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Scarlett Johansson and SodaStream: Much Ado About the Wrong Things

Here's the much fuller story concerning the SodaStream controversy.

Photo Credit: screenshot, YouTube

"Israeli beverage company SodaStream has hired the sexiest woman alive to be its first-ever 'global brand ambassador,' the company said in a statement issued Saturday."
— Haaretz story's first line announcing the company’s signing of Scarlett Johansson (January 12, 2014)

"Like most actors, my real job is saving the world."
— Scarlett Johannson's first line in her Super Bowl ad for SodaStream (aired February 2, 2014)

"Sultry Scarlett Johansson is adding another image to her resume, as the new face of apartheid." 
— Mondoweiss story's first line responding to Haaretz announcement (January 12, 2014)

"Scarlett Johansson has respectfully decided to end her ambassador role with Oxfam after eight years. She and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement."
— Scarlett Johansson's first lines in her Oxfam resignation statement (January 29, 2014)

"Oxfam has accepted Scarlett Johansson's decision to step down after eight years as a Global Ambassador and we are grateful for her many contributions."
— Oxfam's first line in its statement accepting Johansson's resignation over their SodaStream dispute (January 30, 2014)

* * *

The behind-the-scenes video of the SodaStream commercial for the Super Bowl shows no hint of the controversy it was about to kick up involving Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank. Underscored throughout with bouncy music, the video (2:30) was published on YouTube January 11, 2014, and is filled with sweetness and light right to the end. It begins with actress Scarlett Johansson saying, "I never thought I'd be doing a Super Bowl commercial…. It's fun, and something I don't normally get to do, so it's a whole new world."

"We are partnering for the first time ever with a global spokesperson, Scarlett Johansson," says the bubbly SodaStream CEO, David Birnbaum, in that behind-the-scenes promo for the slogan "better bubbles made by you." The 50-year-old New Yorker adds, "We are announcing the empowerment of consumers around the world – now you can make the soda that you love…."

Since starting in London in 1903, SodaStream has become a global corporation, with operations in 43 countries and its headquarters in Israel, near Tel Aviv.Fortissimo Capital, an Israeli private equity firm, acquired controlling interest in SodaStream in 2007 and took it public in 2010 (since then trading mostly in the $35-40 per share range with peaks over $75 in 2011 and 2013). In December 2013, The Motley Fool gave the company this assessment as an investment: "Despite the renewed pessimism of some analysts, SodaStream's long-term prospects remain very promising, and should aptly reward patient investors." The company has not yet paid any cash dividend on common stock.

Did no one see the mishagas coming?

Even though SodaStream was well aware of its sticky location in the West Bank, and even though it had been targeted by boycott activists before, the way it announced its contract with 29-year-old New Yorker Johansson made it seem as if no one expected any trouble. Even New York Times coverage of the deal foreshadowed no controversy, quoting Birnbaum without apparent irony as "looking for a way to take SodaStream to the next level." Probably not the level of trouble that started almost immediately with Mondoweiss writer Annie Robbins (a boycott supporter) calling the actress "the new face of apartheid" (an idea echoed in a graphic titled "Scarlett Letter A for Apartheid" that ran in the New York Post and was circulated by the Electronic Intifada).

That early piece in Mondoweiss set the tone and provided the basic elements of the pro-Palestinian critique of SodaStream and Johansson (a theme maintained in 8 follow-up pieces before the February 2 Super Bowl):

"The SodaStream factory is built in Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone, located in the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, one of the largest Israeli thefts of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank. The chunk of land the settlement is built on separated Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho in violation of human rights and international law. At the announcement yesterday, Johansson appeared before a backdrop that bragged, 'Set the bubbles free.' Her mother is Jewish, and the Times of Israel calls her a 'Jewish actress.'"

Let's pause for a moment to break down the truthiness in some of these assertions, which are in fact rooted in truth but deployed tendentiously (as is common in too much commentary from any side of the Israeli-Palestinian cruxus):

SodaStream factory.

The factory is indeed one of 300 factories located in the Mishor Adumim industrial park within the Ma'ale Adumim settlement, the third largest on the West Bank, with a population of 40,000 or so. This is SodaStream's largest factory, but it has 21 others worldwide. And SodaStream is building a much larger factory in the Negev, in undisputed Israeli territory [ignoring those who dispute Israel's right to exist]. The West Bank factory predates SodaStream ownership and once made bullets. SodaStream employs some 1,300 workers, about 500 of them Palestinians (who work there despite a law enacted in 2010 by the Palestinian Authority, barring Palestinians from working in any Israeli settlements).

