It was supposed to be a routine ceremony, just another one of those events that appear on the official calendar of the President’s House. People give speeches and applaud, someone receives a trophy or certificate, and the guests share in the excitement of participating in some official event or other. Then everyone goes back home to get on with their day-to-day business.
But just a few weeks ago, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum, who was selected to receive this year’s Outstanding Exporter Award from the president, turned one such ceremony into a thought-provoking occasion and the subject of considerable discussion and debate.
After asking to say a few words, he took the microphone, and looked President Shimon Peres straight in the eyes. “I am very proud to receive this prize and to raise the flag of Israel in 45 countries around the world. But it is precisely because of this commitment that I must tell you, Mr. President, about something that raised a question for me — a question that I consider far more important than industry or exports. The question, which I am asking here today, is how we relate to each other as human beings.” A stunned silence filled the hall. Someone had just broken all the rules of protocol.
A few days later, in an interview with Al-Monitor, Daniel Birnbaum (whose name is similar to that of another Israeli known for shattering conventions, the conductor Daniel Barenboim) spoke about what it was that caused him to deviate from the old, established rules of form.
“We have three factories. The first one, in Ashkelon, came under rocket attack during Operation Pillar of Defense. Another one is located in Alon Tabor in the Galilee, but our main plant is located in Mishor Adumim in Area C (West Bank territories under Israeli civil and military control after the Oslo Accords). At this factory we employ some 900 Arabs from the Palestinian Authority, who live in an arc stretching from Jericho to Ramallah; the other half of the employees are Arab residents of East Jerusalem. When we were informed that we received the Outstanding Exporter Award, I thought about including some of our Palestinian workers in the ceremony to highlight the sense of solidarity and hope that can be felt throughout our factory. After all, these are the very people who produce the products for which we were receiving that award.”
At this point it is worth noting that there is another, more problematic side to Birnbaum’s vision. The factory that he heads is situated in the West Bank and benefits from a number of structural benefits such as tax incentives and government support with the stated purpose of promoting the development of industrial complexes in the West Bank. His opponents argue that he effectively benefits from the Israeli occupation of the Territories. The factory has also become a center of controversy. After announcing its intention to advertise during the upcoming Superbowl game, several Palestinian groups in the U.S. called for a boycott of its products.
Did you ever consider that all your good intentions might not end as well as you planned?
Birnbaum admits that this was the case. “I was hesitant at first. I knew that there would be thorough body searches, and I didn’t want to embarrass the workers. Here in Israel everyone is well aware of the kind of security inspections that people, especially Arabs, undergo at the airport or, for that matter, at the entrance to any shopping mall. It was for this very reason that I checked with the President’s House to find out what specific kind of security measures those employees would be forced to go through. I was told that in keeping with the Shin Bet’s directives, it would be a very thorough inspection, “down to their underwear.”
After long deliberations, Birnbaum decided that he would attend the ceremony with his employees anyway. But, he adds, he insisted on one single condition: “I informed the security detail at the President’s House that I would be willing to attend, provided that my workers and I go through the same inspection. We would all go through the exact same thing: me, management, and the workers. We practice equality and full cooperation both on the job and off it. Our factory has a synagogue, but it also has a small mosque. We all eat the same food in the same dining hall, and if necessary, we will go through the same security inspection.”
Birnbaum received a positive response, but when I spoke to him two days after the event, he was still upset, outraged in fact, over the affront to his employees.
What actually happened?
“What happened was that three Palestinians and an Israeli Arab arrived at the ceremony, but despite our initial agreement, their inspection was different from ours. I protested, but that didn’t help. They let the Israelis go through first, while they left them out in the rain and cold for three-quarters of an hour. Then security conducted an entirely different kind of search on them. I stood at the entrance to the President’s House and saw how they were forced to undo their belts and drop their pants.”
What did you think would happen? Didn’t you explain to them that they would undergo a particularly rigorous inspection because they were Palestinian Arabs visiting the official residence of Israel’s President?
“We met first at the hotel. They knew exactly what they were facing, but I had made a commitment to them that I would undergo the exact same inspection, down to my underpants, when, in fact, we were separated. I took the express route, while they were delayed for a more invasive search. That’s what made the spectacle so difficult for me.”
Birnbaum repeated that word: separated.
