A pro-Palestinian group at Wesleyan University is claiming a victory in the effort to boycott Israel with the removal of a brand of hummus with Israeli ties from campus stores.
Sabra Dipping Co. products were phased out of the university’s food stores over the past couple of weeks, after a group of students raised ethical concerns about the company.
The brand of hummus and other dips is co-owned by Strauss Group, a company that’s been accused of contributing to human rights violations of Palestinians because it gives money to the Israeli military. Defenders of Sabra have said that the company's ties to Israel aren't that different from the ties of many American companies to the U.S. military. The boycott was sought by the Wesleyan chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.
A Wesleyan spokeswoman confirmed that Sabra products aren’t being sold any longer on campus, partially in response to the concern of a small group of students. But the decision was not a political statement, said Lauren Rubenstein, associate manager of media and public relations. The university is still looking into stocking multiple brands of hummus to give students a choice of products, she said.
Student groups on campuses around the country have pushed their universities to take public stances against Israel through boycotts, divestment and sanctions. Targeting the Sabra hummus brand isn’t entirely out of the blue, either. In 2010, a group of Princeton University students were unsuccessful in their attempt to bring an alternative hummus brand on campus, and a similar effort failed at DePaul University in 2011. Students at Earlham College were successful at removing Sabra products in 2012, but the product returned to campus shelves after a short time.
At Wesleyan, the effort started in March, when students sent a letter to the managers at one of the university’s food markets urging them to remove Sabra products from their shelves. When that didn't work, students handed out pamphlets on campus that encouraged students to boycott Sabra products and plastered stickers onto Sabra products, said Yael Horowitz, a sophomore.
In May, the Wesleyan Student Assembly also passed a resolution urging the university to withdraw its endowment investments from any companies that, among other things, provide military support for the Israeli military operations in the West Bank. The purpose was to remove “the financial incentive to participate in the illegal occupation and exploitation of indigenous Palestinians and their land,” according to the resolution.
Horowitz said that while it was not directly related, passing that resolution helped to show support for this campaign and to spur the Wesleyan Student Assembly to remove the hummus brand. Members of the student assembly’s Dining Services Committee announced the decision after meeting with university food services staff and with students working to remove the hummus, Horowitz said.
In a letter to the student newspaper earlier this fall, students with Wesleyan United with Israel criticized the campus’s attitude toward students who support Israel. The group says that it wants the two countries to coexist peacefully, but that a boycott won't help that happen. Few people think boycotting Israeli businesses is an effective strategy, the letter states.
In an interview, Samantha Viterbi, a sophomore, questioned why people would want to boycott the only democracy in the Middle East. Instead, she said, their outrage should be focused on other issues in the region, such as violence against women or religious discrimination against Christians.
“Actions like this are causing people who are critical thinkers and who care about democracies in the Middle East to choose not to come to Wesleyan,” she said.
Viterbi, who’s president of the Wesleyan United with Israel group, said she’s seen the anti-Sabra pamphlets in recent months. But she doesn’t think most students on campus know why the hummus was removed.
In minutes from the student assembly meeting, there’s no mention of an ethical concern or removing the Sabra products as a political statement. Instead, the minutes state that the campus will now sell Cedar’s Mediterranean Foods hummus, a brand made nearby in Massachusetts.
“I think this issue is kept very underground. I think the WSA didn’t want students to find out about it,” Viterbi said.
Horowitz disagreed. Students leading the boycott focused on telling their classmates to be aware of the origins and owners of the products they were eating, and to stop buying Sabra if they were concerned about the company's ties to human rights abuses. Last semester, nearly 600 students signed a petition that spoke generally about boycotts against Israeli companies, she said.
As for those students who simply don’t care to consider the politics of their hummus? Horowitz said they don’t appear to be upset. She pointed out that they still have two hummus choices, including a local one, for their pitas.
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