Israel Pulse

SodaStream is wrong target for Oxfam’s Israel boycott

Article Summary
Boycott threats against Israel's SodaSteam company will achieve the opposite of advancing peace, by destroying an example of Israeli-Palestinian commercial cooperation and depriving hundreds of Palestinian families of their livelihoods.

More than any other Israeli company operating across the Green Line, SodaStream has been drawing the ire of those leading the boycott against Israel. The Israeli brand, which is successful in 45 countries, finished 2013 with revenues of $562 million, but instead of celebrating its impressive achievements, its managers and staff are forced to respond to a bevy of attacks against it. It also had to fight back against the intention of imposing a boycott on the company because its main factory is located in the area of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement.

Calls to boycott SodaStream were given an unexpected boost after it turned out that actress Scarlett Johansson was chosen as the company’s brand ambassador. For example, Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab wrote in Al-Monitor that the fact that the American actress was being forced to forgo her position as ambassador for the charitable organization Oxfam was a long-term victory for the Palestinians and their supporters everywhere.

Johansson was unwilling to give in to Oxfam’s conditions when it pressured her to give up on her contract with SodaStream, and in so doing, gave up on those who pressured her to boycott the Israeli company. Even if someone considers this a Palestinian victory, the question remains: How can Kuttab completely disregard that the SodaStream factory employs more than 900 Palestinians? Hurting the factory, which is the source of their livelihoods, would constitute an economic death sentence for those employees.

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. 

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By the way, Palestinian employees of SodaStream, who don’t have Israeli health insurance because they are not Israelis, and who don’t have Palestinian health insurance because there is no national health coverage in the Palestinian Authority (PA), receive an additional payment so that they can insure themselves privately in the West Bank. That is why SodaStream has some 900 Palestinian workers who are willing to work in an Israeli factory that is threatened by an economic boycott by pro-Palestinian organizations.

In January 2013, Israel’s President Shimon Peres awarded the Outstanding Exporter award to the CEO of SodaStream. Instead of assuming the decorum of the official award ceremony, Daniel Birnbaum, the company’s CEO, chose to convey to Peres his reservation about the security check that his Palestinian employees were forced to undergo before entering the presidential residence to attend the gala event. Jewish employees went through one type of security clearance, while Arab employees went through another. Birnbaum was furious. Insulted by the way his Palestinian employees were treated, he insisted on restoring their dignity. Every incident like that, Birnbaum told Peres, delays any chance that Palestinians and Israelis can one day live together. Tears trickled down the cheeks of his Palestinian employees who attended the event.

But instead, Kuttab chose for his article a single quote by an anonymous worker, who told a reporter from Reuters that the management of SodaStream was racist and that discrimination there was intentional, because the management is Jewish and the workers are Palestinians without any rights, who are afraid that they will be fired if they open their mouths.

Kuttab did not quote or even mention the many other workers, who said many different things to both the Israeli and foreign media without fear or concern.

For example, Muhammad Yussuf, 22, from the village of Jab’a told the American blog Gawker: “We live here in peace, Jews and Muslims, and we don’t have any problems.” Or other employees, who openly voiced their concern that if SodaStream suffers from the boycott or if it decides to move its factory out of Ma’ale Adumim, they will be left without work. Some 900 Palestinian families will be thrown out of a safe job, and they will not receive unemployment from the PA.

''We opened the factory to journalists, including the reporter from Reuters. And he spoke with everyone, but he chose to quote just one employee, who may not have been satisfied [at work]. When I ask the workers what worries them, they answer that they are concerned that they will return to the ranks of the unemployed, given the unemployment rate of 30-35% in the Palestinian Authority today.”

Al-Monitor asked Birnbaum, "You heard that Scarlett Johansson gave up her position with Oxfam. What did you think of her?"

Birnbaum said, "I felt bad, because she told me that she really loved working with them, but it also made me appreciate her more, because she made a conscientious decision. It is a decision that goes completely against the stream in the world in which she lives. I know that people in the entertainment industry think that she made a mistake, but she already told me in our first meeting that we’re doing the right thing. I told her, 'You could hear back from the rest of the world,' and she repeated to me, 'You’re doing the right thing. You have nothing to be ashamed of.'

"She is standing boldly by her decision and putting the dilemma surrounding this situation in a very positive light. For example, there’s the legitimacy of an organization like Oxfam. It may have good intentions, but recently its actions have been less than acceptable. It funded the boycott in part. We know this, thanks to the 'NGO Monitor' project. 

"Scarlett asked me to invite the president of Oxfam America here, and I did that. His name is Raymond Offenheiser, and he did not respond to my invitation, because seeing the factory would make him uncomfortable. He does not want to go against the populist stream prevalent among ostensibly humanitarian organizations. Scarlett highlighted the fact that even humanitarian organizations can be hypocritical.

"In this case, Oxfam said that we had to fire all of our employees, but that would be a crime against humanity. And they are calling on us to do that because it is populistic, and it serves the interests of their donors," Birnbaum said.

The boycott against Israel poses an enormous threat to the country’s economy and international standing. But the SodaStream factory in Ma’ale Adumim is a tangible example of beneficial and effective cooperation between Jews and Palestinians.

Birnbaum repeated that in any diplomatic arrangement, he will act in accordance with the government’s decision. By the way, his factory is located in the Ma’ale Adumim area, which even the Palestinians accept as one of the large settlement blocs that might remain under Israeli jurisdiction in any future agreement, as part of an exchange of territories.

But the promoters of the SodaStream boycott are so zealous about what they are doing that they are unaware of one simple fact: Harming that thriving factory, which provides a livelihood to Israeli and Palestinian workers, and especially to do that while the diplomatic negotiations are underway, is an error and a cruel game being played with the livelihoods of 900 Palestinian families.

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Found in: sodastream, palestinian workers, palestine, israel, coexistence, business, boycott of israeli goods

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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