Thefts of Palestinian land.

This is a purely political formulation designed to further the Palestinian cause, which doesn't make it necessarily dishonorable, but it's way too simplistic to be illuminating. Without exploring the history of Israel in depth, it's worth noting that in 1947 Israel accepted the United Nations partition plan. The Palestinians did not, and the day after Israel came into formal existence the Palestinians joined with their Arab state allies in starting a war they ended up losing. Losing wars have consequences not easily accepted by the losers, but those consequences are not, by definition, "theft," especially when the losers were also the aggressors.

On the other hand, in 1967, when Arab states and the P.L.O. (Palestine Liberation Organization) were preparing to launch another war, Israel struck first and won decisively in six days (the Six-Day War). That left Israel as an occupying power in the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai (the latter two having been relinquished since). Israel's occupation is widely considered illegal, even by the High Court of Justice in Israel. Unarguably, the occupation has been brutal, as has the resistance. Israel is obliged by law to withdraw, but why would that happen before it's assured of its right to exist, or another war destroys it?

"Her mother is Jewish, and the Times of Israel calls her a 'Jewish actress.'"

The Mondoweiss article does not explain how this is relevant information. Even a somewhat hostile story on Al Monitor noted more evenhandedly that Johansson "was born to an American Jewish mother and a Danish father," but also ignored relevance. So is this just a dog whistle to anti-Semites?

After the flap was over, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach had another take on her Jewishness in the Jerusalem Post, what might be called the Israeli spin: "Scarlett Johansson has demonstrated tremendous courage in facing down the double standards of Oxfam and other organizations that trade in condemnation of the Jewish state…. One might have expected her to buckle. After all while she is Jewish, she is not a professional pro-Israel spokesperson. Many have no idea that she's even Jewish. Yet she responded by resigning as Oxfam's global ambassador due to a 'fundamental difference of opinion' and stood up for the Jewish state against a ferocious international assault."

And how does the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement fit in?

The BDS Movement defines itself on its website this way: "The global movement for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights was initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005, and is coordinated by the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), established in 2007. BDS is a strategy that allows people of conscience to play an effective role in the Palestinian struggle for justice."

To what extent elements of the BDS movement were involved in reacting to the SodaStream-Johansson arrangement is not clear, but the involvement was real. BDS actively encouraged Oxfam to intervene, since Johansson had been an Oxfam global ambassador since 2007 (along with Helen Mirren, Annie Lennox, Colin Furth, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu). Oxfam International is a worldwide development organization that focuses primarily on poverty, but has also reportedly funded boycott efforts against Israel, among other political activities. During her time as anOxfam volunteer, Johansson was a high-profile fundraiser, visiting disaster sites in countries including India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Haiti.

Under pressure from Palestinian supporters, Oxfam initiated a "dialogue" with their star ambassador over her work for SodaStream. On January 23, a New York Times blog reported that Oxfam said it "respects the independence of our ambassador," but added that Oxfam also "believes that businesses 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." Oxfam said it had made its concerns known to Johansson, but had not asked her to cancel her SodaStream deal.

Scarlett Johansson tried to defend everyone

On January 24, Johansson released her own statement, but only to Huffington Post, where she said in part:

"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'ale Adumim factory every working day….

"Even though it is a side effect of representing SodaStream, I am happy that light is being shed on this issue in hopes that a greater number of voices will contribute to the conversation of a peaceful two state solution in the near future."

Disputed reality in SodaStream's West Bank factory

On January 27, a heavily footnoted statement from the BDS movement asserted that "Palestinian workers employed by SodaStream have explained that they face systematic discrimination and are "treated like slaves." There is no footnote for this claim, nor any elaboration or more precise sourcing. The "slaves" quote appears to derive from a single, anonymous Palestinian worker who told the Electronic Intifada, in a report supporting boycotts, "We Palestinian workers in this factory always feel like we are enslaved."

In their public utterances, none of the principals in this flap – Scarlett Johansson, Oxfam, or SodaStream – seemed to want to choose sides. Certainly Johansson and SodaStream showed no animus toward Oxfam. But Oxfam apparently felt cornered and forced to choose sides. So on January 30, in a public statement, using diplomatic language apparently designed not to make anyone look bad, Oxfam "accepted Scarlett Johansson's decision to step down."

For its care, Oxfam got this from the BDS movement: "Oxfam's statement today that Johansson's support of SodaStream was incompatible with her role as an Oxfam ambassador is very welcome, but the great length of time that it took for Oxfam's leadership to reach this conclusion has disappointed many Palestinians, people of conscience across the world, and Oxfam staff and supporters. We hope Oxfam will implement its opposition to illegal Israeli settlements in a clearer way in the future."

