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Monday, January 27, 2014

Scarlett Johansson’s Defense of SodaStream Factory in Occupied West Bank Fails to Sway Critics

A new ad for SodaStream featuring Scarlett Johansson posted online by the Israeli company on Monday.

In a statement released late Friday, the actress Scarlett Johansson rejected criticism of her new endorsement deal with SodaStream, which manufactures home carbonation systems in an Israeli settlement, from opponents of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank territory it seized in 1967.

While Ms. Johansson wrote that she “never intended on being the face of any social or political movement, distinction, separation or stance as part of my affiliation with SodaStream,” her decision to act as a “global brand ambassador” for the Israeli company, unveiled in an ad posted online Monday, put her at odds with the charity Oxfam, which she has represented in that role since 2007. Oxfam made clear last week that it “opposes all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.”

In her statement, Ms. Johansson attempted to reconcile the conflicting views about the settlements with a defense of the Israeli company’s factory that echoed the language used by SodaStream’s chief executive, Daniel Birnbaum, in a video promoting the plant as a bridge to peaceful cooperation between the two communities. “I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine,” Ms. Johansson wrote.

She continued:

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.

That is what is happening in their Maale Adumim factory every working day. As part of my efforts as an Ambassador for Oxfam, I have witnessed first-hand that progress is made when communities join together and work alongside one another and feel proud of the outcome of that work in the quality of their product and work environment, in the pay they bring home to their families and in the benefits they equally receive.

The actress’s argument won her praise online from defenders of Israel’s settlement policy, including Scott Stringer, New York City’s comptroller, but failed to sway Oxfam, which maintains that “businesses that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support,” and said that it is “considering the implications of her new statement” for her role as an Oxfam global ambassador.”

Several critics of Israel’s settlement-building policy noted that Mr. Stringer’s comments seemed at odds with the long-held position of the United States government, which calls the movement of Israeli citizens into the occupied territory an obstacle to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

Writing on the Israeli news blog +972, Mairav Zonszein called the American actress’s statement “beyond naïve,” for calling Palestinians who work for SodaStream in the occupied West Bank “neighbors” of their Israeli coworkers with equal rights.

“Palestinians live under military rule, are not eligible to vote for the authorities that rule over their lives, are subject to military rather than civilian courts, and experience systematic discrimination in every aspect of life,” Ms. Zonszein wrote. “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?”

Leading voices in the Palestinian community also rejected Ms. Johansson’s stance. Rashid Khalidi, a professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University who was an adviser to the Palestinian delegation during peace negotiations with Israel from 1991 to 1993, said in a statement emailed to reporters that the American actress “appears to believe that the continuation of brutal military occupation is just fine, and that peace can be built on such a basis. In fact, it can only be based on an immediate and complete end to illegal occupation, colonization, and the attendant dispossession of the Palestinian population, in all of which SodaStream and similar companies play an integral part.”

In a statement circulated by The Institute for Middle East Understanding, Diana Buttu, a former adviser to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas based in Ramallah, said Ms. Johansson seemed unaware of the fact that the construction of the settlement where SodaStream’s factory is situated took place only after “more than a thousand Palestinians were forcibly removed from their land and today, just a few miles away from Maale Adumim, Palestinians live without running water, without electricity or sanitation facilities.”

Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian bloggers turned their attention to pressing Oxfam to immediately cut ties with Ms. Johansson by creating a mock ad for the charity that remixed an image of the actress enjoying a SodaStream drink with one of Palestinians crammed together in pens at an Israeli checkpoint.