2012: A good year to boycott Sabra (& Shatila) Hummus

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about the upcoming 30th anniversary of the September 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. As some of you may know, my company, Just World Books, will soon be publishing a reissued version of former WaPo journo Jon Randal’s classic 1983 study of the Israeli-backed Maronite-extremist militias that, with the full backing and encouragement of Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon, committed those massacres. More details on that, soon…
(Jon is also working on another book, which will be a study of the massacres themselves. In the meantime, he has written a fab new preface to the 1983 book, explaining to a new generation of peace-and-justice activists the significance of all those events… )
These days, “Sabra” is also the trade-name of one of the two brands of Israeli-related hummus that BDS activists are boycotting. In the case of Sabra hummus, the boycott is based primarily on the fact that the Strauss Group, an Israeli-owned company that owns half of the brand, has had a long history of giving material support to the Golani Brigade, an Israeli military formation associated with numerous grave rights abuses.
I’m thinking that maybe this year in particular, the BDS folks might start calling the hummus brand “Sabra and Shatila hummus”, to make even clearer the connection between the hummus brand and the excesses/atrocities committed by, or under the close supervision of, the Israeli military….
I’ve also been thinking about the meanings, connotations, and expropriations of the term “Sabra” in general. In Arabic, the most common understanding of the triliteral root S-b-r relates to being patient and long-suffering. The root is also used in the common name that many Arabs, including Palestinians, give to the prickly pear/ “Indian fig”, and its fruit. It has also been thus used in modern Hebrew. (I don’t know about ancient Hebrew.)
And then, in modern-day Israel, the term “Sabra” was introduced to refer to those Jewish Israelis who had actually been born in the country– as opposed to that proportion of them, originally very large, who arrived from elsewhere as colonial settlers inside the land. Indeed, the use of the term “Sabra” in that context merely underlined the fact that for so many Jewish Israelis, being born in the country was not the norm.
For Palestinians, meanwhile, the hardy prickly-pear (Subar) hedges that once ringed or demarcated properties in many traditional villages in historic Palestine over time became, in many cases, the only trace left of where once had stood those villages that in 1947-48 were ethnically cleansed by the advancing Jewish/Israeli armies that pushed the boundaries of the state of Israel far beyond what even the very generous U.N. Partition Plan had allotted to it. You can still drive around many parts of Israel today and see, on a small rise here or in the fold of valley there, a neglected and ragged line of prickly pear hedges; and you’ll know that that was where one of the ethnically cleansed villages stood.
Patient, indeed.
But the word “Sabra” in one form or another has also been used as a family name in many Arab families, as has the family name “Shatila”. In Beirut, the Chatilas/Shatilas have long been one of the big Sunni trading families… So I imagine the names of the two refugee camps established in southwest Beirut in 1948-50 came from the names of the owners of the lands on which the U.N. and the Lebanese government agreed to locate those camps.
The refugees housed in those camps, as in the three dozen other large refugee camps that ringed the area of the State of Israel, then and now, were some of those same Palestinians who’d been ethnically cleansed from those now destroyed but still “Subar”-hedged villages inside the area of Mandate Palestine.
The massacres at Sabra and Shatila were committed, as noted above, by extremist-Maronite militia formations who were acting under the close supervision of, and with much logistical support from, the Israeli military. (This coordination was well represented in the haunting 2008 film from Israeli director Ari Folman, “Waltz with Bashir.”) The key architect of the whole episode, as of the extremely lethal, all-out military assault on Lebanon that preceded it, from June through early August of 1982, was Ariel Sharon. Israel’s own investigation into the massacres, conducted by former Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Kahan, found that Sharon bore personal responsibility for the massacres, and recommended that he not be permitted to hold high office again.
Well, we know how that went, don’t we…
So now, here we are, 30 years after the Israeli assault on Lebanon, 30 years after the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, and the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere are still no closer to having their rights restored. Their communities were expelled from their ancestral homes and lands through the use of violence and force, and were subsequently prevented from returning to those lands by the same force. They have been subject to repeated assaults by the arrogant Israeli military (with the Golani Brigade as one of the most violent and aggressive units in it.) And they’ve have been forced to continue living as stateless refugees for 64 years now, though numerous United Nations resolutions assure them of the right to “return or compensation” (in UNGA resolution 194, and reaffirmed in numerous U.N. resolutions since then), or, more simply, as per the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the “right to … return to his [or her] country.”
So maybe if we start calling “Sabra” hummus “Sabra and Shatila” hummus, it might remind American shoppers of some of this history?
(What I would not want to do, however, is stigmatize the use of the term “Shatila” in a brand name. The Dearborn, Michigan-based Shatila Food Products bakery produces the very best baklava there is in the whole of North America… )

2 thoughts on “2012: A good year to boycott Sabra (& Shatila) Hummus”

  1. This coordination was well represented in the haunting 2008 film from Israeli director Ari Folman, “Waltz with Bashir.”
    This slick piece of work belongs to the “Shooting and Crying” category of hasbara. Speaking of movies, here is another of Palestine just one year after the “Father of Zionism” Theodor Herzl wrote down his plan for ‘spiriting away the penniless population’ of Palestine to clear the ground for the creation of an exclusively Jewish state over the rubble of the society thus emptied.

  2. You do have the problem that Israelis see the attempted Belgian prosecution of Sharon as a special singling-out of Israel and Israelis, when Lebanese perpetrators are protected by the Ta’if Accord and the general social consensus of “amnesty amnesia” which has struck Lebanese society at least as hard as post-Algerian War French society. Moreover, the fate of Elie Hobeika is going to give everyone pause. Just saying that it’s going to be hard to make Israelis care more than the Lebanese, and Israel is going to be more resistant to pressure than Lebanon, which doesn’t possess any actual power and resists pressure for justice through the creation of social chaos. (And Israel possesses a great deal of power and has a society where chaos is/can be diffused at least as effectively as Lebanon, which is ironically a strong point in getting Palestinian voices heard.) South Africans had a great deal more success in getting everyone’s crimes heard, but Afrikaners possess a great deal more legitimacy in the eyes of Black South Africans than Israeli or Lebanese Jews likely do or will in the eyes of Lebanese Muslims.

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