A Hollywood actress. An endorsement deal. And an international imbroglio. It’s a field full of plays and the Superbowl hasn’t even started yet.
When Scarlett Johansson signed a multi-year, worldwide endorsement deal with the Israeli company SodaStream, pivoting around a seductive Superbowl ad that would launch her punim as the new face of seltzer, the move sparked more plot twists than a movie.
First, there was outrage about occupation.
SodaStream International, which produces a home soda-making device, has one of three manufacturing plants located in the West Bank. Widely considered to be part of the Palestinian territories, and what could become a future Palestinian state, many shuddered at the thought of Scarlett supporting Israeli settlements.
Next, Fox nixed the anticipated ad from Sunday’s Superbowl lineup, allegedly for offending SodaStream competitors Coke and Pepsi. In the spot, Scarlett strips her bathrobe and seductively sips her homemade soda: “Sorry Coke and Pepsi,” she says. (As of this morning, the “uncensored” version has more than 5 million views on youtube.)
The plot continued to thicken earlier today when the international development organization Oxfam announced that it would accept Johansson’s resignation as a global ambassador. “While Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors, Ms. Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador,” the organization said in a statement on its Website. “Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.”
Oxfam had been pressured by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) to dismiss Johansson from its ranks. "Oxfam is a human rights organisation. They cannot maintain an ambassador if they are involved in a complicit Israeli company built in a settlement. They can't keep both. You can't maintain something and its contradiction," BDS founder Omar Barghouti told the Guardian.
"Activists everywhere, particularly in the US, UK and Palestine as well as affiliated organisations and major Palestinian figures are writing, tweeting, or calling Oxfam to dismiss Johansson as ambassador, because of her conscious decision to lend her name to whitewashing Israeli occupation and apartheid," Barghouti said.
Despite the uproar, Johansson dug in her heels and stood by SodaStream.
“I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine. 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,” she wrote in a statement posted on the Huffington Post on Jan. 24.
“I stand behind the SodaStream product… [and] I am happy that light is being shed on this issue in hopes that a greater number of voices will contribute to the conversation of a peaceful two state solution in the near future.”
Among the outcry, Johansson’s statement stands out as the most transparent. In fact, SodaStream’s operation in the West Bank is a complex one. As I noted in a previous column, the company employs nearly 1,000 Palestinians and goes to great lengths to treat them equally and fairly in a complicated situation. The manufacturing plant even houses an on-site mosque, and company CEO Daniel Birnbaum has publicly rebuked the Israeli government for its Palestinian policies. Birnbaum also purchased private Israeli health insurance for his Palestinian employees, because he did not trust the Palestinian Authority to provide comparable treatment.
Johansson was right when she said SodaStream is working to build peace between peoples. But their position is compromising; after all, many companies receive government incentives such as tax breaks to operate in the West Bank. Birnbaum has said he “inherited” the plant and would never have chosen the location intentionally. According to the Forward, “It was a choice made by company founder Peter Weissburgh, back in the 1990’s, long before SodaStream was taken over by the Fortismo Capital Fund, it current owners, who appointed Birnbaum to head the firm in 2007.” Birnbaum has said the plant issue is “a pain in the ass.”
However, he has reasons for staying:
The reason for staying is loyalty to approximately 500 Palestinians who are among the plant’s 1,300 employees, Birnbaum claimed. While other employees could relocate on the other side of the Green Line if the plant moved, the West Bank Palestinian workers could not, and would suffer financially, he argued.
“We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda,” he said, adding that he “just can’t see how it would help the cause of the Palestinians if we fired them.”
Birnbaum added that if an Israeli-Palestinian two state solution is reached, he will be happy to stay in the West Bank and pay taxes to a Palestinian state.
As an organization whose primary mission is to end poverty, Oxfam finds itself in a sticky situation. As Emily Greenhouse wrote in The New Yorker, “[W]ho can measure, or say, whether boycotting SodaStream would help the intangible cause of Palestinian nationhood more than it harms the lives of tangible Palestinian employees?”
It is this view that makes me wonder whether Scarlett Johansson’s relationship with SodaStream is truly “incompatible” with her role as Oxfam ambassador. For the past eight years, she has demonstrated deep humanitarian concern by joining Oxfam at disaster relief sites in India, refugee camps in Africa, and advocating for food justice “from Kentucky to Kenya.”
Perhaps instead of shaming her, Omar Barghouti and Oxfam would do well to thank the Jewish Johansson for drawing attention to their cause.