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In West Philly, Hummus Stands In for a Sword

November 11, 2010 By:
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University of Pennsylvania students shop for hummus at Fresh Grocer to counter boycott efforts launched by a local Palestinian-rights group. Photo by Serena Covkin
University of Pennsylvania freshman Josh Cooper says that he's tired of always hearing about politics every time Israel comes up in news or conversation.

So when the 19-year-old heard that local Palestinian-rights activists were attempting to turn hummus into a political pawn, he knew he had to do something.

The activists, about two dozen members of the newly formed Philadelphia BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), filed into the Fresh Grocer at 40th and Walnut streets on Oct. 24 to launch a boycott of Tribe and Sabra hummus. In a choreographed routine set to Lady Gaga's "Telephone," the protesters claimed that the corporate parents of those brands subsidize Israeli human-rights abuses by supporting the Israeli Defense Force and its infrastructure in Palestinian areas.

Stunned that this happened just a few blocks from a strong community of Jewish students without any outcry, Cooper sent an e-mail encouraging all the people he knew to show Fresh Grocer their support for the brands -- and for Israel -- by immediately purchasing a tub or two of the chick-pea spread.

If someone cooks traditional food for a Brazilian event, "no one is going to be questioning the politics of Brazil," said Cooper. "If we want to do an Israeli cultural event with hummus, all of a sudden, hummus is a political issue."

The Penn student activism comes just as a national consortium has launched a campaign to fight back against efforts to delegitimize and demonize Israel as a Jewish state.

The Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs announced the $6 million Israel Action Network initiative late last month. According to organizers, the network is a direct response to a rising tide of anti-Israel initiatives in the United States and Canada, including calls to boycott the Toronto Film Festival because it featured a program honoring Tel Aviv's 100th anniversary, and protests that interrupted a speech earlier this year by Israel's U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine.

Facts vs. Perceptions

"It's become almost fashionable among some more left-wing groups to take this on to feel like they're doing what they think is the right thing," said Adam Kessler, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. "The facts haven't changed; it's just the perception of what people think" Israel is doing.

Kessler said it was too early to say how the Philadelphia community would marshall its resources, but local Federation board members were already discussing programming and funding options.

While the global "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" movement has been gaining momentum since Palestinian groups started it in 2005, it wasn't until this summer that Jewish, Christian and Arab supporters came together to create Philly BDS, said organizer Susan Landau, 64.

The movement, which likens Israel to South African apartheid, calls for consumer, academic and cultural boycotts to continue until Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank, recognizes full equality of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and protects the "rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties." That last demand could mean the end of a Jewish state if Palestinians outnumber Jews.

Philly BDS decided to start out by targeting hummus, Landau said, because it's so familiar and widely available in stores. The group isn't opposed to the product itself, according to Landau, just certain manufacturers.

According to the Philly BDS website, Osem Group, which owns Tribe, supports the Jewish National Fund, and Strauss Group, co-owner of Sabra, has donated to the Israeli army. However, both Sabra and Tribe are based in the United States.

Even so, Landau said, showing people the companies' connection to a place that "subsidizes and perpetuates human-rights violations" will encourage consumers to reject their products.

"Our everyday choices in terms of what we buy and who we believe do make a difference," added BDS activist Bench Ansfield, a 24-year-old tutor.

Already, 18 groups have endorsed the boycott, including grassroots ones, such as the Brandywine Peace Community, that have no outward connection to the Middle East. Online, the video of the Oct. 24 flash mob has generated more than 21,600 views and pages of comments.

"Stop buying, stop buying, don't buy Sabra and Tribe -- Don't buy in to Israeli apartheid!" the group of mostly young adults sang as they danced in front of the checkout lines.

Cooper didn't see the clip until five days after the protest, but wasted no time urging his peers to respond by stocking up on the dip and thanking store employees for carrying both brands.

"If it can happen at Penn, it can happen anywhere," wrote Cooper. "We need to take action."

The Penn Israel Coalition forwarded Cooper's e-mail to more than 825 people on its listserv. Cooper estimated that up to 40 people bought hummus that Friday alone.

Carly Spross, marketing director of the Fresh Grocer said she wouldn't release sales figures because the store wanted to remain neutral, but the hummus will remain on the shelves.

"We're not taking a position either way," she said. "We're just going to continue to carry it, and if they continue to have a boycott and a protest, that's fine."

'None of the Good'

Penn Israel Coalition president and college senior Evan Philipson said he was glad to see so many students lashing out against the boycott's anti-Israel rhetoric, which failed to mention any of the good the country has done to provide food, clothing and job-training for Palestinians.

At a time when it's not so hip to be pro-Israel on campus, Philipson said it's all the more important for students to speak out. He took particular issue with the group's negative portrayal of the Israeli army.

"Any modern military has issues, even the U.S.," said Philipson, 21. "They make mistakes, and we have a system of court-martials to hold people accountable. But to say that this is Israeli apartheid?"

Philipson said coalition members decided not to plan any events to respond to the boycott because they didn't want to draw more attention to it.

But, he noted, just to be sure that students know what's going on, he'll mention it at a previously scheduled event this week -- over pita and hummus from Fresh Grocer.

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