Politics & Policy

Of ScarJo, Soda, Settlements, and Super Bowls

Johansson in SodaStream’s Super Bowl ad.
The seltzer-maker spokeswoman strongly supports Israel and its manufacturers.

Of all the possible defenders of the Israeli town of Ma’aleh Adumim, a burg of 40,000 located five miles east of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, a gorgeous worldwide movie star is hardly the most likely candidate. But there was Scarlett Johansson, the 29-year-old screen and stage actress, vigorously doubling down on her decision to sign on as a spokesperson for SodaStream, a do-it-yourself-soda company headquartered in Israel, and to appear on its behalf in a provocative ad during this Sunday’s Super Bowl.

“I stand behind the SodaStream product. . . . 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,” she wrote in the Huffington Post late last week.

Why such a fuss over bubbly water?

#ad#Because SodaStream’s largest manufacturing facility is in Ma’aleh Adumim, just over the “green line” separating pre-1967 Israel from the West Bank, Johansson has come under withering attack from worldwide anti-Israel forces promoting a boycott of Israeli products and services.

But the fortitude displayed by ScarJo (a leading celebrity exponent of numerous liberal causes, as readers of this site well know), speaks volumes about the righteousness of Israel’s cause and the moral bankruptcy — and rank ineffectiveness — of the boycott crowd.

SodaStream was founded decades ago in Europe as a cheap, environmentally friendly, at-home alternative to buying fizzy beverages at the supermarket. Users carbonate their own water using replaceable gas canisters and can flavor the liquid with a variety of syrups, which are also sold by SodaStream. In 1998 the company was acquired by Soda Club, then a seven-year-old Israeli company, which adopted the older company’s name.

The outfit has grown rapidly in recent years, especially in Europe, where one in every five Swedish households owns a machine. By 2011, the company’s U.S. sales had multiplied tenfold over the course of four years, and in May 2012, SodaStream began distributing through Walmart. SodaStream, a Nasdaq-traded stock with more than $500 million in annual revenue, has frequently been mentioned as an acquisition target by the big soda makers, and in Johansson, the company appeared to find a breakthrough pop-culture soda-water carrier.

And yet, because the company operates one of its facilities in the West Bank, where it employs 500 Palestinian workers, it and, by extension, ScarJo have endured the slings and arrows of anti-Israel activists.

“This is like supporting the apartheid system in the old South Africa,” thundered Mustafa Barghouthi of the Palestinian National Initiative. Johansson “has no excuse for allowing herself to be used to support the violation of international law.”

The boycotters also urged Oxfam, for which ScarJo has served as an ambassador since 2005, to sever its ties with the actress. “Palestinian civil society, and indeed all who care about human rights around the world,” asserted Omar Barghouti, a founder of a leading boycott group, “expects Oxfam to immediately end its relationship with an actress that has knowingly lent her name to whitewashing Israel’s illegal occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.” On Wednesday, Johansson terminated her relationship with Oxfam, citing a “fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.”

Indeed, as is typical for the Israel-hating crowd, the boycotters get both their facts and their inferences wrong. First, SodaStream offers comprehensive benefits, including health insurance, and high wages for the Palestinians it employs in its Ma’aleh Adumim facility — better jobs than are available in most of the West Bank. The company’s CEO “just can’t see how it would help the cause of the Palestinians if we fired them,” as the boycott movement effectively desires.

Second, because of its size and proximity to Jerusalem, Ma’aleh Adumim itself, along with the SodaStream factory, is all but certain to be included within the final borders of Israel after a peace agreement with the Palestinians is concluded. The town and the facility are no far-flung outposts surrounded by a seething Palestinian population, as the boycotters would have the world believe, but essentially a garden suburb of Jerusalem, which itself will largely if not completely remain under Israeli control.

Johansson echoed these responses in her HuffPo statement:

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.

Sure enough, in addition to the 500 Palestinians employed in the factory, 400 Arabs from eastern Jerusalem and hundreds more Jewish residents, Israeli citizens all, work there side-by-side. The facility also includes a mosque and a synagogue, prompting the head of one left-wing, pro-Israel American organization to praise the company for “making real efforts to engage the Palestinian workers with fair wages and in management positions.”

ScarJo echoed these thoughts, noting that:

as part of my efforts as an Ambassador for Oxfam, I have witnessed first-hand that progress is made when communities join together and work alongside one another and feel proud of the outcome of that work in the quality of their product and work environment, in the pay they bring home to their families and in the benefits they equally receive.

It’s difficult to improve upon that formulation, and perhaps the boycott movement underestimated not only Johansson’s eloquence and commitment to her beliefs, but the actual justice of those beliefs and how they resonate with Israelis, Americans, and the Arab world alike.

Finally, after all this controversy, the Super Bowl ad, which can be found here, likely will not air on Sunday, as Fox reportedly bowed to pressure from Coke and Pepsi, both of which found the spot too aggressive. But that, and not the rabid demonization of the Jewish state, is the kind of boycott that Israelis and their supporters around the globe can probably live with.

— Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in San Diego. You can reach him at michaelmrosen@yahoo.com

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