Scarlett Johansson’s naive SodaStream defense

American actress Scarlett Johansson has become the center of controversy following the announcement that she is the new face of SodaStream, an Israeli company with a large factory in the West Bank.

Scarlett Johansson. (photo: Gabbot/FlickrCC)

SodaStream produces domestic carbonation machines for making sodas at home, and has a large factory in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone, located inside Ma’ale Adumim, the third largest settlement in the occupied West Bank. (This fact is conspicuously absent from its Wikipedia page). The company has both Palestinian and Israeli employees working in its West Bank factory, branding itself as an environmentally friendly, ethical alternative for soda lovers who want to do away with bottles –  and that is what Scarlett Johansson claims she loves so much about SodaStream and why she is now its first-ever “brand ambassador.”

Johansson has been under severe scrutiny and media attention from anti-occupation activists and advocates of the BDS movement. Both the The New Yorker and NY Magazine covered the controversy, the latter with the funny, if forced headline: “Guilt-Free Seltzer or Blood Bubbles?”  Robert Mackey who writes The New York Times’ Lede Blog has an excellent, detailed report, if you want to read more details.

I reckon the enormous media attention has partly to do with that fact that she is major eye candy and websites love to put her face on their home pages, no less than SodaStream does. Here is a hilarious meme I saw going around that I cannot resist but share.

Johansson did not respond to the criticism until Friday, after Oxfam- the international aid and development NGO for which she also happens to be an ambassador since 2007 – came out with a statement challenging her involvement with SodaStream (but stopped short of calling on her to step down). According to their statement:

Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors. However Oxfam believes that businesses 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.

In her response, published on the Huffington Post and titled “Clearing the Air,” Johansson does not redeem herself nor indicate any plan to reconsider her contract with SodaStream. Instead, she reiterates the political line pushed by company CEO Daniel Birnbaum that SodaStream is a “fantastic sanctuary of coexistence and an example of peace in a region that is so troubled and so needs hope.”

Johansson writes that she supports “economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine.” Palestine? What Palestine is she talking about? “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.”

Calling Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank who work for SodaStream “neighbors” with “equal rights” is beyond naive – it is insulting. Palestinians live under military rule, are not eligible to vote for the authorities that determine their lives, are subject to military rather than civilian courts, and experience systematic discrimination in every aspect of life.

The argument that settlement companies like SodaStream are OK because they employ Palestinians holds no weight, since the political reality of occupation does not allow Palestinian workers to make a free and informed choice regarding their livelihoods. This argument has already been made many times, and especially poignantly by Who Profits, an Israeli NGO that documents Israel’s occupation industry.

Johansson’s response sounds a lot like some Israeli settlers, who often argue that they live peacefully with Palestinians, and accuse “leftist” groups who come to protest and show solidarity of disrupting the peace. There are plenty of hippie settlers who make soaps and organic creams, and many of the free-range eggs sold in my supermarket in Jaffa come from settlements.

Even if an Israeli company is green, or treats its workers better than other establishments, it does not make up for the fact that it is situated on land held by force, whose native population is ruled against their will and demand an end to the occupation.

Is that really such a difficult concept to understand? It’s one thing for her not to actively engage in a boycott of Israeli settlements, for example, but quite another to actively use her celebrity status to endorse a settlement company. But the important thing to Johansson, apparently, is that this affair can “contribute to the conversation of a peaceful two-state solution in the near future.”

She clearly has no idea what is going on here, because the last thing needed is conversation and the most urgent thing needed is action.

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that SodaStream’s headquarters is located in Airport City, inside Israel proper; its factory is located beyond the Green Line in Mishor Adumim. Listing offices and facilities in Airport City as official corporate headquarters is a fairly common tactic settlement-based companies use in order to circumvent settlement labeling requirements (and in order to qualify for favorable tariff and free-trade agreements). Read more about the practice here.

The writing on the wall: Boycott is top story in Israel’s No. 1 paper