Over the course of the last few months, DePaul University has become ground zero of the growing campus boycott movement in Chicago. It began after DePaul’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) discovered that the sale of Sabra brand hummus served to profit a corporation found to have direct financial ties to two Israeli army brigades notorious for countless human rights violations.
Students with SJP immediately drafted a letter of appeal to campus administrators to have Sabra hummus removed from the university’s cafeterias. The appeal, which also included suggestions for alternative brands of hummus, was taken very seriously and administrators immediately announced the discontinued sale of all Sabra products pending further investigation.
However, DePaul’s decision sparked immediate outrage by Israel supporters. On 24 November, when SJP just began its appeal to the campus administration, the Jewish United Fund (JUF) openly criticized the proposal as an attack against Israel itself, prompting the university to rescind its initial decision to temporarily remove the product on the basis of procedural error.
This did not deter SJP’s progress. The group continued to compile research regarding Sabra’s ties to the Israeli military, all of which was presented to DePaul’s Fair Business Practices Committee after it was charged with overseeing any subsequent investigation of the hummus product. After months of deliberations, the DePaul administration and student government placed the SJP’s referendum on a student ballot.
For one week, students at DePaul were encouraged to vote either in favor of or against the referendum. The campus community quickly mobilized for something that critics of the referendum characterized as trivial and unnecessarily provocative. Media, both local and nationally, reported on SJP’s efforts and their role in inspiring and giving impetus to similar campaigns at other college campuses across the country.
The results were released shortly after voting ended on the morning of Friday, 20 May. DePaul SJP stated in a 21 May open letter to the DePaul community:
“The election resulted in a staggering 1,127 votes in favor of the referendum. This accounted for nearly 80 percent of the total 1,467 votes. According to the Student Government Association constitution, 751 students must vote in favor for a referendum in order for it to pass. The votes in favor of replacing Sabra surpassed this number by 376 votes. To be considered valid, however, a referendum must have a total voter turnout of 1,500 or more students. Nonetheless, the number of votes cast in favor of the referendum represents an incredible, landslide victory for our campaign to boycott Sabra hummus” (“Open letter to the DePaul Community on the Outcome of the Sabra referendum”).
It is not possible to view this as a defeat for SJP or for the movement to boycott products and companies profiting from human rights abuses in Palestine and around the world. While only 33 more votes were needed to validate the results of the referendum, one cannot ignore the staggering student support for the removal of Sabra hummus.
Not only is this an explicit indication of the high moral ethic of DePaul University’s student body, it also goes to show how effective and dedicated students with DePaul’s SJP truly are. As one SJP member noticed, in the few days of voting, the campus appeared “festive” as students waving brightly colored “VOTE YES” posters, distributed flyers to passerby and encouraged colleagues to consider alternative hummus brands.
The results of the vote also show the failure of the Sabra hummus boycott counter-campaign. External groups like the JUF quickly and deceitfully spun the campaign into a “hummus war” to be misinterpreted as a component of the global and even anti-Semetic movement to boycott all things Israeli. JUF Executive Vice President Michael C. Kotzin accused SJP of “using misleading language to cloak their real intention in the guise of concern for human rights. In fact, their ultimate goal is the elimination of the State of Israel” (“Local Jewish leaders condemn attempt to boycott Israeli hummus,” JUF News, 18 May 2011).
With JUF’s encouragement, a number of students organized a “VOTE NO” campaign, handing out free samples of Sabra hummus and urging students to consider SJP’s strategy as an attempt to stifle “dialogue.” The counter-campaign also alleged that SJP provided no additional information to substantiate their boycott attempt.
But these are all false claims, and judging by the 77 percent of voters who chose to support SJP’s efforts, it is clear that most students recognize the false and deceitful nature of the claims as well. In at least two separate instances, SJP presented detailed analyses of Sabra’s parent company, Strauss Group, and its widely-publicized financial ties to the Givati and Golani brigades.
The analyses also included reports of egregious human rights violations, including the use of human shields and white phosphorus chemical weaponry, committed by these two brigades as documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations. There is a system involving the routine abuse of human rights and Sabra brand hummus plays a role in it. SJP’s proposals outlined this evidence in its entirety, giving the DePaul administration no other choice but to bring the vote to the student body.
And contrary to how Kotzin portrays the referendum, SJP’s strategy is not predicated on the elimination of an Israeli state. Rather, it deals purely with human rights. The logic is simple; boycotting Sabra hummus and other similarly problematic products sends a strong signal to owners of the companies that make them, which is that any profiteering from human rights violations will not be tolerated.
Companies like the Strauss Group are given two choices: maintain financial ties with criminal entities or maintain financial ties with consumers.
Although the landslide victory cannot legally be validated by the Student Government, the numbers don’t lie. This is a definitive victory for socially responsible consumerism — not just at DePaul University but also for other institutions calling for increased awareness and responsible investment. The students behind this months-long strategy to expose and help rectify DePaul’s financial investments have made it clear that the campaign to ban Sabra has not come to a close. If anything, its success and subsequent publicity make this a perfect starting point for future action.
Sami Kishawi is an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago where he is heavily involved in human rights studies, grassroots activism and student campaigns in support of Palestinian rights. He currently blogs at Sixteen Minutes to Palestine.