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Susan Landau

Philadelphia Jews for a Just Peace and the Coalition for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel

Susan Landau

Susan grew up in a Jewish family in north eastern Pennsylvania with very close connections to the Jewish community and the values of social justice. Being Jewish and being part of a multicultural community was a very strong family value. Her parents were Zionists who visited Israel several times during the 1950s and Susan has Israeli relatives, some of whom live in settlements on the Occupied West Bank.

Susan is active in Philadelphia Jews for a Just Peace and the Coalition for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. She has been a Jewish educator in her local congregation and currently works as a psychotherapist.

the Interview

At home, 22 October, 2011>

So, Susan, can you tell me, what is Philly BDS, and what it hopes to achieve?

Philly BDS is a creative coalition of a number of local groups, and now, national groups and international groups, that came together in 2010, to launch a campaign to boycott Sabra hummus and Tribe hummus.

And why were you doing that?

So in 2005, after the international court made a ruling that the separation wall was illegal, because it was on Palestinian lands...I think that was in July...and several months later, 171 Palestinian organisations from civil society came together.

And they called on the international community to engage in boycott divestment and sanctions against Israel, until it complied with international law. And the populations that came to...the Palestinian populations represented Palestinians in the occupied territories, Palestinians who were citizens of Israel, and also the refugees.

So why we're doing it, is that it's a Palestinian call to the international community, saying, 'This is what we are asking you to do, to support our human rights, and international law'.

Why did you decide to target those two brands of hummus?

Well, the first decision was about the hummus. So the...first, there were two local groups...SUSTAIN, which is 'Stop US Military Aid to Israel Now', and a chapter of Philadelphia Jews for a Just Peace'. And we'd been standing on corners together, and handing out flyers for years, doing a lot of Palestine solidarity work, and protesting and demonstrating.

And when the call came for a boycott divestment and sanctions, we kinda looked at each other and said, 'Okay, can we do this? Can we pull this off in Philly? And so we had a series of meetings, and Philadelphia had tried a...to do a caterpillar boycott divestment. We tried a Motorola one at one point.

Some people tried AHAVA. And given that we've a lot of people that are part of college campus communities and the activist community, you, you know, going out and buying a militarised bulldozer isn't something that really has everyday appeal.

The Motorola phones, yeah, we could get people not to buy them. But...so, we wanted to make a...do a campaign that would be something that would connect the dots between people's ordinary lives and the situation in Palestine, and also the role of the US Government.

So, we were probably sitting around in a meeting, eating hummus [makes noise]. And it was a no-brainer. So, then we began to do some research. And it was pretty easy to select the targets, because we discovered that Sabra hummus...first of all, we did some research around...walking around to the local grocery stores, to see what brands of hummus are sold locally.

And Sabra and Tribe kept coming up. And Sabra, we researched, to find on their website, their longstanding connection to the Israeli Defence Force, primarily two brigades...the Golani Brigade and the Givati Brigade...both of which are linked to participating in the massacre in Jenin, and in the massacre in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead.

And the Israeli group breaking the silence, documents many human rights violations by the Golani and the Givati. So that link to Sabra made that definitely one product.

And then Tribe Hummus is very connected to funding the Jewish National Fund, which since, like 1901, has been kind of creating facts on the ground, and purchasing land, and creating what is today, the infrastructure of the occupation of Palestine.

And also, as they sort of turned a corner and began to label themselves as an environmental group, they now are heavily engaged in the ethnic cleansing of the Bedouin population in the Negev. So it was kind of a no-brainer, after we did our research, Sabra and Tribe were brands that are sold locally. Apparently they taste good, so people buy them.

And it would make people conscious if we were asking consumers to make an informed choice, when they went to the supermarket, and to think about the products that they were buying, and what the history of the social responsibilities of the companies that own them, are.

So, Strauss is co-owned by...

Sabra is co-owned by the Strauss company, which is an Israeli company...and Pepsi, which is an American company. And Tribe is owned by Osem, which is an Israeli company. And both do a number of other food products.

Out of the huge range of Israeli-made goods, why did you decide to focus on hummus? Maybe if you can broaden it out a little bit, and talk about the local liking of hummus, which we talked about previously?

