Sabra Dipping Company opened a pop-up Hummus House on Wisconsin Ave. at the beginning of this month, at once inviting both sampling of the unassuming Levantine delicacy and criticism of the Israel-based Strauss Group. The food products manufacturer financially supports the Golani Brigade of the Israeli Defense Forces and owns a 50 percent stake in Sabra.
The IDF’s alleged human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the past summer’s Israel-Gaza conflict quickly turned the store into the latest lightning rod in a public dispute between supporters of Israel and Palestine. Small-scale protests have been staged outside Hummus House by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a D.C.-based non-governmental organization, whose protests centered on the Strauss Group’s part ownership of Sabra.
The protests give voice to legitimate concerns about Israel’s worsening human rights record, which was on full display during Operation Protective Edge this past July and August. The violence levied against Gazan civilians by the IDF is both condemnable and inexcusable. Cavalier statements—such as those of Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, who declared on the 14th day of the conflict that the IDF deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for its “restraint” in Gaza—didn’t help. Likewise, the slow pace of recovery in the devastated region—hobbled both by Hamas and the Israeli government—is unconscionable. As a result, Israel has increasingly lost support amongst younger demographics and perhaps even, to judge by recent diplomatic tensions, the unreserved backing of the U.S. government.
The demonstrations at Hummus House are part of a wider opposition movement against current Israeli policy known as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Proponents of BDS seek the economic and social isolation of Israel as a punitive measure. Their ranks recently swelled when 13 Georgetown professors announced their intention to boycott Israeli academic institutions. BDS is an appropriate and valuable exercise of one’s freedom of expression, and gives teeth to the otherwise helpless consumer as they attempt to shape policy in the far-off Middle East.
Support for such acts must be carefully qualified, however. Both the anti-Sabra protests and the larger BDS movement have at times qualitatively associated Israel’s actions with the South African policy of apartheid. BDS movements against South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s put exogenous political pressure on that nation to reform itself. Claims that Israeli occupation is equivalent with apartheid, however, belong more to projected fears more than current realities. While unjust policies unquestionably merit correction through BDS, unqualified action runs the risk of financially and reputationally harming Israeli businesses not involved in the conflict.
A deeper danger inherent to BDS involves venturing from criticism of Israeli policy into wholesale anti-Israel or anti-Semitic sentiment. Neither is consistent with Israel’s national sovereignty nor the deserved security of Jews worldwide. As of now, though, the Hummus House protests should be lauded for their non-violent message and successful avoidance of any conflation of anti-occupation sentiment with broader anti-Semitism. If it is to remain a powerful and morally upright tool of political criticism and coercion, however, BDS must remain firmly anti-occupation rather than vaguely anti-Israel.