Top Harvard University officials have stepped in after campus food services administrators agreed to remove the SodaStream label from equipment in their dining halls and not to make any new purchases from the company.
The decision to boycott SodaStream came after a series of meetings with faculty and concerned students to discuss the implications of using a product manufactured in an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.
But now Harvard University Dining Services is reconsidering its decision on the grounds that it should not have taken “political” factors into account. This flatly contradicts a decision in another recent case — that administrators did not contest — to boycott a company whose chair made anti-gay comments.
The university administration’s intervention in the SodaStream case is in keeping with other openly pro-Israel positions taken by Harvard President Drew G. Faust and Provost Alan Garber.
On 17 December, campus newspaper The Harvard Crimson reported that Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) had agreed last spring to stop purchasing soft drink machines from a company that had been acquired by SodaStream.
Israeli-owned SodaStream has become a high-profile target for the boycott, divest and sanctions (BDS) movement as it operates its main factory in Mishor Adumim, the industrial zone of the Israeli settlement Maale Adumim in the occupied West Bank.
The UN Security Council has affirmed on numerous occasions that Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land are illegal under international law because they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention which states that ”The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
As pressure to boycott the company has risen, its sales have plummeted. In October, SodaStream’s chief executive announced plans to move its settlement factory to an area within present-day Israel where Palestinian Bedouins are resisting ongoing efforts to remove them from their land and destroy their way of life.
The Crimson reported that student members of the campus Palestine Solidarity Committee and the College Islamic Society had noticed the SodaStream label in the fall of 2013 and raised their concerns with house masters.
The students were reportedly made uncomfortable by the labels and pointed out that the machines could potentially “offend” those students affected by the occupation.
“For Palestinian students at Harvard, the presence of the SodaStream label represented a direct endorsement of land theft that has destroyed their communities and left thousands without homes,” the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) said in a statement released to the Crimson.
A representative from PSC said the group chose to emphasize students’ discomfort with the SodaStream products because it was an honest portrayal of how the machines affected the student community, and also because they thought it provided an easy way for the university to respond to their concerns: “It is the university’s job to provide open and comfortable space for students.”
Despite claims that the meetings last spring excluded pro-Israeli voices, they were open to the public. A PSC spokesperson told The Electronic Intifada that at least two students at the meetings with dining representatives expressed opposition to removing the SodaStream brand from dining halls.
Rachel J. Sandalow, a member of Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance who also attended the meetings, told the Crimson that regardless of the university’s position, the machines’ association with settlements made them inappropriate for student dining halls.
PSC supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement but has not yet proposed any divestment resolutions. “We are trying to get to the point where we are organized and strong enough to get that point. SodaStream is an issue we felt we could handle,” the PSC spokesperson said.
The students and HUDS reached a mutually satisfactory resolution. In a memo from a meeting that took place on 17 April, Professor Diana Eck, who moderated the final meeting, wrote:
Our discussion revealed that there are different perspectives on the wider controversy over Sodastream. This issue, however, is very much limited to Harvard dining halls … This meeting was a wonderful example of how our community of learning, comprised of a diversity of perspectives and experiences, comes together to address concerns and learn from each other. Through free expression and an exchange of ideas we gain a better understanding of each other and the world around us.
In a sign of good faith, dining officials immediately canceled a standing order for a new SodaStream machine and placed an order with a different company.
But only a day after the report appeared last week, Harvard University President Drew G. Faust ordered an investigation into the decision. Provost Alan M. Garber wrote in an email to the Crimson: “Harvard University’s procurement decisions should not and will not be driven by individuals’ views of highly contested matters of political controversy.”
Also within the day, Harvard law professor and anti-Palestinian author Alan Dershowitz had published a column in The Jerusalem Post excoriating Harvard dining services’ alignment with BDS. Dershowitz wrote that he had spoken to “Arabs” who worked in the SodaStream factory and “love working for a company that pays them high wages and manufactures excellent working conditions.”
To counter calls for boycott, SodaStream has promoted its West Bank factory as beneficial to Palestinian workers. But Palestinians report humiliating and dismal working conditions and that they are systematically kept in lower labor positions than Jewish Israeli workers. Furthermore, the Israeli settlement watchdog Who Profits reported that the factory skirts Israeli labor laws by scheduling workers for twelve-hour shifts.
Following reports of a univeristy investigation, Harvard dining services immediately began backtracking on its decision. Dining services spokesperson Crista Martin wrote that HUDS had “mistakenly factored political concerns raised by students on a particularly sensitive issue into a decision on soda machines. As the president and provost have made clear, our procurement decisions should not be driven by community members’ views on matters of political controversy.”
In response to HUDS’ statement, the Palestine Solidarity Committee spokesperson said, “We think it’s contradictory to what has been done in the past. HUDS stopped buying Barilla pasta.”
In October 2013, HUDS stopped serving the Italian pasta after the company’s chairman said that it would never show a gay family in any of its advertising. This prompted a number of US-based gay rights groups to call for a boycott of the Barilla brand. As a result of the backlash, the company apologized.
It appears that neither Faust nor Garber voiced any protest of the decision to stop serving Barilla products.
While PSC said they are are upset that HUDS has called the decision a mistake, they are still hoping the resolution will hold. The group’s spokesperson said: “There’s still no clear word on whether HUDS is going to reverse their decision. But in the meantime we are trying to garner support and show the administration that the decision has support of the student body and of people outside Harvard.”
HUDS’ Crista Martin did not respond to The Electronic Intifada in time for publication.
Harvard’s history of defending Israel
This is not the first time that a university’s dining services has had to backtrack after agreeing to stop promoting an Israeli product. Soon after students briefly celebrated Wesleyan University’s decision to de-shelve Sabra hummus, the Wesleyan dining committee reversed its decision.
The presidents of both schools have stated their general opposition to divestment for any cause. Last year, Harvard’s Faust formally asserted this opposition while responding to a push to divest the university’s endowment from fossil fuels. While expressing sympathy for the anti-fossil fuel movement, Faust argued against “politicizing” the University’s $36 billion endowment through divestment resolutions.
But Faust and Garber also have a history of defending Israel from criticism, as Ali Abunimah details in his book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine.
In response to the One-State Conference that took place at Harvard in 2012, President Faust and David Ellwood, dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, assured Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman that ”We would never take a position on specific policy solutions to achieving peace in this region, and certainly would not endorse any policy that some argue could lead to the elimination of the Jewish State of Israel.”
Critics of Israel routinely aim to shut down debate about a democratic, non-sectarian and non-discriminatory one-state solution by saying it amounts to a call for the “destruction” or “elimination” of Israel. Harvard administrators forced student organizers to publish statements dissociating the university from the One-State Conference.
But signaling the administration’s active support for Israel just a few weeks later, Provost Garber gave the opening remarks for the Israel Conference at Harvard, a conference that had no academic merit but was designed to serve as a platform for burnishing Israel’s image.
Despite the administration’s intervention, students are not giving up: “We hope the administration takes into consideration the strong backing of this decision and they will place importance on the concerns of the students,” the PSC spokesperson said.