University students to vote on hummus ban

But can boycotts really change the dynamic in the Middle East?

Students at DePaul University in Chicago have launched a crusade against a popular chickpea dip. Despite a similar, failed attempt at Princeton late last year, a group of students at DePaul University are pushing to ban the sale of Israeli-made Sabra hummus on campus. Students for Justice in Palestine launched the movement at DePaul, claiming that Sabra’s parent brand, the Strauss Group, supports Israeli military units accused of human rights abuses against Palestinians. DePaul’s student body is voting in a referendum this week.

It appears students are convinced that those are some mighty tainted peas. And, for whatever reason, they must also believe that restricting the sale of said tainted peas will culminate in a massive boycott, putting such dire economic strain on the state of Israel that it will have no choice but to change its military tactics. Here’s why I think it won’t work.

When the issue was being considered at Princeton back in December, I argued that the movement and (similar boycott attempts) will undoubtedly fail to get the Israeli army to change course for three main reasons. The first is the counter-boycott movement, also known as BUYcott, which acts in reverse of the boycott protesters. When a group in Maryland called for a boycott of an Israeli beauty product last summer, BUYcotters organized to buy the product instead and ended up clearing out the shelves. The same thing happened when protesters called for a boycott of Israeli-made wine in Toronto. If, indeed, DePaul students are successful in banning the sale of Sabra hummus on campus, I have a feeling sales may spike elsewhere.

The second reason DePaul and similar boycott attempts will likely fail to achieve their goal is because of the selective nature of the products chosen for boycott. Hummus, face creams, coffees—even academics—have all been targeted by the movement, while computer chips, medical technologies, and other Israeli products and scientific breakthroughs have been allowed to seamlessly cross borders. How persuasive can a boycott possibly be if activists pick and choose which products they can do without?

The third reason is the most intangible and arguably ideological. (Forgive me, I’m still in my 20’s.) Simply put, the situation that has been festering in the Middle East is not strictly about economics. In fact, I would argue economics has little to do with, but I know there are those who would debate me on that. Either way, the struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians is largely one of existential values, boiling down to religious claim to land. As I said before, and I’ll reiterate now, not buying fruit juice from one side or the other won’t throw anyone off course. Core values are impervious to such external pressure.

So, if perhaps DePaul’s boycott of Sabra Hummus is more symbolic than pragmatic (a symbolic student movement, you say?! How novel!), is there really a reason to take issue? On the one hand, no. Each member of the student body has the opportunity to exercise his or her opinion via the non-binding referendum, so it is not as though a few ardent activists have totally seized control of the cafeteria.

That said, squabbling over hummus–even if just symbolically–does little more than cheapen the overall discourse surrounding the Middle East conflict, nevermind ignite hostility on already brewing bed of Israeli-Palestinian tension. Still, if one feels compelled to fuel campus fires, why not do so in a more pragmatic way? Perhaps it’s because “I’m working with my local government after reading up on both sides” doesn’t look as good on a poster board. Indeed, until then, it seems the war on delicious dips shall wage on.