BDS spokesman Rafeef Ziadah, in the same statement, continued to attack both the actress ("Scarlett Johansson has abandoned her reputation as a progressive celebrity in exchange for the money that accompanies becoming the new face of Israeli apartheid.") and the company ("SodaStream is at the heart of Israel's system of occupation, colonisation and apartheid. Retailers that stock SodaStream can no longer claim they are unaware of the role the company plays in Israeli violations of international law….").

In the real world, one size rarely fits all

Neither of Ziada's claims about Johansson or SodaStream is demonstrably true, and both appear to be unprovable or untrue.

Johansson clearly honored a contract that she apparently entered into with no malice, but perhaps some naïveté. Nothing she has said publicly so far justifies smearing her with an "apartheid" label. In fact, she has been clearly sympathetic to actual Palestinians, while avoiding sweeping political statements more complex than saying, in effect, "can we all get along?"

If SodaStream were actually "at the heart of Israel's system of occupation, colonisation and apartheid" (leaving aside the question of whether that's an accurate characterization), life in the occupied territories would surely be more livable, even though geopolitical questions would remain unresolved. When a BDS movement group in France cast similar aspersions on SodaStream, the company sued the group and won, as reported by The Jewish Press on January 28 (but not by many other outlets). The suit was filed three years ago, in response to a boycott that began in 2010. In its ruling, the Civil Court of Paris ordered that the pro-Palestinian groupcease and desist from publishing falsehoods about SodaStream and compensate the company in the amount of 6,500 euro (about $8,800).

Any human rights progress at SodaStream is a political threat

Whatever else the SodaStream factory may be, it's the largest private employer of Palestinians on the West Bank. This creates something of a dilemma for political Palestinians, since any economic victory against SodaStream may well throw Palestinian workers out of their jobs – a result that the politicians, like politicians pretty much everywhere, will be happy to accept for advancing their abstract ideological goals.

Reporting on the SodaStream factory is thin (even Johansson hasn't been there), but those who have gone –The Christian Science Monitor and International Business Times – have found a civilized workplace. Not surprisingly, so have several Israeli reporters. In 2013, something called Corporate Watch, in the UK, was denied entry – which is less surprising after seeing its website, headed: "Corporate Watch, Tracking Corporate Complicity in the Occupation of Palestine."

In a story titled "Soda Stream is wrong target for Oxfam's Israel boycott," Al Monitor reports favorably about the company: "There is no Palestinian factory or company in the West Bank that employs so many workers. There is no Palestinian factory or company that provides the same terms of employment that SodaStream gives its workers, both Jews and Arabs. By the way, Palestinian employees of SodaStream, who don't have Israeli health insurance because they are not Israelis, and who don't have Palestinian health insurance because there is no national health coverage in the Palestinian Authority, receive an additional payment so that they can insure themselves privately in the West Bank. That is why SodaStream has some 900 Palestinian workers who are willing to work in an Israeli factory which is threatened by an economic boycott by pro-Palestinian organizations."

Is SodaStream making lemonade with its factory lemon?

CEO Birnbaum told Haaretz that having a factory in the West Bank is "a pain in the ass." He said he never would have put a factory there if it had been up to him, but the factory came with the job. And since he has responsibility for the factory, he refuses to close it under political pressure:

"We're here because we're here - for historical reasons…. We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone's political agenda. I just can't see how it would help the cause of the Palestinians if we fired them."

In January 2013, incensed by official Israeli treatment of SodaStream's Palestinian employees who accompanied him to a ceremony at the President's House to honor him as Outstanding Exporter of the year, Birnbaum accepted the award and thenpublicly rebuked President Shimon Peres because Israeli security had gone back on a previous agreement. Instead of treating all SodaStream attendees the same way, as Birnbaum had required in advance, security had treated his Palestinian employees like common criminals, strip-searching them but not other SodaStream employees.

Birnbaum appreciates the ironies at play in his situation. Noting that Norway, Sweden, and Finland have boycotted SodaStream products from the West Bank, Birnbaum says those countries now only receive products made elsewhere – "from the mother of human rights, China."

Reporters from various papers also talked to Palestinians, off site and unsupervised, but found little hostility to SodaStream. Unhappy with the occupation, these Palestinians were also grateful to have a job that pays them roughly twice as much as anything they can get in the Palestine Authority economy.

When SodaStream took over the former ammunition factory, the company put up a statue engraved with a verse from Isaiah: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theater, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

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