Scarlett Johansson's SodaStream scandal isn't just Hollywood fluff
If you think the controversy of actress Scarlett Johansson’s relationships with Oxfam and the Israeli company SodaStream is a minor side story about Hollywood celebrities, think again.
This is the latest signal of a major direction of Palestinian and global activism against Israeli settler-colonial policies in the occupied Palestinian territories, which reveals Israel’s weak spot globally and its growing isolation because of its occupation and treatment of Palestinians.
Johansson resigned her post Wednesday as a global goodwill ambassador for the developmental charity Oxfam after coming under intense international criticism for her contradictory role as a spokesperson for Sodastream, which manufactures carbonation machines in the Israeli settlement of Mishor Adumin in the occupied West Bank. The argument against her was simply that she could not feed the jailer and the prisoner at the same time – she could not support the good work of Oxfam in improving people’s lives around the world, while simultaneously promoting an Israeli company whose factory in the occupied West Bank perpetuates the subjugation of Palestinians and their denial of national and personal rights.
This highlights how Israelis and Palestinians confront each other in three principal arenas of conflict and conflict resolution: military attacks; diplomatic negotiations; and, grassroots activism based on legal and ethical principles. The first two modes of Palestinian-Israeli interaction – warfare and negotiations – have continued unabated since the 1930s, without achieving the desired goals of either side.
This is why the third option – populist activism on moral and legal grounds – has emerged recently on the Palestinian side as the most significant new development in decades, and continues to pick up steam and worry the Israelis, as it should. I refer mainly to the movement for the boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) of Israel for its denial of Palestinian human rights in three related arenas: the second-class status of Palestinian citizens of Israel; the Apartheid-like conditions Israel imposes on Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip; and the structural denial of rights to exiled Palestinian refugees living outside of historic Palestine.
This campaign has continued to win victories in recent years, including decisions by Norwegian and Dutch state investment funds, major European supermarket chains, the Methodist and Presbyterian churches in the United States, and the European Union to refuse various forms of relationships or investments that involve Israeli companies or organizations based in the occupied Palestinian territories. The continuing BDS activism of Palestinians and their supporters challenges any international company, individual, organization or government whose policies acquiesce in or promote the illegal, immoral and oppressive nature of the Israeli occupation and other forms of human rights denials to Palestinians.
Johansson is the most recent example of this trend. When she resigned her Oxfam post she released a statement citing “a fundamental difference of opinion” about the issues raised by her serving both Oxfam and SodaStream. Oxfam said it found Johansson’s promotion of SodaStream to be incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador. It noted: “Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, 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 responded to the criticisms against her by saying she was a “supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine.” This nice-sounding but ludicrous statement ignored the fact that the “Palestine” part of this happy equation in her make-believe Hollywood mind is an occupied, colonized, subjugated and deeply deprived land whose Palestinian Arab inhabitants live in conditions that closely mirror the condition of American or South African blacks in the 1950s. In other words, they do menial tasks in conditions of total control and confinement, without any prospect of living a normal, full, dignified life, and with strict limits on where they live, work, travel and use public facilities.
Reuters reporter Noah Browning interviewed a mid-level Palestinian employee in SodaStream’s plant who gave a more accurate picture of the interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. “There’s a lot of racism here,” the Palestinian said. “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.
The European Union’s ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, told Reuters for his part that, “Of course there are some [Palestinian] people who are gainfully employed by settlements. But the alternative of being able to use more than the 40 percent of the territory which is now open for use for Palestinians could potentially give much, much, much more economic benefit to the people living in the area.”
The important new development in this episode is the ability of the BDS movement to mobilize globally, and to generate greater discussion about the nature of the Israeli occupation and its denial of Palestinian rights.
By Rami G. Khouri