Johansson had been a goodwill ambassador for the left-leaning charity Oxfam since 2007. Oxfam issued a statement criticizing her involvement with SodaStream, contending that businesses operating in Israeli West Bank settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities. Faced with pressure to resign her position with SodaStream, Johansson instead ended her relationship with Oxfam.
Three weeks ago, SodaStream was just a specialty company making high-end, home-carbonation equipment and flavored syrups. Although they were publicly traded (NASDAQ: SODA), and their products were popular among enthusiasts, they weren’t quite a household name. Looking for publicity, they signed a deal with actress-model Scarlett Johansson to be their first ‘Global Brand Ambassador,’ and announced that she would appear in a Super Bowl commercial.
SodaStream got their publicity – and a double-shot of notoriety. In the latest controversy involving soda and politics, SodaStream and Johansson were on the wrong side of the politically-correct narrative about Palestinian ‘oppression.’
An Israeli company with 22 plants worldwide, SodaStream’s main plant is in the West Bank industrial park of Mishor Adumim, an area destined to become part of a future state of ‘Palestine.’
SodaStream’s liberal owners support the two-state solution, oppose the ‘occupation,’ and pay Palestinian employees the same wages, pensions, and benefits as Israeli Jews and Arabs (notably 2-3 times the typical wage of West-Bank Palestinians who have any job at all amid 24% unemployment). There’s a Muslim prayer room on site, and prayer time is not deducted from ordinary break time. SodaStream also has many environmentally-friendly practices. None of these progressive policies, however, afford relief from the relentless anti-Israel activists.
Because of the plant’s location, Johansson immediately came under fire from leftist ‘human-rights’ organizations, and the anti-Israel BDS (Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions) movement.
Johansson, who is Jewish, had been a goodwill ambassador for the left-leaning, multi-billion dollar charity Oxfam since 2007, leading efforts for tsunami and earthquake relief, and for ending violence against women. Oxfam issued a statement criticizing her “outside employment,” saying “businesses that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities.” Faced with pressure to resign her position with SodaStream, Johansson instead ended her relationship with the UK-based Oxfam.
The controversy is an instructive lesson that, no matter how far Israelis go to treat Palestinians with equality, fairness, and dignity, their actions will always be distorted by those whose obsessive goal it is to discredit Israel.
So-called progressive organizations claim that SodaStream’s Palestinian employees are treated like slaves, and dredge up the usual canards about European Jews mistreating Middle-Eastern and Ethiopian Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians. Investigative reporters from The Huffington Post and the liberal-left Israeli paper Haaretz exposed these claims as lies. The reports noted Palestinians supervising Israeli Jews, and Palestinians expressing resentment against the activists who would put them out of work.
In a conciliatory statement, Daniel Birnbaum, SodaStream’s CEO, expressed regret about the plant’s location. He appealed to reason, saying the plant employs 500 Palestinians (in addition to 450 Israeli Arabs), so closing it would only harm Palestinian families, leaving them without income and health benefits. He further said SodaStream hopes to become a good, tax-paying corporate citizen of ‘Palestine.’
While trade, industry and cooperation seem compelling building blocks for peace, SodaStream’s opponents generally prefer redistributive solutions involving dependence on governments and international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). As an interesting aside, most Palestinian SodaStream employees say they’ve never heard of, or benefitted from, Oxfam.
Oxfam is of course, very careful to distinguish between their own position, which only opposes trade with “settlements,” and those in the BDS movement, who call for a complete boycott of Israel. They take an ‘evenhanded’ approach, condemning violence on all sides. This supposedly nonjudgmental approach ignores the institutionalized Hamas and Palestinian Authority (PA) goal of the destruction of Israel, and the very different natures of the “violence.”
The Palestinians randomly fire rockets into Israel and, before the security fence was built, they sent women and children wearing bomb vests into pizzerias and coffee shops. ‘Martyrs’ were celebrated with parties, songs, and trading cards for children. Palestinian violence aims to create random carnage; by contrast, Israel carefully targets bomb-makers and terrorist leaders.
Oxfam refers to “illegally occupied territories,” repeating the Palestinian/BDS narrative, with no acknowledgement of history, or the land’s disputed status. The so-called ‘West Bank’ was originally slated to be part of ‘Palestine,’ a new state cobbled together from indigenous Arabs, Syrians, Jordanians, and Egyptians who flooded into British Trans-Jordan (conquered from the Ottomans) at the same time as Jewish immigrants.
Before ‘Palestine’ even became a state, Jordan seized the land in 1948, and formally annexed it in 1950, making the Arabs within Jordanian citizens. Jordan later lost the land to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Despite endless peace talks and UN resolutions, from a historic perspective, the land remains the spoils of war, and belongs to Israel. Most countries keep land taken in wars – especially defensive wars; the only reason the land might become part of a new ‘Palestine’ is because Israel itself is willing to negotiate its status.
To Oxfam, the Israeli ‘occupation’ is the primary cause of poverty, misery, and the absence of infrastructure, industry, and civil society among the Palestinian Arabs. Neither the murderous Islamist tyranny of Hamas nor the corrupt kleptocracy of the PA/PLO are to blame for the squalor. For a half-century, the Arabs have blamed Israel for their own backwardness; the Arab Spring revealed that much of the Arab world is incapable of moving beyond corrupt and oppressive dictatorships and monarchies, and that economic activity is nearly absent without the West’s oil money.
The Obama administration has not commented directly on the controversy; this silence, however, combined with Secretary of State John Kerry’s warning that Israel’s failure to accept his peace terms will lead to more boycotts, are a symbolic thumb on the BDS side of the scale.
European calls for boycotts against Israel and SodaStream may reveal some residual historic hatred of Jews, and perhaps resentment over their own guilt for anti-Jewish atrocities. More importantly, however, they reveal something else about Europe: the geographical remnant of Christendom is no longer very Christian.
SodaStream, with its equal employment practices and its hope to bridge the gaps among and between Israelis and Palestinians of all races and religions, is a peacemaker. As one young Palestinian man told a reporter “everyone is complaining about settlements here and everywhere, but SodaStream is different.” Christendom should bless such a unifying peacemaker, but today’s Europe – secular and socialist – with a growing radical Islamist presence, refuses to give an Israeli company its moral due.
Even if we were to grant that all of the BDS claims about ‘occupation’ were true, what’s left is the reality that the movement is so anti-Israeli, that there’s no quarter for even one progressive Israeli company that hopes to be part of the new ‘Palestine.’
The international left no longer has Reagan, Thatcher, or George W. Bush to unite against. The unifying enemy today is Israel, which is portrayed as a colonialist/capitalist/racist apartheid oppressor, all rolled into one. The Palestinians who would be harmed by forcing closure of the plant are disposable pawns for sacrifice to notch a vindictive win against Israel. This is the same kind of feel-good spitefulness enjoyed by entertainers who boycott Israel for human-rights reasons, but have shown no qualms about sipping tea with Castro and Chavez, or wearing Che Guevara T-shirts made by political prisoners in China.
Mitchell Baxter is a policy analyst, writer, and attorney. Mr. Baxter is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.