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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Scarlett Johansson Chooses SodaStream Over Oxfam After Dispute About West Bank Factory

Updated, 5:49 p.m. | Forced to choose between two endorsement deals, the actress Scarlett Johansson decided Wednesday to end her charitable work on behalf of Oxfam, an antipoverty group that opposes trade with Israeli settlements, and continue as a paid “brand ambassador” for SodaStream, a company that manufactures products in the occupied West Bank.

The break with Oxfam comes a week after the charity said that it was engaged in “a dialogue” with the actress, who had helped raise funds for nearly a decade, and days before the broadcast of Ms. Johansson’s Super Bowl commercial for SodaStream’s home carbonation machines.

A version of Scarlett Johansson’s Super Bowl ad for SodaStream posted on YouTube by the company has been viewed more than five million times since Monday.

Oxfam’s stated position is that “trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law,” should be discouraged because companies profiting from the continued occupation “further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.” Last week, however, Ms. Johansson expressed her outspoken support for the SodaStream factory in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, echoing the company’s chief executive in calling the plant “a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine.”

While the content of the talks between the actress and the charity were not made public, a statement released on her behalf contained a significant error about Oxfam’s policy regarding Israel. According to the statement, Ms. Johansson and Oxfam parted ways because of “a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.”

But Oxfam does not support the Palestinian-led campaign known as B.D.S., which seeks to isolate Israel economically until it ends the military occupation of territories seized during the Six-Day War in 1967 and allows Arab refugees to return to their former homes in what is now the Jewish state. The charity objects to the import of goods produced in Israeli settlements but is not opposed to trade with Israel, an Oxfam representative told The Lede on Thursday.

Despite that fact, supporters and critics of Israel read the end of Ms. Johansson’s relationship with Oxfam through the lens of the B.D.S. campaign.

Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian activist and the author of “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights,” hailed the success of B.D.S. supporters in drawing attention to the ethical issues involved in the location of SodaStream’s factory.

“Without doubt,” Mr. Barghouti said in a statement released by the Institute for Middle East Understanding, “the biggest loser in this well publicized B.D.S. campaign was SodaStream, which was exposed to the whole world as an occupation profiteer. Prior to this, most SodaStream customers had no idea that it is involved in grave violations of human rights by producing in an illegal settlement in the occupied Palestinian territory.”

As the Israeli blogger Mairav Zonszein notes, Oxfam’s stance seems identical to that of Peter Beinart, author of “The Crisis of Zionism,” who, in a 2012 New York Times Op-Ed article, called on American Jews to initiate “a counteroffensive” to the B.D.S. campaign by lobbying for a total boycott of the settlements. Mr. Beinart criticized Ms. Johansson last week and reminded his Twitter followers that prominent Israeli actors and writers had refused to perform in the settlements for years.

As The Lede explained last week, SodaStream made ethics a part of the conversation by marketing its domestic carbonation systems as an ethical alternative for consumers concerned with the environmental impact of bottled sodas, including Coke and Pepsi.

In an illustration of how the association with Ms. Johansson was becoming an impediment to the charity’s work, Oxfam’s social-media team found itself besieged by questions about SodaStream just as it was trying to draw attention to ethical questions about one of the Israeli company’s rivals, Pepsi. In the run-up to the Super Bowl, Oxfam has asked its Twitter followers to complain to Pepsi about its poor treatment of farmers in Brazil and Cambodia.

The charity’s current online campaign against Pepsi, to protest the beverage company’s practice of buying sugar produced on land Oxfam says was unfairly taken from farmers without proper compensation, is the latest wave in a series the antipoverty group calls “Behind the Brands.”

The debate over Ms. Johansson’s endorsement of SodaStream unfolded as reporters began looking more closely at the company’s manufacturing plant in the Mishor Adumim industrial park, part of the Maale Adumim settlement. As The Jewish Daily Forward in New York reported, although many Israelis expect that settlement to become a part of Israel after the land swaps Israeli governments have insisted on in any future peace deal, “Maale Adumim is nevertheless a settlement especially loathed by Israeli peace activists. It was made possible in the 1970s by one of the largest expropriations of Palestinian land implemented by the Israel during its 46-year occupation of the West Bank.”

As the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem explained in 1999, the settlement, including the SodaStream factory, was built on land taken from five Palestinian towns and two Bedouin tribes evicted by Israeli forces.

Perhaps more important, as the Israeli columnist Larry Derfner explained in 2012, this settlement is already “a stake in the heart of a prospective Palestinian state,” because it nearly bisects the West Bank and further construction there threatens to cut off “Palestinians’ access to East Jerusalem, their hoped-for capital.” That appears to be less by accident than by design. Mr. Derfner noted that Benny Kashriel, the settlement’s longtime mayor, told The Jerusalem Report in 2004, “Maale Adumim was established to break Palestinian contiguity.” The settlement, he added, “is Jerusalem’s connection to the Dead Sea and the Jordan valley; if we weren’t here, Palestinians could connect their villages and close off the roads. Maale Adumim necessarily cuts the West Bank in two.”

While opponents of settlement trade, like Oxfam, argue that the relatively small number of jobs generated by factories there do not outweigh the crippling effect of Israel’s military occupation on the Palestinian economy as a whole, SodaStream’s defenders contend that the plant is a boon to hundreds of local workers. The company’s chief executive, Daniel Birnbaum, told The Forward this week that although the location was “a pain,” and that SodaStream could move all of its manufacturing to a factory inside Israeli’s internationally recognized borders, he would not do so out of concern for the Palestinians who would lose their jobs. “We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda,” he said.

The newspaper also reported that during its correspondent’s visit, Mr. Birnbaum was applauded by Palestinian workers in the plant’s employee cafeteria when he reassured them that their jobs were safe.

Mr. Birnbaum also told a Reuters reporter who visited the factory the next day that the SodaStream factory was “a dream for activists and politicians on both sides of this dilemma, because it’s a model for peace and is proving every day that there can and will be peace between our peoples.”

The reporter, Noah Browning, noted however that a “mid-level Palestinian employee who spoke to Reuters outside the plant, away from the bosses, painted a far less perfect picture.”

“There’s a lot of racism here,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “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.”

Robert Mackey also remixes the news on Twitter @robertmackey.