02.02.14 SodaStream: The shame of Scarlett Johansson

For those who have been asleep the past week, this is about that popular at-home beverage maker SodaStream, which happens to be manufactured on land Israel stole from Palestinians. The Ma’ale Adumim settlement, described by The Jewish Daily Forward as “loathed by Israeli peace activists,” was taken from five Palestinian towns in the 1970s, as part of a “mass expropriation.” Foreign Policy describes it as “the settlement that broke the two-state solution” by making a contiguous state nearly impossible to achieve and cutting off Palestinian access to the Dead Sea and Jordan valley.

This is also about movie star Scarlett Johansson, who has represented the anti-hunger and pro- human rights organization Oxfam for eight years (six as “ambassador”), until this week. Johansson is to appear in a Super Bowl ad for SodaStream today, a paid gig that is part of her agreement to be a “brand ambassador” for the company. Well, it turns out that Oxfam considers the two ambassadorships to be incompatible:

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 is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.

So, Johansson has had to choose between global charitable work and cold, hard cash to add to her Hollywood-fueled fortune. Cash won out. We now know who Johansson is and can rest easy at night with the assurance that she’ll scrape enough together to send her kids to college or buy a yacht. What a relief.

I’m a seltzer addict. I have had two SodaStreams (one for at home and one for at work) for a couple of years now. I love the constant, convenient access to my favorite beverage at a fraction of grocery-store cost. I love even more that I am no longer buying and tossing (recycling, actually) hundreds of plastic bottles a year. Indeed, a major market for SodaStream is environmentalists like me.

Though my two soda machines are paid for, I have continued sending my dollars to the Israeli owners of the company every time I swap one of their proprietary CO2 canisters for a replacement. Since I learned of the product’s origin a couple of weeks ago, I have been searching for alternatives.

The landscape is bleak. Global Exchange has a post on alternatives, but they consist mostly of very expensive single-use carbonators, which will litter land just like the plastic bottles. A couple of fledgling competitors to SodaStream have gone out of business. I found sites for DIYers who want to make their own CO2 from dry ice or chemical reactions. (None of this sounds dangerous, just a giant pain in the ass.)

For those of us who already own a SodaStream, the only viable alternative seems to be to purchase CO2 canisters used for paintball, use an adapter to make them fit SodaStream, and then have them refilled at a paintball center, sporting goods store, or welding supply store. Some online research will show you where the closest ones are to you. It’s so much easier to exchange my SodaStream canisters at the hardware store around the corner, but I conclude it’s worth driving a few miles to one of these other sources in order to live my values.

Back the controversy. When I posted a call on neighborhood listservs for SodaStream alternatives, a neighbor posted a link to a Gawker article making the same claim as Johansson and SodaStream’s owners: that the factory is a place for Palestinian-Israel camaraderie and that the Palestinian workers are paid better and treated better than if they had no jobs or were employed by other Palestinians.

I‘m not the least surprised that Palestinian employees of SodaStream are supporting their employer, especially when they are quoted by name (as in the Gawker article). These individuals pay the family bills with the money they earn at the plant. By asking them what they think, we are demanding them to choose between their personal self-interest (which I do not blame them for!) and the larger struggle for justice.

It’s not only Gawker. An internet search on “palestinian views sodastream” reveals more articles and posts where Palestinians and others praise SodaStream as an employer and the economic benefits of working there. (That Fox News is one highly ranked source of this view in Google’s search results does not – by itself – discredit the argument, but it does give some perspective on who is lining up on which side.)

Contrary views come include those of Truth-Out (“Scarlett Johansson, There’s a line between Israel and Palestine and SodaStream is Over the Line”) and The Jewish Daily Forward (“Love Israel. Oppose BDS. Reject SodaStream”). A boycott of trade with settlements is also endorsed by Peace Now (the the Israeli peace movement).

This entire issue is fraught with moral ambiguity. How ought seltzer lovers weigh their environmental obligations against their humanitarian ones? How ought humanitarians weigh their concern for the well being of the families who depend on income from SodaStream against those who suffer under the Israel occupation?

I suggest we look for guidance from the moral greats. I ask myself, what would Gandhi, Mandela, and King say about trading with oppressors?

I examine the “neighborhoods” of each position. Do I feel more comfortable living next door to the self-interested arguments of SodaStream and Johansson or Oxfam’s ideals-based approach? As a US peace movement veteran, is my moral abode closer to Fox News or Peace Now?

It is not my right to make moral and ethical decisions for others. But, as a dedicated humanist, it is my duty to struggle with the issues and justify my conclusion. I am choosing to side against the horrific Israeli theft of and occupation of Palestinian lands, not to mention the daily humiliation and oppression the occupation metes out. I take this stand even while I acknowledge that individual Palestinians may indeed benefit from their oppressor’s presence.

Another listserv contributor has just weighed in, calling “picking on Israel” anti-Semitic. I am Jewish. I was raised without the religion, but with a deep-seated belief in the obligation of my oppressed people to oppose oppression everywhere. It was as Jews that my family  joined the front lines of the Civil Rights movement and marched on Washington to end the Vietnam War (my first visits to DC, when I was a kid).

There is a huge danger for Jews in  my-Israel-right-or-wrong mentality and the declaration that to criticize Israel is equivalent to hating Jews. Telling the world that Israel equals Jewish is to invite and incite the anti-Semitism. The bigots who hate Jews, people of color, homosexuals, and so many others are going to keep hating. They need no justification. But what about humanists the world over? Do Jews really want to make the argument that they can’t oppose Israel without hating all of us?

Moral thickets abound, rendering black-white arguments more gray. One fact is clear in the current imbroglio, however: Scarlett Johansson is a loathsome profiteer whose pretense of support for the downtrodden has been exposed as just that: a pretense. When push came to shove, she chose profit over humanity.

©2014 Keith Berner
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