Actor Scarlett Johansson has been facing pressure from some pro-Palestinian activists after announcing earlier this month that she was becoming the first brand ambassador for the Israeli carbonated beverage kit maker SodaStream. She’s planning to star in a Super Bowl ad for the company which has characterized itself as an alternative to Coke and Pepsi.
“The company’s commitment to a healthier body and a healthier planet is a perfect fit for me,” Johansson said in mid-January. “I love that the product can be tailored to any lifestyle and palate.”
SodaStream has been a prominent target of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign – including CODEPINK – against Israel, because it operates a factory a fifteen minute drive from Jerusalem in the West Bank, territory that the Palestinians claim as theirs.
On Thursday, the aid organization Oxfam – for which Johansson has traveled around the world as an ambassador for eight years – suggested on the Johansson profile on its website that it is now reconsidering the actor’s role in light of her choice to support SodaStream. “Oxfam believes that businesses that operate in [West Bank] settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.”
Johansson issued a statement on Friday evening to the Huffington Post saying she stands by her decision to represent SodaStream.
“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, given the amount of noise surrounding that decision, I’d like to clear the air,” she said.
“I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine,” Johansson wrote. “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.”
“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,” Johansson wrote.
“I believe in conscious consumerism and transparency and I trust that the consumer will make their own educated choice that is right for them. I stand behind the SodaStream product and am proud of the work that I have accomplished at Oxfam as an Ambassador for over 8 years,” she added.
A visit to SodaStream’s factory in the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim last year by a Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reporter appeared to support Johansson’s analysis that the plant’s 900 Palestinian workers are treated well.
Should boycott-Israel activists succeed in getting SodaStream to close its West Bank factory, hundreds of Palestinian jobs could be lost. Al Arabiya, a Middle East news site, wrote that the boycott call “may affect Palestinian workers.”
A Palestinian employee identified as Rasim told JTA, “Everyone works together: Palestinians, Russians, Jews…Everyone works together, so of course we’re friends.”
SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum explained his commitment to Arab-Jewish equality in a 2012 PR video, saying, “We give them [Palestinians] an opportunity to not only have a job and health insurance, but also social benefits and a very high pay scale which they could never achieve in the West Bank.”
According to the video, SodaStream’s Palestinian employees earn a salary “often four or five times what they’d earn elsewhere.” One Palestinian employee said he purchased a house using the salary he had earned over the course of only one year.
The company’s production manager for products, who oversees 400 workers, Mohammed Baroum, is himself a Palestinian Arab, who said in the video that he and other Muslim employees are able to pray five times a day in the factory’s mosque.
“The easiest thing for me to do would be to shut down this facility,” CEO Birnbaum said. “There are so many untrue, misinformed, manipulative claims against SodaStream as if we’re benefiting from being in this location, and they are so untrue.”
Birnbaum explained that Ma’ale Adumim is far from the ports along the Mediterranean coast, far from suppliers, and in a remote area to which trained engineers have to commute.
The Daily Beast characterized the Johansson controversy as “puny,” “based on four tweets” posted on Al Jazeera’s blog.
“What if you try to create a celebrity scandal and no one listens?” the Daily Beast quipped.
Here is a behind-the-scenes look at Johansson’s SodaStream Super Bowl commercial: