When celebrities get drawn into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, wittingly or not, controversy is sure to follow.
American actress Scarlett Johansson is the latest to discover this ironclad law of Middle East politics. And the issue is soda.
Johansson has for the past eight years been the celebrity representative for Oxfam International, the global aid organization.
And she recently became the spokeswoman for SodaStream, manufacturer of the machines that allow you to make your own fizzy beverages at home. As many as 500,000 of the machines a month are made in a factory in the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, which is in the occupied West Bank, just a bit to the east of Jerusalem.
The Palestinians overwhelmingly oppose the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as does Oxfam, and they are not recognized as legal by any other country. There’s even criticism of the settlements from places you might not expect.
“I don’t like the settlements,” says Daniel Birnbaum, CEO of SodaStream, who has who has spoken out against discrimination toward Palestinian workers in the past.
But he doesn’t want to close his factory either. The factory in the Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone employs Israelis, as well as 500 Palestinian workers, and the company estimates that many more people would be harmed economically if those workers lost their jobs.
“I don’t want to send 5,000 people into hunger because some activist group thinks that’s going to promote peace. I just don’t see how that’s going to serve any good purpose,” he says.
Johansson stepped in the middle of all this when she signed on as a spokeswoman for SodaStream.
“Like most actors, my real job is to change the world. Start with plain water, add bubbles …” Johansson says in the SodaStream ad that’s been scheduled to run during the Super Bowl on Sunday.
As criticism mounted, she released a statement late last week calling SodaStream a “a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights.”
So is it?
In the factory, workers on 12-hour shifts make about seven dollars an hour, a hair above Israel’s minimum wage and three times higher than the average Palestinian wage.
We didn’t want to quiz employees under the boss’s eye. But in a minimart in the nearby Palestinian town of Eizariyah, a SodaStream employee who had worked at the company for three years showed us his ID. But he didn’t want his name used.
“It’s an excellent place to work,” he said. “It provides a good salary and they treat us very well. At SodaStream, they do not discriminate between Arabs, Jews or any ethnic group.”
The worker has a degree in political science and psychology, but he says there’s no work in those fields in the West Bank.
As we wrap up, another man wants to talk. He works for the Palestinian Authority and hates the Israeli homes and factories in the West Bank.
“Having Israeli factories on Palestinian land helps the Israeli economy and consolidates the settler presence on our land,” says the man, who gave only his first name, Mohammad. “When they provide work for the Palestinians, it’s a way of beautifying the image of the occupation.”
It seems everyone in the area knows someone who works at SodaStream. While it’s seen as a good job, college senior Fadi Abu Nemeh says after Israel built its separation barrier in and around the West Bank, people here have few real choices.
“A lot of people had their jobs in Jerusalem, in Arab companies and Arab businesses,” he said. “After the wall [was built], they lost their jobs. So they had to work in places like SodaStream.”
Johannson says she will keep promoting the company. Oxfam will keep opposing made-in-settlements products.
Hubert Murray, the grandson of an Oxfam founder, says the aid group should have let Johannson go before she resigned.
“This is a very subtle and complex ethical issue,” he says. “That’s why it’s so important for organizations like Oxfam to have very clear adherence to principle, and not shilly-shally and prevaricate.”
The politics of the Middle East is not the only controversy surrounding Johannson and SodaStream.
In the last line of her commercial, she gushes over the drink she’s made with SodaStream and purrs, “Sorry, Coke and Pepsi.”
Last year, CBS was televising the Super Bowl and banned a different SodaStream ad because it was deemed too offensive to the rival beverage makers. Fox, which is televising the game this year, said it would do the same because of Johannson’s last line.
But Birnbaum, the head of SodaStream, said the line will be cut from this year’s ad so it can air. The uncut version has already received more than 1 million clicks on YouTube.