Feb 04 2014

Johansson, SodaStream row bolstering Palestinian cause?

Published by at 1:21 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics


By Daoud Kuttab

When the American actress Scarlett Johansson was asked to become a global brand ambassador for SodaStream, she had little reason to object. After all, she had learned that the Israeli company gives fair and equal wages to its Israeli and Palestinian workers. Little did Johansson suspect that her cooperation — with a firm whose main factory is located in the occupied Palestinian territories in contravention of international law — would explode in her face, forcing her to choose between money and ethics. After months of back and forth between Johansson and the charity that she supported, Johansson declared on Jan. 29 that she was resigning as an Oxfam ambassador.

Her decision was no doubt accelerated by the public position of Oxfam regarding the illegality of settlements and the need to boycott products produced in them. In a statement released Jan. 30, the charity announced, “Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.”

The actress had for eight years been a global ambassador for Oxfam, an international coalition of 17 organizations working to fight poverty and injustice. Johansson helped raise money for Oxfam and traveled on its behalf around the world, but when she decided to endorse the Israeli company, both she and Oxfam had to make a choice. 

Palestinians and their supporters around the world raised the simple but strategic question of how an ambassador for a charity fighting poverty can so publicly be associated with a company profiting from a factory built in an illegal Jewish settlement in Palestine. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has documented in great detail how the Israelis confiscated tens of thousands of dunums owned by Palestinians for the establishment of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement, east of Jerusalem, where the SodaStream factory is located.

Attempts by Johansson, who was born to an American Jewish mother and a Danish father, and SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum to paint the company as a “bridge” between Israelis and Palestinians, failed to quiet the campaign. Palestinians and their supporters did not feel that that they should get a pass for having a factory in a settlement.

Many observers have compared the discussions on jobs versus justice to similar debates that took place at the height of the boycott of the South African apartheid regime. As in the case of those who opposed the boycott and divestment from South Africa as hurting blacks, supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement have pushed aside attempts at beautifying the occupation or a particularly benevolent company. The concept of a liberal “sugar daddy” providing work for the needy natives did not work in the 1990s, and it won’t fly in the 21st century. BDS supporters contend that the current boycott seems to be working much faster than the South African campaign, which took 20 to 30 years before bearing results.

Corporate Watch, a nongovernmental organization that investigates corporations, has challenged the premise that SodaStream is such an upright and progressive company to its Palestinian workers. An initial report by the organization highlights a number of discrepancies and inaccuracies in the Israeli company’s claims about equality of rights and wages for its Palestinian workers. Questions posed by Corporate Watch were dismissed, and attempts to visit the site were denied.

One media outlet that was allowed to visit the disputed factory succeeded in speaking to Palestinian workers, who spoke about racism at the factory. A Reuters report quotes an unnamed Palestinian worker as saying, “Most of the managers are Israeli, and West Bank employees feel they can’t ask for pay rises or more benefits because they can be fired and easily replaced.” A much more detailed analysis, including an interview with a Palestinian worker, appears on the pro-BDS website Electronic Intifada.

Cases of a celebrity attempting to play both sides of a moral fence usually do not last long. In this instance, it was clearly just a matter of time before the Hollywood star or the charity would make a firm decision. The resignation of Johansson, whose TV commercial for SodaStream is scheduled to air Feb. 2 during the Super Bowl, is seen by some as a failure for the BDS movement. Others believe that the controversy has elevated the profile of the BDS movement, which will no doubt benefit from the free publicity.

Furthermore, the campaign that forced an American film star to give up her coveted role with an international charity will serve as a warning to others not to profit or be involved in anything to do with the occupation and its illegal settlements. This, according to Palestinians and their supporters, is a long-term success.

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