So, I would say that hummus is a staple of the activism community, at least in Philadelphia. But it's my experience at conferences...if you're doing any kind of work that has to do with the politics of the Middle East, somebody, whether it's sponsored by a Jewish group, or whether it's sponsored by a Palestinian group, or another Arab community group...hummus is on the scene.

So it just made sense. And also because [background noise] within the Jewish community, i-,...hummus is claimed as an Israeli product. It's like, let's, let's create an Israeli feel to an event. Let's serve hummus. So it's a conversation starter, and sometimes a conversation stopper. But definitely integral to people who are politically conscious on Israel and Palestine.

And beyond that, just in the broader community...the American or the Philadelphia community...is hummus a popular thing to buy, and that's part of the target?

Yes, so that...to, to be able to do outreach, to be able to educate people about the violations of international law and human rights violations committed by the Israeli Government against the people in Palestine, to extend the mo-, the campaign to, for example, faith-based communities and secular communities, and just your average social get-togethers, hummus is a very, very popular snack food.

And mostly, people buy it. People don't want to make it. And from some of my more recent experiences, I can understand why, although it actually is not difficult to make.

Maybe you can explain to us, and to the audience, that you're Jewish, and why this issue of the hummus and the support for Palestinians and Palestine is important to you, as an American Jew?

I'm an American Jew. I'm a, an American citizen. My homeland is in the United States. And I care a lot about the actions of the United States Government. And I care a lot about being Jewish, and what things are being done in my name.

So as an advocate for human rights and international law generally, to be speaking publically on this particular issue, which I feel called and compelled to do, people want to hear the voice of Jewish people. There's no question about it, that if I were simply speaking as an American citizen, my voice wouldn't have the credibility and the power that it does.

I think it makes it clear to people that there is not a monolith within the Jewish community, regarding feelings or support for Israel. And I think it puts the word 'Palestine' into the conversation, and makes it clear that as Jews, given the actions of the Israeli Government [stutters] since the State was declared in 1948...

...it's incumbent upon the Jewish community to take responsibility for the consequences of the actions of forming the Jewish State, which...the consequence being the 'Nakba', which is the dispossession and expu-expulsion, and transfer, and massacre of 750,000 Palestinians.

Given the fact that you are Jewish and the history of persecution, the holocaust etcetera, whether that helps form a general kind of humanist perspective and point of view? The Jewishness, and rooted in a kind of humanist perspective for you...your Judaism?

Yes. My Judaism is rooted in universal human rights, and universal values. And Judaism for me, is very much a way of life. It's not a nationality. My Judaism has to do with how I live every moment of my life, which means a consciousness of other people, and how I treat them. And being aware of the consequences of my actions.

And that kind of 'do unto others as you would want done unto you', which is also part of most universal traditions, is very much part of the ethical tradition of Judaism, and is the Judaism that I grew up loving, and took to heart, and is integrated into my life.

Do you like hummus? Do you eat hummus?

I 'do' eat hummus, and I 'do' love it. It's great to eat with pita or with carrots, as a snack. It's great to make a sandwich out of, with some sprouts. It is satisfying, and it's also protein enriched, so it kind of sticks to your ribs. And if you're rushing around, it's a good thing to grab.

And if you're having people over, and you're not expecting them, if you have some in the refrigerator, it's a great thing to pu-pull out. And people love it.

Just a little bit more about hummus in the Jewish community and Philadelphia. How popular is it, and how does that popularity express itself?

So for about 12 years, I was a Jewish educator in a local congregation, and have been a member of that congregation for more than those years.

And every year, when we would celebrate Israel Independence Day, falafel and hummus would be what the community brought forward to signify that we were acknowledging Jewish culture, and Israeli culture.

And it really wasn't until I became aware, and politicised myself, that I, you know, was taken aback, and fascinated. And it goes on 'til to-,...meaning, it goes on today.

That, that in the Jewish community, you need to be more progressive than most people within the Jewish community, to even acknowledge that just as Israelis have adapted many customs and cultures of the Palestinian community, and confiscated land and resources, culture is at best, now shared.

And hummus is certainly a part of that shared culture that goes back to the Palestinian community.

Tell me what happened on the day that you did the protest? How was it received in the store?

