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Sabra alternative: Inching towards social responsibility at DePaul University

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One year ago, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at DePaul University launched a campaign to remove Sabra Hummus from campus shelves after confirming that Sabra’s parent company, the Strauss Group, provides material and financial aid to the Israeli military. Although a vote by the student body overwhelmingly supported the divestment campaign, the university’s administration ultimately chose to continue selling the product. Earlier this school year, however, the university introduced an alternative hummus brand that appears to imply that DePaul is in fact inching towards socially-responsible investment.

Recapping the campaign

Hummus at DePaul (Photo: Sami Kishawi)

Students with SJP at DePaul identify the introduction of this product as a sign of victory for the year-long campaign. It all began when students found evidence of Sabra’s ties to the Givati and Golani Brigades, two elite Israeli military units cited by the various human rights organizations for their flagrant violations of human rights law. After establishing Sabra’s complicity in the illegal occupation of Palestine, students called on the campus administration to remove the product completely.

Initially, the administration obliged but, after receiving pressure from community and lobby groups, chose to forego its Vincentian values and reinstate the product. The case was reviewed by DePaul’s Fair Business Practices Committee, and the Student Government approved it for a campus-wide vote.

Of the 1,467 votes cast during the election, nearly 80% were in favor of total divestment from Sabra. Despite this large margin of victory, the voter turnout did not reach the required 1,500 students so the results were considered invalid. Nevertheless, months after SJP presented its proposal for the first time, the campus administration quietly obliged to SJP’s requests and introduced an alternative hummus product for the student body.

A quiet introduction

What is most striking about this alternative hummus product is that it was introduced very quietly. Only after SJP contacted the administration did DePaul’s campus authorities release a statement concerning the Chartwells-brand hummus.

Although the statement generically announces that the new hummus offers students with a greater selection, it is understood that the university implicitly opted to avoid pressure from lobbyist and special interest community groups. The university must certainly be aware that offering an alternative and less-expensive hummus product will inevitably mean fewer sales for Sabra. This quiet introduction of the product should therefore be seen as part of a greater strategy to minimize ties with groups linked to human rights violations without sparking negative pressure.

A campaign of notable merit

Equally important is DePaul’s decision to introduce an alternative product months after the student referendum took place. This indicates that the deliberation within the administration continued well after the end of the school year. DePaul found notable merit in SJP’s concerns and chose to pursue the matter, albeit slowly, until a deal was reached with Chartwells.

DePaul has, by all means, set a new precedent, at least within Chicago’s colleges and universities, by giving divestment campaigns the legitimacy they deserve. When DePaul students approached the university’s administration with its Vincentian values published in educational packets detailing Sabra’s role in the violation of human rights and international law, DePaul quickly heeded to the call and removed the product without further consideration. Although Sabra was reinstated and ultimately kept on campus shelves, the university did not marginalize the student body’s concern. In similar efforts at different universities in the past, when divestment campaigns came to a close, administrations moved on. But in DePaul, the administration recognized the damaging impression that its investment in Sabra has left on it.

Why hummus?

For those convinced that the introduction of a new brand of hummus at DePaul University is nothing more than coincidental, the question must be asked: Why offer homemade hummus when both Chartwells and DePaul have the capabilities of providing students with more conventional products?

This was not a random move. As a matter of fact, any action that DePaul takes regarding hummus for the next few years will not be random in any way. After recognizing how important this divestment campaign means to students, faculty, and alumni, DePaul will take no chances in how it handles hummus on campus.

DePaul has hashed out the details with Chartwells by contract, it is safe to assume. DePaul is also aware of the extra costs this alternative might incur – no matter how negligible – for ingredients and packaging. It is clear, then, that the introduction of Chartwells-brand hummus was a calculated decision by DePaul to show that it indeed takes into considerations all matters that contradict its founding values.

Sabra as a tool for education

From the outset, the divestment campaign against Sabra was incorrectly framed as an attempt to marginalize both Jews and their appetites. Lobby groups pressured students and administrations into ignoring the facts tying Sabra to the Israeli military’s systematic abuse of international and humanitarian law. Up until the introduction of an alternative product, this tactic seemed to hold the administration in check. It is therefore important to recognize the administration for transitively dispelling the misconceptions and obliging to SJP’s demands – to offer an alternative.

