Until this week, Scarlett Johansson was a spokesperson for two opposing groups: Sodastream, an Israeli company with a factory in a West Bank settlement; and Oxfam, a charity that fiercely opposes Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This week she was forced to choose. Johansson picked Sodastream, ending her eight-year association with Oxfam.
Johansson became the spokesperson for the seltzer making company earlier in January, as the linchpin of a new advertising push. She'll appear in a Super Bowl ad for the company this weekend. (You can see the "banned" version here.)
Sodastream is a very popular but controversial company. Its main factory is in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim (10 minutes from Jerusalem), on land claimed by the Palestinians, but occupied by Israel. Oxfam has long advocated against those same Israeli settlements, because they believe the program violates Palestinian rights, a position the U.N. Human Rights Council largely agreed with earlier this month. Naturally, they were quite upset that one of their most visible mouthpieces has seemingly abandoned one of their biggest causes.
But Johansson doesn't see it that way. "My favorite thing about Sodastream is that I don't feel guilty when I enjoy beverages." she says in a "behind the scenes" preview for one of her ads.
Neither side of the debate is making any attempt to downplay the role of the settlement question in the break-up. Johansson's spokesperson cited "a fundamental difference of opinion" between the actress and Oxfam over her endorsement of SodaStream, while Oxfam released a Thursday statement explaining why they're fine parting ways with their superstar "ambassador."
Ms. Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador. 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 isn't actually part of an international boycott movement protesting Israel's settlements — commonly referred to as the boycott divestment and sanctions movement — but B.D.S. activists were active in asking Oxfam to address Johansson's conflict of interest. The controversy also caught the attention of those who actively support Israel's settlements.
As Oxfam's statement indicates, the B.D.S. campaign against Johansson and Sodastream focused on the charge that her association with the company will normalize some of the worst parts of the Israeli settlement program for an international audience.
This is SodaStream's defense of their West Bank factory, and it's also Johansson's. Although SodaStream's CEO Daniel Birnbaum said recently that having a settlement factory is a "pain in the ass," he's also committed to keeping it for the sake of his Palestinian employees, even as the company builds another production company on land that clearly belongs to Israel, in Negev. Here's her statement, via the Guardian:
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. That is what is happening in their Ma'ale Adumim factory every working day."
The rebuttal to the argument that settlement factories benefit Palestinians notes that Israeli companies receive tax breaks and other financial incentives to move to the West Bank (and solidifying Israel's presence there.) SodaStream supporters point to the factory as a peaceful business endeavor — the company employs about 950 Palestinians and 350 Israeli Jews at the West Bank facility. But a recent Reuters trip to the facility found that the Palestinians who work there have mixed feelings on the SodaStream peace process. "There's a lot of racism here," one anonymous worker told the reporter. "Most of the managers are Israeli, and West Bank employees feel they can't ask for pay rises or more benefits because they can be fired and easily replaced."