Last month, all Sabra brand hummus products were pulled from Wesleyan University dining locations, including two cafés and a campus supermarket.
The Middletown, Connecticut, university’s Dining Service Committee agreed to remove the increasingly controversial brand after months of mounting pressure from student activists.
Sabra is a frequent target for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns because it is partially owned by the Israeli company Strauss Foods, which actively supports the Golani brigade, an “elite” unit in the Israeli army which is responsible for grave human rights abuses.
While Strauss has removed its more strident language praising the Israeli army since the BDS movement has grown, it remains a supporter of a brigade which has participated in some of the bloodiest attacks. In July, the Golani brigade carried out a massacre of dozens of civilians in the Shujaiya neighborhood in the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli brand is popular: last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that sales of Sabra had jumped 18 percent in one year. And reports estimate that Sabra holds two-thirds of the booming American hummus market.
Student activists have stated that Bon Appétit, the food service company contracted by the university, nets an annual $25,000 from Sabra products.
Activists are trying to buck the trend.
“It’s totally gone now — their guacamole, hummus, everything is gone,” Wesleyan sophomore Yael Horowitz told The Electronic Intifada. “It happened really quickly once the dining service committee decided.” Horowitz is active in the movement for divestment on campus and is also trying to start a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.
The decision to remove Sabra products was announced 9 November, but students had been campaigning since last March, when they sent a letter to the on-campus supermarket asking them to remove the Israeli brand and replace it with local alternatives. The letter, which explained Strauss’ explicit support for a military unit, went unanswered. Then efforts were shifted to a divestment resolution proposed to the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) that passed last May, as The Electronic Intifada reported.
Divestment at Wesleyan
The resolution calls for the divestment of WSA holdings from all companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or sell security systems and arms to the Israeli military.
Unique among undergraduate student governments, the WSA manages and funds its own separate endowment, currently worth $300,000. The endowment helps pay for student activities on campus.
The majority of WSA funds are pooled with Wesleyan University’s endowment, a portion of which is concealed from the public. Thus the resolution also stipulates that the WSA will divest from the university if it is discovered that has holdings in any of the companies that profit from war, occupation or settlements.
According to both Horowitz and Tedra James, a organizer with Students for Justice in Palestine, the divestment resolution passed with little campus controversy. Horowitz posited that because there is a strong momentum in favor of divesting from fossil fuels, there is an atmosphere of support for it as a political tactic.
The resolution passed only five months after Wesleyan’s president, Michael S. Roth, publicly denounced the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, incurring protests from current and former students.
The new neutral?
And while the divestment resolution didn’t directly lead to the deshelving of Sabra, it was the needed boost to the budding effort to remove its products.
James told The Electronic Intifada that by passing the divestment resolution, the WSA signalled to the dining committee what the student body supported. According to James, the director of dining services was concerned about taking a political position, “But we were able to convince him that not selling Sabra products was the neutral position.”
And while most of the negotiations with the dining service representatives took place behind closed doors, organizers also tried to educate the student body by staging a direct action — covering all Sabra products at the campus supermarket with stickers urging shoppers to boycott them, and passing out pamphlets.
However, when the removal of Sabra from campus was formally announced last November, an act recorded in the Wesleyan Student Assembly’s minutes, there was no mention of the Israeli occupation. Instead, the emphasis was on replacing the Israeli brand with a locally-made product.
“It was disappointing to hear that the occupation wasn’t the reason they put forward, but I think it did expedite the process of divestment,” Horowitz said. “I don’t think that the conversation is completely over.”
When Horowitz, James and the rest of Wesleyan students come back to school in the new year, they will continue work to see that the divestment resolution is fully implemented.