We had such a great time. The flash dance which...I was not a dancer; I was a spokesperson...the people that worked on the flash dance...at the time, I had actually never seen a YouTube. I didn't really know what people were saying. They were wanting to create this thing, and it would go viral.

And I, I...you know, generationally, as...working in part of an intergenerational movement, I, you know, didn't really get all that. But it seemed like a good thing. We appeared on the scene, and people had really planned it out so carefully. It went off without a hitch, and flawlessly.

We entered the, the store. We acted as if we were shopping. Someone had a, a record player, a CD player, and there was a particular call. And then as you can see in the video, people just started to come out. And everybody in the store was taken by surprise, stepped back, made a space for this awesome production.

And with the exception of the, I guess, manager, who was doing his job by coming up and telling us, we couldn't...telling me after the dance, that we needed to leave the store, we needed to leave the store...if you look at the people on the sidelines, people were delighted.

It was a very upbeat, inspiring, inviting way to say to people, 'Hey, you know, there's some human rights abuses going on in Palestine, and you really ought to know about them. And so, be careful what you buy in here. Don't have it be Sabra or Tribe'. It w-, it was great.

Was it successful? Has the boycott worked? Have you got any fears, or statistics, or research that shows that you've had an impact? That people listen, and don't bite?

So, let me sort of start backwards. Last weekend, as part of the Occupy Philly movement, our group Philly BDS made about two and a half gallons of hummus that we donated, and took down to Occupied Philly. And the people that took it down, walked around to people participating in the Occupy movement, and talked about Philly BDS, and talked about the boycott of Sabra and Tribe.

And what was so amazing, is that people knew about it. Really, wherever we go, within the city, within the suburbs, when people go to conferences, certainly within the Israel/Palestine movement, we are definitely on the map. We are definitely building a sustainable unstoppable movement for justice.

And the...YouTube took off, and told people about what we're doing, in a way that really got so much attention. And people wanted to do what we did, and be like us. And so the show really went on the road.

So in terms of really being able to be methodologists about it, or doing the actual research, I think actually, the success of the YouTube slowed down some of the organising plans that we had, for how we were going to start de-she-, the de-shelving campaign locally...

...because we were very busy responding really nationally and internationally, and to, to requests for more information and responding to colleges that wanted to bring the campaign to campuses.

So in terms of the goal of public awareness and information, that is definitely successful. In terms of de-shelving, we're working on that. In terms of people not buying Sabra or Tribe, I think that that is definitely happening.

I have an 85 year old friend who says to me, she can't really participate in the campaign. But she doesn't serve Sabra or Tribe at any events, or social events that she has at her house. And every time she goes to the supermarket, she turns all the Sabra containers upside down.

So people are moved. People are called to whatever action they can take, at whatever level is possible for them. And that's what's exciting, and that's what's taking off.

Tell me about the boycott moves that have been happening on US campuses, to stop Sabra and Tribe as well?

Okay. So, right after we launched our campaign in October 2010, Princeton University attempted a boycott of Sabra hummus, and tried to get it off...out of their cafeteria. They were very Ivy League, and exclusive in their approach, and they thought that they could kind of just go about and do it, and it would all work, and that was not the case.

And their campaign was short-lived, and successful in so far as because it was Princeton, it was in the Wall Street Journal. I think it was...you, you know, it got international attention. So I'm one of those half...glass half full people, who then would say, the campaign was a success, even though it never went further than that.

DePaul University...which is the university that Norman Finkelstein was previously an academic at, so I think people are pretty sensitive to issues around justice in Palestine...they have done a lot of research, and have...I think they had a...

I, I don't want to misrepresent the facts, but I think they had a student referendum that was successful, and then a [sic] administrative block of whatever their campaign was, which is, I don't believe, over. And they have a lot of information that's available online. And it continued to work with us.

There are also a number of schools. I believe Tufts University is one, and some other schools in the North-Eastern Corridor, that will be launching a campaign soon, against Tribe.

And then I think there are assorted sort of, beginning campaigns at other campuses that we don't know enough about yet.

It's interesting that hummus is the source of all this political action and protest, and it's just a humble food really...an ancient food. Have you any thoughts about that?

I think that's the appeal, because if people could look at the humanity of the peoples [sic] who are involved in the issue, and be humble there, that we would have a fast-track to justice.

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