Minor media firestorms and student apathy aside, though, there are students on campus who cared very deeply about the outcome of the Sabra hummus debate. And, with the final vote of 1,014 against the referendum and 699 in favor, in many ways, both sides seem to think they won.
“We’re very happy with the results,” said Yoel Bitran ’11, president of the Princeton Committee on Palestine, which sponsored the referendum. “We knew it would be hard to win this kind of referendum, so from the beginning the goal was to raise awareness about Sabra and the ways in which Princeton students are related as consumers to human rights violations.”
The referendum was part of a national boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, known as BDS for short, against companies that support the Israeli Defense Forces. Bitran said that PCP will continue to push individual students to boycott Sabra products.
“We’ll build from this,” he said. “We’re having a big panel on boycott, divestment and sanctions coming up next week, and we’re very excited to plan for next semester.”
Bitran added that PCP still plans to ask Dining Services to provide an alternative hummus brand, given the support the referendum received. “That was how this referendum started,” Bitran said. “They said, ‘We’ll consider offering an alternative brand, but you need to show student support.’ ”
Stu Orefice, director of Dining Services, said last week that the University has not ruled out the possibility of offering an alternative brand.
Officers from Tigers for Israel, who were actively opposed to the referendum and to any boycott against Sabra, also said they were pleased with the results.
“We’re so happy the Princeton community has seen through all the obfuscation and the different parts of the saga and really has come out with a message that this is a really silly way to talk about these issues,” said Addie Lerner ’11, a vice president of TFI.
When asked about the nearly 700 students who voted in favor of the referendum, Samson Schatz ’13, the other vice president of TFI, said that he thought most of those voters did not understand the implications of their support.
“There’s the one type of person who subscribes to the PCP mission or mentality, and they were educated on the issue and knew what the political underpinnings of the referendum were, and they voted for it,” he said. “And I would estimate that a large portion of those 699 people were people who voted for it because they weren’t educated on exactly what it was standing for and were simply voting for more options, free choice, market diversification.”
“We don’t blame the people who voted for it without knowing what they were voting for. We’re just very happy that there were 1,014 people who were educated on the issue,” he added.
But both sides were adamant that there are more important issues than Sabra hummus in debates on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We decided to focus on Sabra because it wasn’t just an Israeli product, but a product that was more directly associated with the Golani Brigade and the human rights violations being committed by the Israeli Army, but at the same time was relevant to students because we see it every day,” Bitran said. “I think students have the right to decide by themselves when the association is direct enough.”
In support of his argument, Bitran cited reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that accuse the Israeli Defense Forces of committing systematic human rights abuses.
For their part, TFI and those who take their side of the debate on the national stage have said that it is unreasonable to target the entire Golani Brigade — members of which have been accused of human rights abuses against Palestinians — because individual cases do not indicate a systematic problem.
“Golani always had the image of kind of a rough and tough group of soldiers who also came from tougher backgrounds,” said Eran Kaplan, a Judaic studies professor who served in the Golani Brigade in the late 1980s.
He added that poorer and disadvantaged Israelis traditionally joined the brigade, leading to a class and social divide between them and the paratroopers, the other elite unit within the Israeli Defense Forces.
Kaplan said that The Strauss Group and the Golani Brigade are headquartered in the same small town in Israel. This is likely the reason that The Strauss Group, which owns 50 percent of Sabra Dipping Company, decided to provide financial support to the Golani Brigade, he said. He declined to weigh in on the specifics of the Sabra hummus debate, explaining that he wanted to leave decisions on the issue to students.
Kaplan will teach a course in the spring semester on the conflict: WWS 482/JDS 482: Israeli Extremism and the Search for Peace.
Those involved in the on-campus hummus debate have also reflected more broadly on the role of BDS movements.
Bitran argued that BDS is one of only a few options available to push Israel to the negotiating table. But to the officers of TFI, BDS has no place in the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement.
“I don’t think that BDS and weakening the State of Israel to force them to compromise is going to work,” Schatz said. “The problem with BDS is that BDS paints a conflict in which one nation or one party in the conflict is the sole problem-maker. Israel is not the problem. It is part of the problem, for sure, but it is definitely not the sole problem. [BDS] is so naive and outrageously stupid.”
Bitran pushed back against allegations that BDS is intended to weaken Israel. “Israel’s actions are the things that are delegitimizing it, that are demonizing it in the eyes of the international community,” he said. “The message is not that this is a one-sided conflict, but the message is that right now the main obstacle to peace is the Israeli government.”
PCP is planning an upcoming panel discussion, which will include speakers for and against the movement, on the role BDS can play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The panel is currently scheduled for Dec. 16.
“The window for the possibility of a Jewish democratic state with any peace with Palestinians is very short and it’s closing very fast,” Bitran said. “I think that the debate on campus for people who support Israel, people who are critical of Israel, doesn’t really matter.”
Bitran argued that the debate should instead focus on convincing the government “to take the steps necessary so that the window doesn’t close without us having the opportunity to make sure there’s peace with the Israelis and Palestinians and that there’s a democratic system in Israel.”
While TFI has declined to participate in the panel, both Lerner and Schatz said that their organization aims to promote more academic and intellectual discourse about the conflict.
“The thing about this debate is that reasonable people do and should disagree about these issues. They’re hard. They come with a lot of narrative, and we can only move forward by understanding the other’s narrative,” Lerner said.