By Brian Walt · 5 Feb 2014
Massachusetts did not have a team in this year’s Super Bowl. And last week brought news that Boston-based Oxfam America would not have an Oxfam ambassador appearing in a Super Bowl commercial either. Scarlett Johansson's work for SodaStream violated the anti-settlement and anti-discrimination principles of the international Oxfam confederation. As a consequence, Johansson chose her hefty contract with SodaStream over the social justice work of Oxfam. As a rabbi and a long-time Oxfam supporter, I find Johansson’s decision to support a company exploiting Palestinian workers living under decades of occupation, expropriating Palestinian land at favorable tax rates, and setting back the prospects of a just resolution to the conflict to be.profoundly disturbing.
Johansson’s decision to serve as the brand face for SodaStream, a company based in an illegal Israeli settlement, is shocking. How could a global ambassador for Oxfam, a celebrity who has shed light on suffering and poverty around the world, be the face of a product created in an illegal Israeli settlement? How can she justify being the face for a company that profits from the brutal Israeli occupation?
Not only did Johansson agree to a contract with Soda Stream, but she also recently defended her decision by claiming that SodaStream is a company that is “building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other.” Although this is SodaStream’s official claim, nothing could be further from the truth.
Building Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory violates international law. These settlements also violate the Jewish commandment to pursue justice and peace. The Israeli policy to build Jewish settlements all over the West Bank is designed to confiscate large tracts of Palestinian land, to settle Jews on this land, and to prevent the possibility of a Palestinian state with contiguous territory on the West Bank.
While Israel denies Palestinians the right to build homes or create new economic ventures in most of the West Bank, some 500,000 Jews have settled in exclusive Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem and Israeli companies are encouraged to locate in occupied Palestinian territory.
SodaStream is located in Maaleh Adumim, one of more than 125 Jewish settlements and 100 Jewish outposts, facts on the ground, that most analysts believe have already made a contiguous Palestinian state on the West Bank an impossibility. Maaleh Adumim, with a population of close to 40,000 Jews, effectively divides the northern part of the West Bank from the south. I visited Maaleh Adumim in October 2012 and saw the beautiful homes, landscaping, swimming pools, and other facilities being enjoyed only by Jews.
SodaStream and other Israeli Jewish companies are given tax breaks and incentives for locating their businesses on the West Bank. The settlement itself pays taxes to Israel and all the municipal taxes go to benefit the settlement.
Is this what Johansson calls “a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine” or “neighbors working alongside one another”? Is this an example of the “economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine” that Johansson claims to support?
Would she say the same of white-run businesses in apartheid South Africa exploiting black South African workers? I grew up in South Africa where white South Africans made the same racist argument about how whites benefited black South Africans by providing them with employment. Fortunately, international activists ignored these false depictions regarding apartheid South Africa just as supporters of the nonviolent boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement are not taken in by Johansson’s outrageous misrepresentations about the settlements as a force for good rather than a violent imposition stealing Palestinian land and resources.
By serving as the face of a product produced in an illegal Jewish settlement and, worse, by justifying it as a “bridge to peace,” Johansson damaged the very values she purported to promote as an Oxfam global ambassador. It is sad to see a celebrity with such good intentions make such an immoral choice. For now, she has made the wrong choice, but she can repair the damage by ending her contract with SodaStream and by learning the truth about the denial of equal rights to Palestinians on the West Bank.
Instead of being the brand face for SodaStream, Johansson should join those who demand an end to the Occupation and stand in solidarity with Palestinians who are seeking basic human rights of dignity, equality, and freedom. Doing so would be a far better way to “build a bridge to peace” than choosing SodaStream’s bubbles (and largesse) over Oxfam’s social justice work and Palestinian freedom.
Profit over principle
There will always be an on going conflict between profit and principle. Whilst we seek to place the latter before the former reality is, the world is premised on profit. Whilst her choice can be found wanting on morality, that does not mean she does not have a right to choose. Let history be the judge. One only hopes that her illustrious career will not be blemished by this, but again if it is, she alone will bear the consequences.
In my understanding righteousness has nothing to do with financial profit or loss. It is only us humans who try to conflate righteousness with them and with other equally questionable human wants.