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The latest academic call for divestment from Israel isn’t a demand to boycott its colleges, nor to withdraw investments in companies based in the Jewish state. This one is something of a culinary conundrum.
Hummus has already been the butt of high-profile jokes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but a student group at Princeton University isn’t laughing. Those students take hummus so seriously, in fact, that they are waging a campaign against one brand of the chickpea spread whose owner has been accused of contributing to human rights violations of Palestinians in the West Bank because the company supports the Israeli military.
Sabra Dipping Company has come under attack recently, after allegations surfaced that its co-owner, the Israel-based Strauss Group, makes financial contributions to the Israeli Defense Forces. (Sabra’s other co-owner is PepsiCo.) Strauss has noted on its corporate website that it supports the welfare, cultural and educational activities of members of the military, but the Israeli press has reported that the company is removing some references to its military support amid the current controversy.
A Princeton Committee on Palestine petition gathered more than 200 student signatures, enough to include a referendum on this week’s Undergraduate Student Government election ballot. If students approve the measure, the committee will submit a formal request to Dining Services to provide an alternative hummus option — in addition to Sabra — at university-run retail outlets. That includes five venues in a food court-style dining venue and two cafes. (The university does offer house-made hummus in some other facilities.)
The debate over American colleges’ associations with Israel has picked up steam in recent years, with academics and student activists alike weighing in. Now, via Facebook, students across the country are declaring their support for or opposition to Sabra. The hummus debate has now emerged on multiple campuses, including Georgetown University and DePaul University, the latter of which banned Sabra’s dip after the Students for Justice in Palestine approached administrators. (DePaul later backtracked on the ban and reinstated the sale of Sabra while DePaul’s Fair Business Practices Committee is investigating the issue.)
At Princeton, the student group that sponsored the referendum says it is neutral because it only calls for more options and not the elimination of any (though that was the original intent of the measure, before it was revised). “We think it’s important to allow students to have choice, and if they want to eat hummus, not have to buy a product that’s so morally problematic,” said Yoel Bitran, president of the Princeton Committee on Palestine.
But thousands of students from colleges far beyond Princeton are taking issue with that stance, and condemn the committee’s propagation of anti-Israel sentiment. The Facebook event “Save the Hummus! — Vote Against the Sabra Hummus Boycott,” created by members of the campus group Tigers for Israel, has more than 2,600 attendees — compared to 181 attending “Boycott Sabra Hummus.” The pro-Sabra group says the referendum unfairly singles Sabra out of numerous companies with ties to Israel, and is “based on a convoluted claim that the company supports human rights violations against Palestinians.”
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a very complicated issue, and we concede that there’s room for improvement in all sides,” the event reads. “Placing ALL of the blame on Israel is not going to bring peace to the region. Instead of furthering these divides through arbitrary boycotting, we should work to build bridges between both sides by engaging each other in constructive dialogue to find ways to end the conflict.”
Students aren’t the only critics. “This is surely either a hoax, or malicious nonsense of the kind advanced by supporters of the discredited [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions for Palestine] campaign,” Keren Goodblatt, spokeswoman for the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, wrote in an e-mail. She said the group at Princeton is being unfair to Sabra by “taking [the name] out of context and using it as a code-word for anything associated with Israel.” (The word sabra refers in Israel both to people born there and a fruit that is prickly on the outside and sweet inside.)
Bitran did acknowledge that the real goal of the referendum is not necessarily to have it approved, but rather to raise awareness of who owns Sabra and the potential implications of purchasing the product. And in that sense, the student group has succeeded, he said.
“In the beginning people didn’t really understand why this mattered. People thought that it was just about hummus and kind of trivial,” Bitran said. “I think most people kind of changed their minds…. At this point the referendum itself is a detail.”
If the measure does pass, that doesn’t necessarily mean Sabra’s competitors should start lining up to be the next face of hummus at Princeton. University spokeswoman Emily Aronson said dining officials would consider the hummus preferences of all stakeholders – faculty and staff as well – not just students.
“Dining services will continue to keep the dialogue open with the students in the [Princeton Committee on Palestine], though given that student voting on the referendum has not yet closed, it would be premature to say at this point what the outcome and next steps may be,” Aronson wrote in an e-mail.