In the same month that the first face-to-face talks between Syria’s regime and opposition failed even to create humanitarian corridors to relieve starving Syrians in Homs, Oxfam decided that, on its list of priorities, going after actress Scarlett Johansson for promoting SodaStream came top. The facts are known. SodaStream is an Israeli manufacturer of water carbonation systems — machines that turn water into soda, with the option of adding flavour. SodaStream has an environmental message — by making your own soda, you help to rid the world of aluminum cans. It also has a factory in Mishor Adumim’s industrial park — which is in the West Bank and part of the large Israeli settlement bloc of Ma’ale Adumim. Scarlett Johansson was until recently a goodwill ambassador for Oxfam — a charitable organisation dedicated to fighting poverty and hunger — and the new face of SodaStream.
Considering Oxfam’s concerns about poverty and hunger, and SodaStream’s job creation in the West Bank where unemployment is high, this could have been a match made in heaven. SodaStream is a global brand — but unlike other corporations moving jobs to sweatshops in emerging markets, the Mishor Adumim factory lives up to the same labour standards that exist in Israeli factories across the Green Line. With one important difference: since the beginning of the second intifadah, 14 years ago, Israeli work permits for Palestinian workers have shrunk. Israeli factories have preferred to import foreign labour rather than take security risks. The impact of such measures on the Palestinian economy, which was highly dependent on Israeli employment, has been dramatic. But getting permits to work inside a settlement in the West Bank is another story — SodaStream is therefore providing jobs for hundreds of Palestinians who work side by side with Israelis, earn the same salaries and enjoy similar benefits.
So what’s the problem? It is that Oxfam, alongside dozens of other NGOs that have joined hands in the global movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel (BDS), will choose a fight against Israel rather than its mandate to fight poverty and hunger any day — even if that fight means poverty and hunger for the very Palestinians it purports to defend.
When Johansson’s partnership with SodaStream entered the news cycle — the firm released a hugely successful commercial for the Superbowl, America’s biggest sporting event, last month — Oxfam launched a frontal assault on the movie star. The charity’s executives demanded she prove she had a social conscience by choosing between what they thought to be two incompatibles: involvement with an Israeli company working in the West Bank, and speaking on Oxfam’s behalf. Johansson quickly obliged, dumping Oxfam and keeping SodaStream.
Israelis are puzzled by the drive to boycott settlements’ economic products; even more so with the BDS movement as a whole, whose targets go beyond settlements to include all Israeli products, foreign companies dealing with Israeli counterparts, and any manifestation of Israeli culture, including Israeli universities, dance companies and orchestras. Why, they ask, is no one criticisng BDS advocates for their hypocrisy?
After all, the foremost leader of BDS, Omar Barghouti, is a recent graduate from Tel Aviv University, an institution he wished others to boycott even while he was attending it. Asked about the contradiction, he said it was a personal matter on which he did not wish to comment. Coherence, clearly, is not his forte. The same goes for his fellow-travellers, and their obsession with anything that comes out of Israel, except for their Israeli anti-Zionist comrades.
And that is really what BDS is about — not relief for ordinary Palestinians but an ideological crusade against Israel that will stop at nothing short of the country’s demise. After all, there are no NGOs like the pro-BDS International Solidarity Movement showing solidarity, international or otherwise, with the starving Syrians under brutal assault from their own government. Similarly, there are no flotillas sailing for Latakia, Syria, to break the siege and bring goods.
It is an old story, to which Israelis have grown accustomed over the years. The self-appointed custodians of human rights will never judge Israel by anything other than utopian standards — and in the process, will always choose Palestinian misery over compromising on their Israel-free ideal world. No matter. Since getting on the wrong side of Oxfam, Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream video has been watched millions of times on YouTube. And SodaStream’s shares, after a turbulent 2013, have been gaining ground on the New York stock exchange.
The product is environmentally friendly, tastes good, provides gainful employment for Palestinians and in the process fosters relations that can’t hurt the cause of peace. Plus, you get to watch Scarlett Johansson drink from a plastic straw. What’s not to like?