Students Debate the Ethics of Sabra Hummus

By Jake Carver ’21  

Staff writer

On September 5th,  AJ Naddaff ‘18 posted a petition, now with 169 signatures, in the Davidson 2018-2019 Facebook group asking the college to replace Sabra food products in Union. The comments section of the post quickly became politically charged, in part because the grievances listed against Sabra were directly tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sabra Dipping Company, LLC, a U.S. based company, is equally owned by PepsiCo and the Israeli Strauss Group. According to a page of its website that has since been removed, the Strauss Group provided food aid to the Golani Brigade, a division of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) centered in the Golan Heights that is reputed for human rights abuses. Screenshots of this webpage can still be found on the Adalah website, a legal and human rights group supportive of Palestinians in Israel. Many of these claims originate from the Golani Brigade’s participation in Operation Cast Lead, in which well over 1,000 Palestinians perished in an attempt by the IDF to halt the illegal flow of weapons into the area.

The ownership of the Golan Heights, located in the north of Israel, is a controversial subject in and of itself ever since Israel took over the area in 1967 after the Six Day War. Although the international community does not recognize the annexation, Israel controls most of the area in practice, with Syria owning the rest. What is designated as Palestine lies to the south, although many Palestinian communities can be found outside Palestinian boundaries.

Layan Anabtawi ‘19, President of Davidson Students in Solidarity for Palestine, helped spread word of the petition early on and is currently discussing the issue with Davidson staff, primarily Union Station Manager Michael Wilson, to try to resolve the issue. A Palestinian herself, Anabtawi connected deeply to the goal of the petition.

“As someone from Palestine, when I see Sabra Hummus, I think of the on-going oppression and feel anger and frustration,” says Anabtawi. “I understand that the boycott at Davidson isn’t going to make a large economic impact on Sabra, but it’s important for the college to listen and care for what the students want to rally behind.”

For Anabtawi, the biggest challenge in getting Sabra products off of Davidson shelves may be properly conveying the meaning of the boycott. “This isn’t a petition against Jewish people, this is petition against a product [and] company that’s actively taking part in human rights violation,” asserts Anabtawi.  “Hating the Israeli government/illegal occupation does not mean hating all Israelis.” 

The Davidson petition was not the first of its kind. Similar Sabra boycotts have occurred at Princeton, Swarthmore, DePaul, and UC Riverside, among others. This wave of boycotts are part of the wider pro-Palestinian BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement. According to Dr. Jonathan Berkey, who specializes in Middle Eastern history, “BDS is about boycotting Israeli products and institutions and divesting from enterprises associated with the state of Israel.” Despite the seemingly anti-Israeli stance, it is not unheard of for Israelis to participate in BDS activities in the name of human rights.

“There are Jews and Jewish organizations who consider themselves to be very supportive of Israel, but who oppose particular Israeli policies and who would be willing to participate in certain BDS boycotts,” explained Berkey. 

That being said, Hillel, Davidson’s Jewish religious organization, felt challenged enough to email Jewish students on campus to convene and discuss what actions were to be taken. They decided to draft an officially non-Hillel affiliated letter with signatures from both Jewish and non-Jewish students. Simon Lowen ‘19, Co-president of Hillel, said that “in [his] opinion, the response was a letter, not a petition, as it was simply stating the importance of dialogue and that multiple perspectives exist. Not a signature war.”

For Lowen, the accusational wording of the Sabra petition could ostracize students who disagree. Lowen clarifies that “[his] issue with the petition was the line ‘do you believe in human rights?’ because there are multiple ways to think about this issue, and not supporting BDS is not necessarily indicative of not believing in human rights nor a lack of care for Palestinians.”

Lowen does not dismiss the petition as a bad idea; it is just something he does not want to sign. “I’m not going to say that people’s feelings don’t matter, and I don’t know the logistics of changing hummus suppliers,” he explained. “I just don’t feel comfortable participating either way in this particular argument.”

Lowen added, “There is oppression going on, and if the situation in Israel keeps going on, it may very well start looking like apartheid. Just make sure when you sign something, you do your research and know exactly what you are agreeing with. Israel gets a lot of negative press, and some of that is warranted and some of that is not.”

Other students found issue not only with the wording of the petition but also the tenuous connection between Sabra and the Golani Brigade. This includes David Samburg ‘20, who left a sharply written reply on the Facebook post and signed the anti-boycott letter. Unlike Lowen and some of the other contributors to the letter, Samburg took offense to the very idea of the Sabra petition, along with what he saw as poor research and deceptive wording. 

“[The petition asserts], without any basis in fact or reason, that the Strauss Group ‘invests in [and] financially supports’ the Golani Brigade,” pointed out Samberg. “The original [Davidson] petition mentioned food ‘aid,’ which turned out to be snacks sent nearly a decade ago.” 

There is also debate over whether the Golan Heights are related to Palestinian oppression at all, an issue stemming from the complex history of the area. “The Golani Brigade is currently in the north of Israel, training to protect its northern border with Syria… that unit is stationed more than thirty miles north of the nearest Palestinian land,” said Samburg.

As of now, the official statement from the college regarding the sale of Sabra products on campus is that “Dining Services listens carefully to all student feedback. We work hard to align our offerings with the values of the college and the student body. However, our priority is and will always be delivering safe, nutritious food to our students.” With that in mind, it remains in question whether the proposed Sabra boycott will ever come into effect. Despite this, Anabtawi is already pleased with what the conversation itself has done.

Anabtawi explained, “Most of my friends don’t buy Sabra products, not because I spend my every waking hour lobbying against it, but because they’ve done their research about the company and its involvement with human rights violations.”

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