Bursting the Bubble: SodaStream, Scarlet Johansson, and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
WNR's Joelle Hageboutros explores the recent controversy surrounding Scarlett Johansson's decision to endorse SodaStream and what it reveals about the BDS movement and Palestinian workers' rights
Through her endorsement as a “global-brand ambassador” for Soda Stream--an Israeli company that manufactures home carbonation machines--A-list celebrity Scarlett Johansson inadvertently finds herself in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her decision to represent Soda Stream sparked a great uproar among many pro-Palestinian activists. SodaStream has faced sharp criticism for the fact that its largest factory is based in the Mishor Adumim industrial park--in the vicinity of the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim--in the occupied West Bank. The company claims to cultivate Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and co-existence by hiring around 500 Palestinian employees who work alongside Israelis; yet others find that SodaStream’s presence in the West Bank solidifies the illegal occupation.
As controversy over Johansson’s endorsement spread via social media, Oxfam International--a coalition of social justice organizations for which Scarlett Johansson served as an ambassador for eight years--issued a statement in response:
Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors. However, Oxfam 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.
Johansson herself responded to these criticisms in a Huffington Post article defending her endorsement of SodaStream, stating: “I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine.” Soon after, however, the actress issued a statement in which she “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”.
The wording of Johansson’s second statement statement was accused of forcing a label on Oxfam as a BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel) organization when the group had previously chosen to remain neutral on the position. Johansson’s statement thus shifts the narrative of the controversy surrounding her decision to resign from Oxfam. Instead of having the decision she took be about her willingness to represent a company illegally operating in the West Bank, Johansson redefines her departure from Oxfam in terms of the BDS movement. By falsely labeling Oxfam as a BDS supporting organization, activist for the Palestinian cause and columnist for Mondoweiss, Phan Nguyen remarks that Oxfam could now face serious pro-Israeli criticism and possible loss of critical donor support.
Nevertheless, the BDS campaign was reinvigorated through renewed criticism over Soda Stream’s presence in the Israeli settlements. This comes at a time where Israeli economists fear that if the most recent peace process negotiations spearheaded by US Secretary of State John Kerry break down, the European boycott of Israeli goods will severely cripple the economy.
One of the main arguments against the removal of the manufacturing plant in the occupied West Bank is that is creates jobs with high wages otherwise unavailable for Palestinians in the area. In 2012, SodaStream produced a short video promoting the company’s integration success by following the daily routines of Palestinian workers who all express their happiness working at SodaStream and feel that they “belong” to the community of multi-ethnic workers. One such worker in the film, Youseff Basharat, shows off his new home in Ramallah “that he built with one year’s worth of savings from his job.”
While many Palestinian employees undoubtedly benefit from finding well-paying jobs in Israeli companies such as SodaStream, not everyone shares in the positive spirit of the workplace. In May of 2013, the Electronic Intifada interviewed an unidentified worker at SodaStream on his reaction to the video. ‘M’ stated, “I feel humiliated and I am also disgraced as a Palestinian, as the claims in this video are all lies. We Palestinian workers in this factory always feel like we are enslaved.”
In the video, however, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum described the benefits his company provides Palestinian workers: “We give them an opportunity to not only have a job and health insurance, but also social benefits with a very high pay scale, which they could never achieve in the West Bank”. In Johansson’s statement, a similar rhetoric of equality in the workplace was evoked, “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.”
In reality, the situation is far from utopic. One Palestinian worker who spoke with Reuters claimed that “[t]here’s a lot of racism here…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 former SodaStream Palestinian employee, Ahmed Issa (who is currently in a legal battle against the company for terminating his contract without reason) told Al Jazeera: “there is not much difference in the salaries between [SodaStream] and Palestinian factories. Most of us work there because there are just fewer employment opportunities in [Palestinian] businesses.”
