Whether Jewish-American actress Scarlett Johansson wanted to or not she has become Israel's most famous advocate when she signed as the spokesperson, "global brand ambassador" for SodaStream International Ltd., and their carbonated soda machines. Although Johansson declared; "While I never intended on being the face of any social or political movement, distinction, separation or stance as part of my affiliation with SodaStream," she has brought the spotlight on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement and their attacks on Israel as no other recent incidence has. On Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 Johansson, 29 has made a definite position against the BDS movement with her non-political intentions, when she announced that she resigned from her position as an Oxfam ambassador after the organization was pressuring the actress to choose between which organizations to an ambassador for.
Part of Johansson's deal with SodaStream involves a commercial set to air during the Super Bowl this Sunday, Feb. 2 on Fox. It is the first time an Israeli company has been able to land such a plumb advertising space during the most watched television event worldwide of the year. Besides the issue relating to the BDS movement, Fox gave the company some heat for using their commercial to insult the Super Bowl sponsors Pepsi and Coke with their ending line "Sorry, Coke and Pepsi." The network was ready to pull the ad, but SodaStream instead decided to cut the line in question and the ad will now air. SodaStream posted the unedited ad on YouTube on Wednesday and it has since gone viral.
After the pressure from the BDS movement and Oxfam on Wednesday, Jan. 29 a spokesperson for the actress issued a statement about her resignation; "Scarlett Johansson has respectfully decided to end her ambassador role with Oxfam after eight years. She and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. She is very proud of her accomplishments and fundraising efforts during her tenure with Oxfam."
The organization responded by accepting the actress' resignation, however, they used the opportunity to justify their position on Israel, and opposition to the West Bank settlements; "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. 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. Ms. Johansson has worked with Oxfam since 2005 and in 2007 became a Global Ambassador, helping to highlight the impact of natural disasters and raise funds to save lives and fight poverty."
In the days leading up to Johansson's resignation the Pro-Palestinian BDS movement's "national committee" had been pressuring Oxfam to drop Johansson from her ambassadorship role, called on them to "immediately sever ties with Hollywood actor Scarlett Johansson over her vocal support for illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory."
The movement's committee cited; "Johansson's defense of her public relations role with occupation profiteer SodaStream undermines Oxfam's stated opposition to economic relations with illegal Israeli settlements. Oxfam cannot credibly oppose illegal Israeli settlements in the OPT (Occupied Palestinian Territories), describing them as a root cause for poverty among Palestinians, while maintaining as an ambassador somebody who has deemed it appropriate to describe the establishment of an Israeli settlement factory on land from which Palestinians have been ethnically cleansed as a form of 'economic cooperation.'"
Last Friday, Jan. 24, Johansson took to her Huffington Post blog to address the complaints and pressure for her to step down from her new position. She wrote; "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 concluded; "I believe in conscious consumerism and transparency and I trust that the consumer will make their own educated choice that is right for them." Oxfam responded that it is "now considering the implications of her new statement and what it means for Ms. Johansson's role as an Oxfam global ambassador."
Prior to Johansson's statement on Thursday, Jan. 23 Oxfam decided to write at the bottom of Johansson's profile on their website a disclaimer that stated; "Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors. However, Oxfam believes that businesses 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. We have made our concerns known to Ms. Johansson and we are now engaged in a dialogue on these important issues." Oxfam, the poverty fighting organization opposes the settlements and Israel's control of the territory, partially because they say it contributes to Palestinian poverty, however, officially the organization does not support the BDS movement.
Johansson used her Huffington Post blog post to directly comment on Oxfam's criticism, saying; "As part of my efforts as an Ambassador for Oxfam, I have witnessed first-hand that progress is made when communities join together and work alongside one another and feel proud of the outcome of that work in the quality of their product and work environment, in the pay they bring home to their families and in the benefits they equally receive."
In the middle of January SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum and the company announced that Scarlett Johansson signed on to be the company's first "global brand ambassador." Immediately after the BDS movement began their pressure and bullying on Johansson to drop her new role. According to the Times of Israel BDS began "plastering the Twittersphere with blood-soaked ads bestowing upon Scarlett an 'A for Apartheid.'" When she would not drop her new position with the Israeli company, the movement instead pressured Oxfam to drop Johansson for her association with SodaStream.
Johansson explaining in the video about making her upcoming ad that the real reason she wanted to represent them was her use of the ecologically friendly product; "I think it was a natural partnership. I've been using Sodastream for five or six years and it's a product I found on my own. I like carbonated water but I hated the waste of bottles. My favorite thing about Sodastream is that I don't feel guilty when I enjoy beverages."
SodaStream has been facing the wrath of the BDS movement regularly, saying they create "blood bubbles," because their factory is located Ma'ale Adumim, a suburb of Jerusalem located just 8 miles from the city, but placing itself within the West Bank. The company employs both Israeli and Palestinians at their plant and paying them both equal pay for the same work and positions. Still the mere fact that their plant is located in that area has made them a target. The BDS movement's tactics only increased, since SodaStream was allotted an ad space during the Super-bowl. However, only now have the company's daily battles been highlighted in the press because of the A-list actress now being the face and voice for the company.
