Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Scarlett Johansson and a West Bank Settlement

BDS movement parodies publicity shot for Johansson ad.
I consider myself a fan of Scarlett Johansson and was tickled when she remarked in an interview that
she feels a special connection with Woody Allen (whom she worked with on three films) because they are both "New York Jews." What's the problem with this popular actress teaming up with a successful, environmentally-friendly Israeli product? Answer: It's manufactured in a West Bank settlement.

A "Lede" blog article in the NY Times discusses the controversy surrounding Scarlett Johansson's upcoming Super Bowl TV commercial for SodaStream, an Israeli firm that Partners would like consumers to boycott, because it has a factory in the West Bank settlement town of Maale Adumim.  Oxfam, the international aid group which Johansson also promotes as a "global ambassador," is reevaluating its relationship with her as a result.  In the meantime, the international BDS movement is waging a social media campaign against Johansson's role with SodaStream.

In her statement to the Huffington Post, Ms. Johansson reveals a degree of thoughtfulness, or at least sensitivity, on this matter:
"I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine," the actress said. "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."
". . .  I am happy that light is being shed on this issue in hopes that a greater number of voices will contribute to the conversation of a peaceful two state solution in the near future."
A more recent Lede post reveals that Johansson's response did not persuade her critics.  For example, our former colleague, Mairav Zonszein, is quoted from her +972magazine piece as follows:
Calling Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank who work for SodaStream “neighbors” with “equal rights” is beyond naive – it is insulting. Palestinians live under military rule, are not eligible to vote for the authorities that determine their lives, are subject to military rather than civilian courts, and experience systematic discrimination in every aspect of life.
The argument that settlement companies like SodaStream are OK because they employ Palestinians holds no weight, since the political reality of occupation does not allow Palestinian workers to make a free and informed choice regarding their livelihoods.
As the earlier Times blog reports, SodaStream promotes itself as a socially-conscious company, and its product truly does an environmental service in cutting down on the use of plastic bottles.  Yet this article also details disturbingly conflicting reports on the working conditions for Palestinians at its West Bank plant:
[CEO Daniel] Birnbaum makes a different moral argument for the company in a glowing video report on its West Bank factory posted last year on the YouTube channel of Stand With Us, an Israel advocacy group based in Los Angeles. 
In that video, which paints the factory outside Jerusalem as a boon for hundreds of Palestinian workers, Mr. Birnbaum pointed to the mix of Arabs and Jews working side by side as a model of harmonious integration. “All these different people work together and learn to respect each other and celebrate each other’s holidays and families get to know each other,” he said. “At SodaStream we build bridges, not walls. It’s a fantastic sanctuary of coexistence and an example of peace in a region that is so troubled and so needs hope.” 
That view of the factory was challenged by an account of working conditions at the plant from an unnamed worker published last year by The Electronic Intifada, a website founded by the Palestinian-American activist Ali Abunimah. The Electronic Intifada’s source claimed that Palestinians working at the factory in the occupied territory did not benefit from labor laws applicable in Israel proper. “They treat us like slaves,” he said. “This has happened many times on the assembly line: When a worker is sick and wants to take sick leave, the supervisor will fire him on the second day. They will not even give him warning or send him to human resources, they will immediately fire him.” . . .
The Electronic Intifada's claim indicates a possible violation of the 2008 agreement between Israel's Histadrut trade union confederation and the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions, that since Israeli labor law applies within settlements, the Histadrut is obligated to assist Palestinian employees therein with legal representation. We don't know if Palestinian workers are aware of this resource or if the Histadrut is conscientious in performing this function.  

The Electronic Intifada's contention also conflicts with the view of labor relations at the plant conveyed by an article posted at The Jewish Daily Forward's website on Jan. 28:
. . .  though he wouldn’t have opened the factory at its current site, Birnbaum said that its presence here is now a reality, and he won’t bow to political pressure to close it — even though the company is about to open a huge new plant in the Negev, within Israel’s internationally-recognized boundaries, which will replicate all functions of the West Bank plant . . .
The reason for staying is loyalty to approximately 500 Palestinians who are among the plant’s 1,300 employees, Birnbaum claimed. While other employees could relocate on the other side of the Green Line if the plant moved, the West Bank Palestinian workers could not, and would suffer financially, he argued.
“We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda,” he said, adding that he “just can’t see how it would help the cause of the Palestinians if we fired them.” . . .
We can't tell if someone is being untruthful here, but we do know that SodaStream's CEO and the Electronic Intifada have opposite interests in how they represent the reality at the West Bank plant. We also know that Maale Adumim, a mere ten-minute drive from Jerusalem, is now a city of about 40,000. Yet its geography (it's not contiguous with Green Line Israel) undercuts Palestinian aspirations for a viable state.

Still, if the E-1 corridor of 4.6 square miles connecting Jerusalem with Maale Adumim is not built up and thickened with new settlements, its location is not necessarily a deal breaker for a peace agreement.  Ehud Olmert reportedly followed the Geneva Accord's lead in proposing, during his abortive negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, a tunnel under E-1 for Palestinian road traffic. Obviously, this is an awkward solution but one that could possibly work if the negotiating parties have the will to arrive at a two-state peace facilitated by an equitable exchange of territories.

As related in Partners' teleconference yesterday with Bernard Avishai (a scholar and journalist who has extensively researched the Abbas-Olmert negotiations, and thinks hard on how peace would work), the Palestinian negotiating stance is that either Maale Adumim or Ariel must go; the latter is a smaller city of about 20,000 Jewish settlers, existing within a thin salient that juts 12 miles into the West Bank.  If only this larger political dispute can be resolved, the placement of the SodaStream factory need not be problematic, but (as we know) this is an enormous "if."     

1 comment:

Judith T Hollander said...

Thanks Ralph, a very well balanced assessment.