The Scarlett Johansson kerfuffle is the most interesting episode so far in the ongoing battle between the Israel-can-do-no-wrong crowd and their worthy opponents in the Israel-can-do-no-right camp. As they sling charges and counter charges online over the actress’s work for an Israeli company with a factory in the occupied territories, their nasty, gratuitous profanity and hyperbole illustrate just how richly these two groups deserve one another.
But that’s par for the course, and few non-activists are listening. What made this latest clash something special is that neither Johansson nor the CEO of the company, SodaStream, did what might have been expected.
First, given the trendy Leftism of most red carpet-level entertainers, Johansson could have been expected to fold. She already has fame and fortune to burn, and being a global ambassador for Oxfam, an NGO with a saintly glow, was nothing to throw away lightly. Instead of backing away though, she stood her ground.
Describing herself, in a prepared statement, as “a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine,” she praised SodaStream as “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.”
And then, she fired back: “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 stand behind the SodaStream product and am proud of the work that I have accomplished at Oxfam as an ambassador for over eight years.”
Then Johansson put icing on the cake, showing an awareness of politics and political timing that super-sultry blond actresses either seldom have, or seldom reveal. She resigned from the Oxfam position before Oxfam could dump her, which it surely would have done after it finished huffing and puffing.
SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum, who took charged of the company after it committed to the West Bank factory, also behaved in an unexpected way. “I don’t like the settlements,” Birnbaum told NPR, which also reported that he has spoken out in the past against discrimination against Palestinians.
He told The New York Times he would not have chosen a site in the occupied territories, and added: “I could leave here tomorrow. For me it would be easier, but what about the employees?”
About 500 Palestinians work in the factory, which is located in an industrial zone that is part of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement. They have health insurance, social benefits and salaries above the Israeli minimum wage, and more than three times the going rate in the West Bank, according to multiple news reports that cite Palestinian workers as well as company management confirming those details.
A couple of Friday evenings ago, an Israeli friend, a centrist’s centrist, was at dinner with us when the discussion turned to the boycott movement. As is often the case, the Israeli view of matters was not the same as the North American.
“Why shouldn’t I refuse to buy wine from West Bank settlements, when I oppose those settlements’ existence?” an American asked.
“No, that would be the wrong thing to do,” my friend Yossi said. “If you’re going to boycott to oppose the settlements, you should boycott all Israeli goods. I wouldn’t do this,” he added, “but the settlements are there because of government policy.”
I wouldn’t boycott either, and the SodaStream flap has helped me better understand why. There was always the don’t-single-Israel-out reason, of course. If you’re going to boycott for human rights reasons, at least China, Russia and virtually all the Arab states should be boycotted, too.
But there’s another very good reason. Johansson and Birnbaum said it better than I could, and they put the pro- and anti-Israel screamers alike to shame. If my wife lets me, I may just go out and buy a SodaStream.
Meanwhile, far from ruining SodaStream’s advertising plans for the Super Bowl broadcast, the screaming ensured the company a great success: YouTube versions of Johansson’s Super Sunday commercial had millions of hits by midday last Friday, and the number was growing by the hour.