Although Sabra remains on DePaul’s campus, SJP intends to use it as a tool for educating the student body on how certain companies profit from occupation and human rights violations. Social responsibility is key in SJP’s mission at DePaul University.

This post originally appeared on Sixteen Minutes to Palestine.

Sami Kishawi
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16 Responses

  1. Potsherd2
    November 23, 2011, 1:54 pm

    What will matter in the end is which brand of hummus tastes better.

    • LanceThruster
      November 23, 2011, 2:26 pm

      Quite possibly, but I hope that Sabra hummus sales fall at least 80% to show the students are, in fact, paying attention.

      • Potsherd2
        November 23, 2011, 4:01 pm

        Zionist students will buy Sabra hummus to “show their support for Israel.”

        Anti-Zionist students will buy the other brand for the same reason. But all but the most ideologically committed will turn in the end to the brand that tastes best to them.

    • annie
      November 23, 2011, 6:34 pm

      What will matter in the end is which brand of hummus tastes better.

      not really. i can’t recall ever tasting sabra hummus and i am not sure why i would start now. you can’t compare a brand you don’t taste. some people will buy with their conscience.

  2. mudder
    November 23, 2011, 6:18 pm

    I hope their colleagues in Boston will inspire them:

    • mudder
      November 23, 2011, 6:39 pm

      marvelous video from this week…

      BDS activists in Cambridge, MA sing to shoppers at the Harvest Co-op in central square: “Boycott Sabra & Tribe! Don’t buy into Israeli Apartheid!”

  3. annie
    November 23, 2011, 6:38 pm

    this is great news, i hadn’t heard this latest development. thanks sami.

  4. ToivoS
    November 23, 2011, 7:52 pm

    Why is the administration of a Catholic University so closely tied to Israel? This question first appeared when they denied Finklestein tenure. Surely, Jewish donors are not that important to their endowment. Now they back apartheid humus to be sold to their students.

    After Finklestein’s firing I expected to hear after some time how that happened. So far I have not heard how that happened and now why they insist on pushing apartheid products on their students.

    • Duscany
      November 25, 2011, 1:10 am

      “Why is the administration of a Catholic University so closely tied to Israel?”

      A liberal’s greatest fear is being called a racist. His next greatest fear is being called an anti-Semite. They simply can’t imagine a defense to such charges. Thus the one way they see to protect oneself is never to do anything (like Banning Israeli hummus) that might raise these issues at all.

  5. thetumta
    November 23, 2011, 11:00 pm

    En Hummus revolutionen? Skämtar du?

  6. RoHa
    November 24, 2011, 1:53 am

    Jag tror han menar vad han säger.

  7. homingpigeon
    November 24, 2011, 6:14 am

    Interesting brand name “Sabra.” It contains so much of the nature of the conflict in layers of meaning and metaphor.

    Sabra the Hummous would be named after “sabra,” the word used to describe Jewish Israelis actually born in the land, to distinguish them from the immigrant Israelis. In the mid eighties, the number of “sabras” rose to equal about one half of the Jewish population. The proportion slipped in the early nineties with the arrival of immigrants from the Soviet Union. Not sure what the proportion is now, but it would be approximately half sabra.

    Those slightly well-read in America know that this word was chosen for the native born Israeli in reference to the sabra cactus, or prickly pear, which is “tough on the outside but sweet inside.”

    But there is another layer. The name of the fruit is actually the Arabic name for it. And the Arabic name means “patience.” When I ignored warnings about fifty years ago and picked one with my bare hands and found them filled with the almost microscopic fuzzy looking thorns the local kids I was with explained that you needed patience to get to this fruit and hence its name. (Sabr is the abstract and collective word and sabra the singular).

    And there’s more. This cactus is an excellent natural fencing, an organic barbed wire. You plant it around your gardens to keep the goats out. (Unfortunately camels will eat their way right through it though). But the roots remain indestructible. Chop down, burn, or bulldoze the sabra cactus, and it will grow back. So the best efforts to destroy the evidence of Palestinian villages are frustrated by the resilient sabra which continues to sprout and remind us of that another people had gardens here.

  8. Richard Witty
    Richard Witty
    November 24, 2011, 11:47 am

    There is an irony with this declaration of victory.

    That is that when I suggested the same relative to the Brooklyn Coop’s vote, the solidarity here described that as a racist approach.

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