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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream Endorsement Deal Conflicts With Charity Work, Aid Group Says

The international aid and development group Oxfam has distanced itself from one of its own global ambassadors, the actress Scarlett Johansson, since she agreed to become the face of SodaStream, an Israeli firm that makes products in a settlement built on West Bank territory Israel has occupied since 1967.

In a statement quietly added Wednesday to a web page on Ms. Johansson’s work for the charity, Oxfam said that while it “respects the independence of our ambassadors,” the group also “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.” For that reason, the statement concluded, “We have made our concerns known to Ms. Johansson and we are now engaged in a dialogue on these important issues.”

The charity’s response came after more than a week of pressure from activists seeking to end Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank through a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions, known as B.D.S., modeled on the 1980s movement that helped undermine international acquiescence to apartheid in South Africa.

To spread their message, the activists appropriated and reworked images of Ms. Johansson posted online by SodaStream, showing her on the set of a new commercial for the company, scheduled for broadcast during next week’s Super Bowl.

A spokesman for Oxfam, Matt Herrick, told The Lede in an email on Thursday that the aid group has not asked the actress to withdraw from her endorsement deal with SodaStream. The same charity objected in 2009 when another ambassador, the American actress Kristin Davis, agreed to endorse Ahava, an Israeli cosmetics firm which also has a factory in a West Bank settlement. After a wave of negative publicity, Ahava and Ms. Davis quickly parted ways.

As my colleague Stuart Elliot reported this month, “SodaStream is describing the deal with Ms. Johansson as more than an endorsement agreement, calling her a brand ambassador,” and the company’s chief executive, Daniel Birnbaum, described the match as “a love story between a brand with a purpose and a passionate user.”

In a promotional video about the making of the SodaStream commercial scheduled to air during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, Ms. Johansson mentioned that she was particularly drawn to the product for ethical reasons â€" that it eliminates the need for plastic soda bottles which contaminate the environment. “My favorite thing about SodaStream,” Ms. Johansson said during the filming of the commercial, “is that I don’t feel guilty when I enjoy beverages at home. I don’t feel like I’m being wasteful.”

A promotional video from SodaStream about the filming of its Super Bowl commercial starring Scarlett Johansson.

SodaStream’s marketing has consistently described its domestic carbonation machines, made in the Maale Adumim settlement’s industrial zone, as an environmentally friendly, ethical alternative for soda lovers.

One promotional video posted on its YouTube channel invites viewers to “Imagine a World Without Bottles,” over images of a polluted planet. Another shows the company’s chief executive with the actress and environmentalist Susan Sarandon at the International Home and Housewares show in Chicago in 2011.

Susan Sarandon with SodaStream’s chief executive, Daniel Birnbaum, in 2011.

Standing with Ms. Sarandon in front of a mass of used bottles and cans, used as the backdrop for the company’s “Eco Speakers Series” at the trade show, Mr. Birnbaum urged every SodaStream owner “to be an evangelist, to be a revolutionary and share this news with your friends and neighbors: that there is a smart way so that we can leave a planet safe and clean for our children.”

Mr. Birnbaum makes a different moral argument for the company in a glowing video report on its West Bank factory posted last year on the YouTube channel of Stand With Us, an Israel advocacy group based in Los Angeles.

“SodaStream: Building Bridges,” a video report on the company’s West Bank factory posted on YouTube by the Israel advocacy group Stand With Us.

In that video, which paints the factory outside Jerusalem as a boon for hundreds of Palestinian workers, Mr. Birnbaum pointed to the mix of Arabs and Jews working side by side as a model of harmonious integration. “All these different people work together and learn to respect each other and celebrate each other’s holidays and families get to know each other,” he said. “At SodaStream we build bridges, not walls. It’s a fantastic sanctuary of coexistence and an example of peace in a region that is so troubled and so needs hope.”

The rosy view of the factory was challenged by an account of working conditions at the plant from an unnamed worker published last year by The Electronic Intifada, a website founded by the Palestinian-American activist Ali Abunimah. The Electronic Intifada’s source claimed that Palestinians working at the factory in the occupied territory do not benefit from labor laws applicable in Israel proper. “They treat us like slaves,” he said. “This has happened many times on the assembly line: when a worker is sick and wants to take sick leave, the supervisor will fire him on the second day. They will not even give him warning or send him to human resources, they will immediately fire him.”

Critics of SodaStream also pointed to an Israeli television report showing that Nabeel Besharat, one of the Palestinian workers featured in the video circulated by Stand With Us, was strip-searched when he traveled to Israel to watch Mr. Birnbaum accept an award from President Shimon Peres.

A video report on SodaStream receiving an award last year from Israel’s president, posted online by activists opposed to trade with firms that make goods in the Israeli occupied West Bank.

Writing about the same plant for the Jewish-American newspaper The Forward, Elisheva Goldberg pointed to less noble reasons for its location on Palestinian land Israel is obliged to withdraw from under the reading of international law on military occupations embraced by most world bodies and governments, including that of the United States. The SodaStream factory, “does exploit the commercial benefits of its location, essentially profiting from occupation,” through tax breaks, cheap rent and the lax enforcement of labor laws that protect workers from long hours and low pay, Ms. Goldberg wrote.

In a report on the industrial zone where the SodaStream factory is located, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz spoke to a Palestinian worker at another plant who said “Israeli law, which should apply here, too, is not being observed.”

The newspaper noted that the settlement’s industrial zone “sits on the seam line between Israel and the Palestinian territories, putting it in Area C, which is under Israeli military and civil control. This means that the Palestinians need permits to work there. As far as the employers are concerned, though, they’re outside the law.”

“This is a no-man’s land,” a spokesman for a Palestinian labor organization told Haaretz. “Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry inspectors don’t enter Area C since it’s not under Israeli sovereignty, but they’re the only ones who can enforce labor laws.” Israeli officials confirmed to the newspaper that “the ministry does not have the authority to enforce the law in” factories built in West Bank settlements.

Perhaps in part because of these favorable economic conditions, Israel’s government, which doles out the tax breaks and cheap rent, estimates that there are now about 600 Israeli-owned factories in West Bank settlements. Along with plants constructed in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, territories also occupied by Israel since 1967, Israeli firms export about $250 million in goods each year that are manufactured on land outside the country’s internationally-recognized borders.

Robert Mackey also remixes the news on Twitter @robertmackey.