Scarlett, Soda Stream and shifting sands

Jaz Blackwell-Pal discusses how Scarlet Johansson’s Soda Stream controversy spells  a victory for BDS.


For years celebrities have been lending their names and publicity to global charities, establishing mutually beneficial relationships that bring credibility to the star and press attention to the cause. But this week the question of how long such partnerships can last when there is a fundamental conflict of interests was thrown into a sharp light when the actress Scarlet Johansson quit her role as global ambassador for Oxfam.

In January Johansson was announced as a new spokesperson for Soda Stream, a company which produces soft drinks machines to be used at home, and markets itself as a greener alternative to other fizzy drinks. But the company makes it profits off the back of illegal occupation, with its main factory located in the settlement of Maale Adumin to the east of Jerusalem.

Since the partnership was announced in January Oxfam has been dragged into crisis, with reports of internal revolt and transatlantic rifts opening up over the question of whether or not to drop Johansson as ambassador. In the end the actress quit before Oxfam had the chance, leaving both in a bad light.

While Johansson is accused of choosing a lucrative commercial deal over her eight year involvement with a global charity, Oxfam are rightly being questioned over their failure to hold their ambassadors to account when they actively work against the stated aims of the charity.

But amidst the PR, there is a real victory here for the global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The crisis over Soda Stream has been picked up by media across the world, with more people now aware of their illegal activities and about the BDS campaign in general. Last week Omar Barghouti was given a leading op-ed in the New York Times where he explained the strategy behind BDS and detailed its recent successes. Even the Financial Times this week wrote an editorial condemning Johansson for her collaboration with Soda Stream, and in particular attacking her for using the fact that the company employs 500 Palestinians as a justification for their actions: “The way to create Palestinian jobs is to end the occupation and let Palestinians build those foundations – not to build ‘bridges to peace’ on other peoples land without their permission.”. Activists could be forgiven for pinching themselves after reading such a sentence in the leading business newspaper.

Soda Stream themselves have highlighted their use of Palestinian workers as a defence against critics. In the wake of the controversy videos have appeared proudly displaying happy Palestinians at work in their factory. The main Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, has also jumped on board, publishing an article this week boasting interviews with satisfied workers.

An excellent article on Electronic Intifada has unraveled these claims, with workers quoted saying that there is huge discrimination against Palestinians in the workforce, Muslims are denied the right to pray (in direct contradiction to what Soda Stream’s video claims) and conditions are harsh, with workers expected to put in 60 hour weeks.

The Soda Stream factory is just one cog in an occupation that deprives Palestinians of their rights daily, driving them to seek employment in the settlements because of the stranglehold Israel has on their own economy. While Soda Stream tries to hide behind its workers and claim to represent their best interests we have to reject such tactics and fight for the total boycott of settlement products.

Thankfully Johansson’s actions have given accidental publicity to the global BDS movement, even though Oxfam themselves do not endorse the campaign. On Wednesday 29th January Johansson issued a statement claiming her decision to leave Oxfam was the result of a fundamental difference of opinion over the question of BDS despite the fact that Oxfam’s official position extends only so far as condemning trade from illegal settlements, hardly surprising given that they violate international law. But the disingenuous nature of her defence has left the question of boycott on everyone’s lips.

The BDS movement has been picking up steam since its launch in 2005, and this is yet another example of its increasing strength and influence. In 2013 a huge victory was scored when Stephen Hawking pulled out of an Israeli conference in support of the academic boycott. Israel’s attempt to use “Brand Israel” to maintain legitimacy has been failing, and the increasing momentum of the BDS campaign is now starting to be felt, as the economic repercussions begin to bite and Israel takes notice.

Various Israeli politicians have talked publicly about how BDS is the greatest threat facing it, with Haaretz publishing a December editorial warning about the impending potential for a “South Africa style boycott”. At the start of the year a $200 billion Dutch pension fund decided to divest from Israeli banks because of their involvement in the occupation, a huge economic blow that sent the Israeli establishment into panic. Now that companies like Veolia and G4S are also starting to lose out on lucrative contracts this sense of potential isolation will only increase.

Reports suggest that Oxfam was partially paralysed over the debacle because of an argument between its British and American branches. Insiders have suggested that Oxfam US vetoed the possibility of dropping Johansson on the basis that it would damage their fundraising efforts. Yet even in America the tide is turning. Last year the American Studies Association and the Indigenous Studies Association, with a combined membership of over 4,000 voted to join the boycott of Israeli universities. Whilst this has stirred up controversy in America it shows just how far things have changed in the past few years, and the potential for more successes.

Johansson is on the wrong side of history, and finds herself swimming against an ever-larger current, which is calling for, boycott disinvestment and sanctions against Israel. Meanwhile the discussion generated about Oxfam’s handling of the situation shows that the plight of Palestinians is not something mainstream NGO’s or charities can ignore any longer. As public opinion turns against the occupation organisations like Oxfam will be expected to take a firmer stance next time, and that terrifies Israel.


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