Blood bubbles is the new blood libel.
That’s the going description of the fizzy liquid produced by SodaStream International, a company that manufactures a home carbonation device in the occupied West Bank and whose creators are Israeli.
Earlier this month, The New York Times announced that actress Scarlett Johansson would become the company’s first-ever brand ambassador and “bring some heat” to a Super Bowl ad for the company as part of a multiyear, worldwide endorsement deal; they weren’t kidding. Fox has since pulled the ad, allegedly for offending competitors (again), but not before a whole imbroglio ignited around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Before Scarlett could make a sparkling spritzer, critics went in for the buzz-kill.
“Guilt-Free Seltzer or Blood Bubbles?” asked a cheeky New York Magazine headline. The article’s author limned a lengthy piece about the politicized potation, recalling a holiday party at which one of her guests used a SodaStream device to make a vodka tonic. “Enjoy your Palestinian blood cocktails,” another partygoer admonished.
It is a sign of how utterly hopeless an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord seems when a commonplace kitchen device becomes a flashpoint in a geopolitical impasse. Since when is club soda as corrosive as yellow cake?
Let us, for a moment, admire the alliterative allure of blood bubbles, and what a marvelous misnomer they are. Hardly a company that depends on the blood of Palestinians, SodaStream is actually responsibly employing many of them. And its CEO, Daniel Birnbaum, is an outspoken critic of Israeli policy regarding occupation.
Last year, when SodaStream was awarded the Outstanding Exporter Award at the residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres, Birnbaum brought Palestinian employees to the reception. When an advance inquiry confirmed his fear that his workers would have to undergo embarrassing security checks “down to their underwear,” he insisted Israeli security give him the same treatment. When the government failed to comply, Birnbaum used his award acceptance speech to publicly rebuke the process, describing in full detail what his workers had gone through. “I must tell you, Mr. President, about something that raised a question for me,” he said, according to a report in Al-Monitor, “a question that I consider far more important than industry or exports. The question, which I am asking here today, is how we relate to each other as human beings.”
Not that Birnbaum is entirely altruistic. SodaStream has reportedly profited from Israeli occupation by receiving tax breaks to develop its manufacturing plant in Mishor Adumim, located near a large settlement block in the West Bank just12 miles from Jerusalem. (The company has two more plants in Israel proper — one in Ashkelon, which was subject to rocket attacks from Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and another in Alon Tabor, in the Galilee.)
Birnbaum is keenly aware of his controversial position. “Some retailers have protested that we should label our products as ‘Made in Palestine,’ ” he told Al-Monitor, although he insisted that the company’s factories are “apolitical.” “We don’t take sides in this conflict,” he said.
But SodaStream’s choice to locate in the West Bank is a complicated matter. The company is said to employ some 900 Arabs; half of them Palestinians living in the West Bank and the other half Arab-Israelis living in East Jerusalem. It also employs 200 Israeli Jews, as well as oft-marginalized African refugees. In what sounds like the Holy Land’s version of a Google campus, the plant has an on-site mosque, a synagogue and a “Harry Potter”-style dining hall where everyone eats together (though it is fair to assume that between the dietary restrictions of kashrut, halal and some Israelis’ appetite for treif, almost no one actually eats the same things). Birnbaum has also said that the company purchased private Israeli health insurance for its Palestinian employees, because he “wasn’t confident” that the Palestinian Authority would use the medical subsidies as intended.
The company’s good intentions have not softened censure of its sultry spokesmodel: The pressure cooker created by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement seemed harsh enough, but, in addition, the Jewish Daily Forward saw fit to warn Johansson that “ ‘normalizing’ the Israeli occupation is a bad use of her celebrity.”
The protest raises some fair questions about the responsibility celebrity endorsers have when choosing to align themselves with various industries and products. Despite Internet uproar and pressure from the international development organization Oxfam, for whom Johansson is an ambassador, the stubborn Jewish star is sticking with SodaStream.
“I never intended on being the face of any social or political movement,” she said in a statement Jan. 24. “I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine. ... I have witnessed firsthand that progress is made when communities join together and work alongside one another.”
Celebrities rarely defy popular opinion for fear of compromising their image. For a star like Johansson, who told Harper’s Bazaar last fall that she is open to a future political career and, according to The New Yorker, has campaigned for Democratic presidential candidates in the last three elections, there is even more at stake. Johansson’s desire to use her fame responsibly has led some to wonder whether her shidduch with SodaStream was a serious mistake.
So far, Johansson has been anything but predictable. Her refusal to acquiesce to international opprobrium has cast the actress as a courageous leader. Before her public statement, The New Yorker suggested she was not prepared for the role of company ambassador because she has no diplomatic experience, noting instead that she “has spent her career in ball gowns and lace, Vermeeresque pearls, and cat suits.” But the magazine underestimated what was to come: The actress known for her beauty and brains would also prove brave.