Foreign Affairs

ScarJo vs. the anti-Israel blacklist

ScarJo vs. the anti-Israel blacklist

Those SodaStream gadgets that let you make your own soda are made by a company headquartered near Tel Aviv.  One of the company’s 13 factories is located in a part of Israel that some people don’t think ought to be part of Israel.  Those people find themselves at odds with actress Scarlett Johansson, who has been working in ads for SodaStream.  She just ended her eight-year relationship with international charity organization Oxfam because of it.

Celebrities get mixed up in politics a lot.  Often there are grumbles that they’re taken far too seriously because of their fame, rather than any intellectual contributions to the debate they might offer.  Politicians are naturally eager to capitalize on the fame of top entertainers, not to mention the money they can bring to a cause.

This is an unusual situation, because the extremely successful young actress has credentials as an enthusiastic Obama supporter.  She did a lot of work for Oxfam.  The anti-Israel movement has been very successful at pressuring companies and celebrities out of business arrangements perceived as thwarting the cause of Palestinian statehood.  Johansson wasn’t really expected to stand her ground on SodaStream… but she did.

Oxfam certainly seems taken aback that she would politely end her long association with them, judging by their statement:

While Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors, Ms. Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador.

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.

Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.

Johansson, in her statement, said SodaStream is doing a lot of good for the Palestinian community by creating jobs and encouraging peaceful cooperation:

While I never intended on being the face of any social or political movement, distinction, separation or stance as part of my affiliation with SodaStream, given the amount of noise surrounding that decision, I’d like to clear the air.

I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine. SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights. That is what is happening in their Ma’aleh Adumim factory every working day.

Also appreciative of those jobs created in the Palestinian community: the Palestinian community.  From the Christian Science Monitor:

The Jewish actress’s promotion of the company in a Superbowl ad has propelled an international campaign to boycott the home sodamaker and today forced the actress to step down as a global ambassador for the humanitarian agency Oxfam.

But those most familiar with the factory – Palestinians who work there – largely side with Ms. Johansson.

“Before boycotting, they should think of the workers who are going to suffer,” says a young man shivering in the pre-dawn darkness in Azzariah, a West Bank town cut off from work opportunities in Jerusalem by the concrete Israeli separation wall. Previously, he earned 20 shekels ($6) a day plucking and cleaning chickens; now he makes nearly 10 times that at SodaStream, which also provides transportation, breakfast, and lunch.

As a few dozen men in hoodies and work coats trickle out of the alleys to the makeshift bus stop where they wait for their ride to the factory, another adds, “If SodaStream closes, we would be sitting in the streets doing nothing.”

Yeah, but that’s better than earning a good living working for the “wrong” people, if you know what I mean.  What happens if a whole generation of Palestinians build successful careers by engaging in voluntary commerce with the Israelis?  Who’s going to show up at the hate rallies and volunteer for suicide bombing runs?  Stop thinking about the Palestinian jobs you’re supporting, Ms. Johansson, and start thinking about poor Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The SodaStream controversy is part of the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign, which Palestinians launched in July 2005 as an effort to force Israel to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories, recognize Israeli Arab’s full rights, and promote the Palestinian right of return.

Speaking anonymously on a largely deserted street, with no Israeli SodaStream employees present, all but one of those interviewed said they opposed the boycott, given the lack of alternative job opportunities in the West Bank. That underscores Israeli claims that a boycott would be counterproductive, undermining the cooperation and prosperity that could boost peace prospects in the region.

However, lawyers and labor activists say the picture is not that clear. While Palestinians earn roughly twice as much working at Israeli businesses in the West Bank, they lack labor rights and undermine Palestinian national aspirations. But many have little option; the Palestinian Authority has failed to leverage billions of dollars of aid to create more job opportunities.

I think we might be able to find a lot of that money, if we check the right banks in Switzerland.  Precisely which “labor rights” would be granted by the non-existent Palestinian entrepreneurs, but are denied by the Israeli companies paying them roughly twice as much?  Later in the CSM article, there’s some vague grumbling about how the factory isn’t inspected often enough – Palestinian facilities get stringent examinations from qualified inspectors on a constant basis, do they? – and complaints about some employees getting fired… largely due to the boycott against SodaStream.

Here’s what the Palestinians had to say about those cruel, exploitative taskmasters at the do-it-yourself-soda company:

Omar Jibarat of Azzariah, the father of a newborn, is one of those who works in Israel, leaving home well before 6 a.m. for a construction job in Tel Aviv. Though he makes good money, he spends four hours in transit every day and would rather work at the SodaStream factory 15 minutes away.

“I would love to work for SodaStream. They’re quite privileged. People look up to them,” Mr. Jibarat says. “It’s not the people who want to boycott, it’s the officials.”

That’s a common refrain among the SodaStream workers who show up after Jibarat catches his ride.

Leaning up against the cement half-walls of the bus stop, jackets pulled up over their cold hands and faces and cigarette butts glowing in the dark, they blame the PA for failing to create jobs while taking a political stand against Israeli business that do.

“The PA can say anything it wants and no one will listen because it’s not providing an alternative,” says one man, a 2006 political science graduate of Al Quds University bundled in a jacket bearing the SodaStream logo. As for reports that the company doesn’t honor labor rights, that’s “propaganda,” he says. “Daniel [Birnbaum, the CEO of SodaStream,] is a peacemaker.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it seems significant that this gentleman would casually refer to the SodaStream CEO by his first name.  Mr. Birnbaum, for his part, confesses that the West Bank facility has been a “pain” for his company, but he’s not going to shut it down, because he doesn’t want to leave his Palestinian employees in the lurch:

Mr. Birnbaum told the Jewish Forward this week that the West Bank factory has been a “pain” due to all the criticism. But he says he’s committed to his Palestinian employees, and sees the company as providing a haven of coexistence that can boost prosperity and prospects for peace.

“I’m not going to throw them to the street. I have an obligation to these people,” he said in a video made by the company last year. “My hope, my prayer, my belief, and my responsibility at SodaStream is that we will fulfill the prophecy from the book of Isaiah: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore. Instead of learning war, let them learn how to make a sodamaker.”

What a monster.  Good call throwing down against this guy and driving away the hot actress who was working so hard as one of your ambassadors, Oxfam.  After all, what’s more integral to a global mission of battling poverty than encouraging people to nurse their “national aspirations” instead of earning a good living?

Capitalist enterprise is a peacemaker of formidable power.  Voluntary cooperation, commerce, and employment are the most powerful tools for overcoming prejudice and fostering assimilation – which is, one suspects, precisely the reason the “national aspirations” crowd hates companies like SodaStream, striving to mask some very ugly urges beneath high-minded international human rights language.

“SodaStream is my hope, to enable me to get married, to get everything,” said one of the Palestinian employees.  Oxfam and its allies are shrewd to understand that the kleptocrats and terrorists who hold power among the Palestinians have nothing to say to that.

Incidentally, the SuperBowl ad Scarlett Johansson filmed for SodaStream got cut from the schedule because it criticizes Coke and Pepsi by name, and they are also Super Bowl advertisers.  Birnbaum wasn’t happy about it: “What are they afraid of?  Which advertiser in America doesn’t mention a competitor?  This is the kind of stuff that happens in China.  I’m disappointed as an American.”

Why, one might almost think he crafted that ad knowing he’d be told to cut the last line… so he could refuse, call a press conference, and declare the oppressive soda giants were so afraid of his product that they pulled strings to censor him… while the ad, which is somewhat racy, went viral and was posted by news organizations on their websites!

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