WASHINGTON, DC — Once relegated to specialty shelves in chic urban supermarkets, hummus is a booming business in the United States. With mega brands like Tribe and Sabra pushing it into the American mainstream, hummus sales are around half a billion dollars per year. But the chickpea-based spread is doing more than just expanding the American palate – it appears to be helping Israel’s image and fighting its critics.

In 2010, a pro-Palestinian student group at Princeton University called for a boycott of Sabra hummus, practically equating its consumption with a criminal act. But a counter movement — “Save the Hummus!” — managed to thwart the boycott with a “Buycott,” a successful grassroots campaign that earned national media attention in the US for its creativity and positive message.

In a widely publicized incident last year, the creamy spread also played a role in defeating a boycott of Israeli goods, this time at the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn. For years, supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel targeted the progressive supermarket as part of a larger campaign to encourage food co-ops across the US to join the global BDS movement.

Hummus has become a potent symbol in the Middle East debate, first against and later on behalf of Israel. (Chen Leopold/Flash 90)

Hummus has become a potent symbol in the Middle East debate, first against and later on behalf of Israel. (Chen Leopold/Flash 90)

Eventually, the effort failed, thanks partly to a phone call to the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York from a grassroots group calling itself “More Hummus Please.” That call snowballed into a community-wide effort to mobilize against the boycott, enlisting local rabbis, elected political leaders, community activists and progressive groups such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now.

In isolation, the lessons learned from these two campaigns  might not be useful for other communities facing BDS efforts. However, a new report by the Israel Action Network (IAN) has analyzed these and a dozen other successful attempts to combat delegitimization, part of an effort to find common denominators and identify best practices going forward.

“If there’s one thing these 14 cases tell us, it’s that a nuanced approach matching the messengers to the target audience is what works best,” says Geri Palast, IAN’s managing director. “These case studies reinforce the idea that the most effective way to reach people is to show the human face of the Israeli people and their narrative. And that we cannot reduce the complexity of the conflict to a single soundbite.”

Palast says the report demonstrates the effectiveness of “broadening the mainstream to counter the extreme.”

One of IAN’s messages, for example, came through the inclusive slogan “Say Yes to a Jewish State. Yes to a Palestinian State. No to BDS.”

‘The most effective way to reach people is to show the human face of the Israeli people and their narrative’

The group enlisted an array of prominent liberals to form Progressive Voices Against BDS, an effort to counter the notion that the BDS movement was simply an anti-occupation group.The result was a “big-tent coalition” with a diverse set of voices that opposed the narrow goal of boycotting Israeli goods. In the case of Park Slope, the anti-BDS activists worked to demonstrate that the objectives of BDS, presented as “anti-occupation,” were in fact “anti-Israel.”

Those who contributed to the IAN report hope their stories provide insight into effective strategies others can emulate. IAN is distributing the report to Jewish and non-Jewish American groups “vulnerable to messages that demonize Israel and Israelis.”

Founded in 2010, the organization is a strategic initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, whose reach includes 154 Jewish Federations and 400 non-federated communities.