A study published by Who Profits?—a research center that outlines and exposes Israeli and International companies profiting from the occupation—also dispelled many of the aforementioned claims of workplace equality. Of the 26,831 Palestinians that work in Israeli settlements in the West Bank with work permits, 93% have no form of representation, fostering unsafe work environments. Employees are often afraid of demanding their workers rights for fear of losing their job or their permits. Additionally, Palestinian working permits can be revoked at any time, especially when workers try to unionize or are involved in political activity. Security preclusions and police preclusions are often invoked by the Israeli Security Agency as a means of removing work permits or preventing workers from receiving permits in the first place. This occurs often unbeknownst to the Palestinian worker and even at times, his employer. For example, some Palestinian employees:
…had worked in Israel to the satisfaction of their employers for many years, in some cases 20 to 30 years. Neither they nor their employers have any idea why they were black listed…Residents whose family members were killed by Israeli security forces are automatically precluded for security reasons…Many Palestinians who are married to residents of East Jerusalem or Israeli citizens also become blacklisted and the Ministry of Interior forbids them from residing in Israel with their families. Sometimes, individuals are blacklisted as security precluded simply because they refuse to cooperate with Israeli security agencies or as a means of putting pressure on them to do so, taking advantage of their distress and desperate need to find work…
In an article on Al-Monitor, columnist Shlomi Eldar argues along the lines of many Israeli companies in the West Bank, that Israeli employers immensely benefit Palestinians. Elder remarks that “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.” However, the reality is that the Palestinian economy continues to suffer under Israeli occupation, which makes foreign investment and economic growth very difficult if not impossible. Elder’s criticism of Palestinian factories thus appears unsound since Palestinian companies are not able to grow to the extent of Israeli corporations where they could have the financial capital to employ more workers, including Israelis. If this were the case, then 82% of Palestinian workers would leave their work in the settlements for these jobs.
While SodaStream’s Birnbaum criticized the practice of discrimination against Palestinian workers and claimed that he does not “like” the settlements, he argues that if he closes the factory, 5,000 workers could be unemployed-including 500 Palestinian workers. Many Palestinian workers make the same case and argue that BDS movements are actually hurting them, not helping them. Wassim Siam, another Palestinian employee of SodaStream commented on the controversy: "I talk a lot to friends abroad. They say, 'You are an Arab. How can you work there?'…Nobody knows there are 1,000 people and their lives will be turned upside down by the [boycott]. You are killing them, so stop it.''
While the BNC (Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions National Committee) claims to represent the “largest coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations,” the efficacy of BDS movements is still contested within Palestinian society.
In the SodaStream video, Birnbaum claims that, “There are so many untrue, uninformed, manipulative claims against SodaStream, as if we’re benefiting from being in this location… We’re not getting government incentives for being here; we have to pay a penalty to be here. We’re far away from the port, far away from our suppliers.”
In reality, the Israeli laws on labor regulations, safety, and environmental standards are neither closely monitored nor enforced in the Occupied Territories. In 2000, Peter Wiseburgh, the creator of SodaStream in the 1990s spoke to Globes of how, “when I got here, the space was deserted and full of pigeons. So I just turned around and walked away. A week later, the Jerusalem Economic Corporation [which leases the industrial zone from the military administration in the West Bank] offered to give me the site for free for the first six months, and then for 44,000 shekels rent per month and also offered $100,000 in cash for the cost of renovating the place. I rented 13,000 square meters, and it was a good deal.”
Additionally, the Jewish Daily Forward reported recently that in SodaStream’s 2012 financial report, it was acknowledged that should the company’s Ma’ale Adumim plant relocate, it “may limit certain tax benefits.” Furthermore, many industrial companies in the Mishor Adumim receive tax benefits from the government. “[A]ccording to Inon Elroy, the official at Israel’s Ministry of the Economy who is responsible for industrial parks….Mishor Adumim is classed as National Priority Area A, which brings companies locating there a package of benefits, including a reduction of Israel’s 25% corporation tax, in some cases down to single digits”
Despite these alleged government benefits, SodaStream recently projected that its net income will fall $12.5 million behind its projected goal of $54 million and that its shares in Nasdaq shrunk by 26% in January. Samia Botmeh—an economics professor at Birzeit University—reported to Al Jazeera that, “there is certainly a link between SodaStream’s losses and the Scarlett Johansson controversy.”
Oman Barghouti, a Palestinian activist and author of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions: the Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, argued that, “Without a doubt, the biggest loser in this well publicized B.D.S. campaign was SodaStream, which was exposed to the whole world as an occupation profiteer. Prior to this, most SodaStream customers had no idea that it is involved in grave violations of human rights by producing in an illegal settlement in the occupied Palestinian territory”
While there is no direct correlation between the two events, Scarlett Johansson’s endorsement raises the question of the accountability and responsibility placed on celebrity product endorsers to the company they represent. As Emily Greenhouse of The New Yorker eloquently put it, “That’s the problem with celebrity ambassadorship: you agree to a quasi-diplomatic role without being trained whatsoever in the art of diplomacy.”