There’s a scene in the movie Brüno where Sacha Baron Cohen’s character shares a table with former Mossad chief Yossi Alpher and former Palestinian minister Ghassan Khatib. Cohen turns to Alpher and asks, “Why are you so anti-Hamas? I mean, isn’t pita bread the real enemy?” Bewildered, Alpher replies, “You’re confusing Hamas with hummus, I believe.” Khatib pipes in: “You think there’s a relation between Hamas and hummus?”
Unmoved, Cohen continues to probe. “Was the founder of Hamas a chef?” he asks.
“Hummus has nothing to do with Hamas,” Alpher explains. “It’s a food, OK? We eat it. They eat it.” “It’s vegetarian,” adds Khatib. “It’s healthy.”
Despite these merits, some students at Princeton University in New Jersey (who probably didn’t make it to the end of this scene in the movie) have decided to wage a political war on the chickpea dip. The Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP) has created a Facebook event called “Boycott Sabra Hummus” and held a referendum Monday calling for alternatives to the Israeli brand of hummus being sold around campus. Yoel Bitran, the group’s creator, wrote that the PCP objects to the fact that “students who wish to eat this traditional Arab food are forced to buy a product that is connected to human rights abuses against Arab civilians.”
Sabra indeed provides care packages of dips and sports equipment to Israeli soldiers, but unless we consider these packages “weapons of ultimate deliciousness,” the connection between Sabra and human rights abuses is a weak one. Further undermining PCP’s position is the fact that there are other hummus alternatives available on campus, as pointed out by the Daily Princetonian staff.
So why is there so much fuss over food? Well hummus is just the latest target in a long line of commercial and ideological boycotts targeted at the Israeli government. Not simply an American movement, Canadian students have also actively supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) campaign, which was initiated in 2005 with the intention of pressuring the Israeli government to “end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” and “[recognize] the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel.”
Heather Kere was a vocal campaigner for the BDS movement when she was vice-president of education for Ryerson’s student union back in 2008, for example. Kere moved to rid Ryerson of Starbucks coffee, alleging that “The CEO and chairman of Starbucks (Howard Schultz) is a financial supporter of the state of Israel, an oppressive state that violates many UN resolutions, and so by supporting Starbucks, we’re supporting the apartheid system in Israel.” Starbucks has flatly denied the claim.
Then there was the more sensational attempt by the Canadian Union of Public Employees in 2009, which passed a motion calling for an academic boycott of Israeli lecturers. “We are ready to say Israeli academics should not be on our campuses unless they explicitly condemn the university bombing and the assault on Gaza in general,” Sid Ryan, president of CUPE Ontario said in a release. After someone slipped CUPE a note saying, “Hey, umm . . . that’s a little reminiscent of totalitarian demands of subservience and thought control . . .” CUPE revised its position to focus on Israeli academic institutions, not individuals. In any case, I’m still waiting for CUPE to demand all visiting Russian lecturers explicitly condemn Putin’s targeting of Chechnyan separatists.
Either way, these boycott attempts have been largely unsuccessful, especially considering the umbrella objective of persuading the Israeli government to change its tactics. For one, the campaigns to boycott products often backfire, as was the case in April 2009, when a protest and boycott of Israeli wine at a Toronto LCBO resulted in the entire stock being bought out by supporters of Israel. Secondly, these boycotts often focus on non-essential, “superficial” products of Israel, such as face cream or hummus, and ignore products such as the Given Imaging swallowable camera pill used to diagnose gastrointestinal disorders worldwide, a device which was developed in Israel. Why are we not boycotting hospitals that use the “Zionist” device?
Thirdly, and perhaps most fundamentally, I would argue that the Middle East crisis at its most raw boils down to a clash of ideology; ideology that is impervious to external pressure. Economics, borders, government, allies aside–Israelis and Palestinians disagree on fundamental values rooted in faith. Not buying fruit juice from one side or the other is not going to throw off anyone’s religious claim to land.
Nevertheless, I have no doubt that impassioned students will continue to try to dry up the Starbucks wells on campus or demand only clear-conscious chickpeas be available at universities. In any case, can’t we just agree that pita bread is the real enemy?