Since 2005 Israel has been fighting off the pro-Palestinian boycott movement that mostly attacks Israeli academic, cultural and business institutions. The movement objects to Israel's control of lands won in the 1967 Six-Days War, the Jewish settlements and businesses operating within the settlements, and continued construction. It demands Israel give the lands beyond the country's original 1949 borders to the Palestinians, allow for the right to return and grant all Palestinian-Arabs equal rights, essentially destructing Israel as the world's only Jewish state.
The movement also equates Israel's policies to apartheid, likening it with the South-African apartheid movement, with the intention of questioning Israel's legitimacy and isolating it on the world's stage. According to the international community the settlements located beyond the 1967 borders or "red lines" as they are called are deemed illegal based on international law.
However, the boycott has targeted more than just the settlements; it has been attacking Israel in general. Just last week, on Jan. 20 the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visiting Israel and addressing the Knesset condemned the boycott movement as the new anti-Semitism. Harper pronounced; "And so we have witnessed, in recent years, the mutation of the old disease of anti-Semitism and the emergence of a new strain…. As once Jewish businesses were boycotted, some civil-society leaders today call for a boycott of Israel. On some campuses, intellectualized arguments against Israeli policies thinly mask the underlying realities, such as the shunning of Israeli academics and the harassment of Jewish students."
This is the second time in less than a month that the BDS movement has gotten international attention. On Dec. 17, 2013 the American Studies Association voted at their annual meeting in favor of boycotting Israeli universities. Passing with a vote of only over 800 of their 5000 members, they resolved that "The American Studies Association (ASA) endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It is also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement."
Their vote resulted in a backlash among the North American academic community and universities that have institutional memberships in association. A number of universities withdrew their ASA memberships, including; "Bard College, Brandeis University, Indiana University, Kenyon College and Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg," and over a 100 universities and their president's condemned the boycott. The Association of American Universities stated in a letter that "any such boycott of academic institutions directly violates academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle of AAU universities and of American higher education in general."
The opposition extended to the U.S. Congress, where dozens of lawmakers signed a letter in mid-January expressing their opposition to the boycott. The letter read; "while ASA has every right to express its views on policies pursued by any nation or government, we believe that the decision to blacklist Israeli academic institutions for Israeli government policies with which ASA disagrees demonstrates a blatant disregard for academic freedom."
The opposition to the ASA's boycott was enough to scare the Modern Language Association at their annual meeting in mid-January not to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but still enough that they passed a vote in favor of an anti-Israel resolution.
The state legislature in New York has made it a law not to publically fund educational institutions that boycott Israel. On Wednesday, Jan.29 the New York Senate passed the bill 51-4. Its authors Senator Jeffrey D. Klein and Assemblyman Dov Hikind stated; "Make no mistake: the ASA's boycott is targeted discrimination against Israel that betrays the values of academic freedom that we hold dear… No other nation - even those with far worse records on human rights and academic freedom than what the ASA has accused Israel of - is subject to a similar boycott by the ASA."
Those opposed to ASA's actions claimed that the association by boycotting Israeli universities was stifling academic freedom. The universities' objecting said there was no place for the movement in academia, but one of the places it is experienced the most is the university campus.
While in business and politics Israel is continually pressed by the European Union (EU), the United Nations because of the settlements and threatened with economic restrictions and sanctions, the increase in boycotts is causing government concern with Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu calling a special cabinet meeting to specifically deal with the boycotts. At this moment Israel's faces a boycott and divestment in Israeli banks from the Dutch financial firm PGGM.
Just recently Lars Faaborg-Anderson, the EU's Ambassador to Israel in an interview with Israel's Channel 2 news declared; "if the settlement business continues to expand, Israel will be facing increasing isolation." Israel remained engaged in a fight with the European Union for six months for them to drop their plan to label Israeli made products that are specifically made in factories located in areas beyond the 1967 borders, until the EU decided to drop the plan. Businesses operating within the West Bank settlements face the most criticism and are the main subjects of the boycott movement.
Throughout the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians United States Secretary of State John Kerry has been pressuring Israel and its leadership Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that the economic boycott will only increase globally if this round of peace talks fail to lead to a deal. The EU's Israel Ambassador collaborated that "Naturally" and "logically…
the blame will be put squarely on Israel's doorstep."
This time with an instantly internationally recognizable face and well liked and award winning American actress at the center of the boycott calls, the story and struggle Israel deals with from the BDS movement has been given an unprecedented platform and exposure. Hopefully the combination of the backlash from the American Studies Association boycott and the bullying of Scarlett Johansson over her decision to work as a spokesperson for an Israeli company will help and show the BDS movement that they are pushing too far in isolating Israel and Israeli institutions that they might think twice before they make their next major campaign.
- "Clearing the Air," Scarlett Johansson, Jan. 24, 2014
- "Sorry, Coke and Pepsi. (Uncensored)" - YouTube, SodaStream
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.