This is the background for Birnbaum’s unofficial breach of protocol at the President’s House. He took the microphone and described to Peres and all the assembled guests how his workers were forced to undergo a veritable “Via Dolorosa” before they were granted entry. “We are committed to continue serving as a bridge and to sowing hope. Who knows as well as you, Mr. Peres, how important it is to remain optimistic that one day there will be peace?” he said.
How did he react?
“He was embarrassed, especially when I spoke about the double inspection. He lowered his eyes and stared at the floor. As for me, I was being cautious but clear. I didn’t want to embarrass him too much. I didn’t add that we live in a world with technologies that allow us to reach the same level of security inspections as having people remove their clothing. I mean the scanners that they use in the United States, which don’t require anyone to drop their pants. I didn’t descend to such uncomfortably picturesque details. Peres was a bit embarrassed, but on the other hand, my own people looked like they just had an ounce of dignity restored to them. When I stepped off the stage, they came over to kiss me. They had tears in their eyes.”
You’re one strange character.
“Yes, I admit it. Not many other people employ Palestinians, because these days, most of Israel’s industry is high tech. It’s very hard to find many products now that bear the label, 'Made in Israel,' even though it once seemed so simple, so natural. Then there is us. We export some forty different items, which reach about 8 million homes overseas. There are 60,000 stores worldwide that carry our products with the label, 'Made in Israel.'”
With all due respect to patriotism, doesn’t that label cost you in sales? You are situated in the West Bank after all.
"We are facing an increasing tide of protests from all sorts of places around the world and from all sorts of sectors too. We are sometimes attacked in the international media for perpetuating the Occupation. Some retailers have protested that we should label our products as “Made in Palestine.” We’ve come under attack from celebrities and even from business partners like Kraft, the largest food corporation in the U.S. And yet, we have the same answer for everyone. Our factories are apolitical. We don’t take sides in this conflict. Quite the contrary, we inherited a factory in Area C, and we don’t know what its final fate will be, if and when an agreement is reached. Nevertheless, we are building bridges between us and the Palestinian population, and we provide our Palestinian employees with respectable employment opportunities and an appropriate salary and benefits. We “even” purchase medical insurance for them from a private Israeli company, because I am not confident that the money we pay to the Palestinian Authority for such social benefits will actually be used for medical insurance.
There aren’t many factories that manufacture a national vision or a desire for peace, but with all your optimism, the feeling that you relay is one of missed opportunity.
“Yes, we missed an opportunity. We’ve become complacent, and that only means that we are cooking up a catastrophe. There is no reason for us not to extend a hand in peace. And when there were opportunities in the past, we always knew how to miss them. What the world doesn’t know is that so many of us really do want peace.”
At this point, Birnbaum describes a gathering of ambassadors, which took place in Jerusalem recently. During that event, National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror had some particularly harsh words for the participants over the regrets expressed by Ron Prosor, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.N., about the timing of the recent construction spree in East Jerusalem. “I was there,” Birnbaum told me. “I spoke right before Amidror, so I heard his irrational response. I also heard the applause that Prosor received and saw the frustration in the faces of those ambassadors who are supposed to represent us. They’re embarrassed, and rightly so. The world doesn’t see us as peacemakers. There are 136 countries in the world that are against us, so we go and upset the six countries that still support us? It infuriates me!”
And yet, on the other hand, what you have described is a wonderful friendship with your Palestinian employees, so maybe there is hope for peace after all.
"You know, as far as many of them are concerned, the only Israelis they know are settlers and the policemen at checkpoints. Most of them had never even been to Israel until I took them on a tour last summer. Then they saw Israelis on the beach and in the street. They saw plain, ordinary people. On the other hand, it was also an opportunity for us to break through the barriers of hatred and to get to know the other side, so that we could finally recognize that not every Palestinian is a terrorist. I’m proud of that. I want people to finally realize that we’re talking about people and that peace is possible, despite the politicians. If there were another hundred companies like us extending a hand to the other side, we would have a peace agreement, because everybody wants it, including the Palestinians."
Let’s get back to the big event. The ceremony was over. You and your employees left the President’s House and stepped out into the cold Jerusalem air and the complex reality of this region. Tell me what happened.
“My employees couldn’t stop crying. One of them told me that I restored his dignity after they made him remove his clothing. Others mentioned the support they received during the ceremony itself. They told me how they ‘never realized that there were Israelis like that.’”