, my use of the term “Israelites” is not a statement regarding Zionism, but the scholarly term for the people described in the Bible who later became Jews, also known as the descendants of a person named Israel. Lesson # 1: It doesn’t work out for Jews when we try to imitate the oppressive norms of the communities around us. It’s also just immoral to do so.

But the Bible isn’t really the foundational text of contemporary Judaism; the Talmud is. In the Babylonian Talmud, the bad boy gladiator Resh Lakish, who though ethnically Jewish, largely rejected Jewish culture, gives up his lance to study Jewish texts upon seeing a leading scholar, Rabbi Yohanan, bathing in the Jordan River. Upon first glance, Resh Lakish thinks Rabbi Yohanan is a woman, and the reader presumes Resh Lakish approaches him as an object of his sexual desire. Indeed, Rabbi Yohanan is described elsewhere in the Talmud as looking effeminate. After finding out that the gender-bending Rabbi Yohanan isn’t a woman, Resh Lakish nonetheless calls him beautiful and enters into an arguably homoerotic relationship with him. The two go on to be the leading scholars of their generation. After the death of Resh Lakish, Rabbi Yohanan becomes inconsolably bereaved, and calls out for him as one does for a lost lover.  Lesson #2: Jewish texts display models of masculinity very different from the “tough Jew.” This is just one example of gender-bending dudes in the Talmud among many. Scholars like Daniel Boyarin, Charlotte Fonrobert, and our own Professor Gwynn Kessler are my favorite starting points for learning about these texts. There are also a number of different trans and/or intersex characters discussed in the Talmud and other Rabbinic writings, though not always favorably.

As a transgender Jew, it doesn’t work out so well for me when our community continues to idealize an aggressive masculine ideal of nineteenth and twentieth century Europe (see Daniel Boyarin’s scholarship on the genesis of this trope). It’s worth noting that before Jews adopted this ideal, it was imposed on us as a sort of civilizing mission, since Jews were seen as broadly and unacceptably gender nonconforming (again, thank you Boyarin). More than this ideal doesn’t work out for me, it really doesn’t work out for women. By continuing to idealize the tough Jew, we embrace an ideal of violence and we deride our ancestors. While we must be deeply committed to acknowledging and dealing with the misogyny of our textual tradition, our texts might also provide some alternatives to toxic masculinity, and to the “tough Jew.” It is not enough to simply assert alternative masculinities and pretend like that means the patriarchy is over. But ceasing to glorify aggressive masculinity is certainly a step.

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