TPM Cafe: Opinion

Yes, Scarlett Johansson's Defense Of SodaStream Is Problematic

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Johansson herself has been on message. “I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine,” she (or her PR firm) wrote in a press release. “SodaStream is a company…supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights.”

Ms. Johansson has obviously concluded that Israelis and Palestinians will split the land someday and that, meanwhile, hey, let’s promote a company that gives Arabs jobs. But the position she endorses, I mean, “endorses,” distorts the meaning of cooperation more or less completely.

To build toward neighborly relations with Palestine, Israeli businesspeople need to partner with Palestinian businesses, not simply give jobs to otherwise desperate Palestinian laborers. They need to help get the Israeli military out of the faces of Palestinian entrepreneurs. By Birnbaum’s criteria, the Israeli contractors who built Maale Adumim and the benighted Palestinian construction workers they hired to build the town were “cooperating.” (Channel One’s filming of Arab workers in Birnbaum’s plant — standing next to their boss, pleading to the camera that their jobs, any jobs, are essential — was a nice touch. How many of them had the “equal right” to walk into a Jerusalem bank and open an account, let alone borrow the money to open a business to deliver SodaStream products to Israeli stores?)

Birnbaum is right to emphasize what Secretary John Kerry has and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not denied: the importance of building Palestine’s economic infrastructure in advance of peace — that much can be done in advance of peace which will further peace — and that Palestinian economic progress is inconceivable without the reciprocity of Israeli businesses and inflows of Israeli intellectual capital. Palestinian entrepreneurs imagine critical industrial sectors in the early development of their state — construction, food processing, retail, tourism, medical services, renewable energy, network technology, software solutions, etc. — and are thankful their projected state is nested between Tel Aviv and Amman rather than, say, Cairo and Benghazi.

The median age in the Palestinian territories is about 19 years old; about a quarter the workforce is unemployed. The Palestinian economy will have to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the years ahead, especially if the state is launched and a million refugees start pouring back from Lebanon and Syria. Israel and Palestine together are really interlocking city-states, sharing a single urban infrastructure and business ecosystem. Separation will be impossible and inhumane.

None of this means that SodaStream’s jobs represent economic “cooperation.” On the contrary, the location of SodaStream’s plant represents, if anything, the various ways the occupation has put extraordinary obstacles in the path of Palestinian entrepreneurs—in order to secure huge settlement projects like Maale Adumim:

Try to set up the logistics network of a supermarket or drugstore chain when you encounter dozens of checkpoints and inspections in “Area C” between Palestinian cities. Try to recruit talent from abroad when you can’t get residency permits for them or even travel to Jerusalem without a permit. If you are based in Ramallah, try marketing to customers from the Gulf moving through, or inviting them through, Amman’s airport, a half day drive away.

Try to import components, chemicals or raw materials through Israeli ports when these can be banned for vague “security reasons.” Try setting up a crucial 3-G network when Israel has hogged the bandwidth for military purposes and settlements house Israeli telecom towers. If you are working at Al-Quds University, try getting to Jerusalem’s Augusta Victoria hospital — which should be a five minute drive — in less than an hour when you have to travel around the security wall erected to protect, oh, Maale Adumim.

I laid out the problems of trying to build businesses under occupation in Harper’s back in 2009. If anything, those problems for Palestinian entrepreneurs have gotten worse since then, because consumer demand has been depressed by cuts in donor aid — something Kerry is promising to reverse. Palestinian banks now have about $7 billion in bank deposits; as in 2009, however, the banks lend perhaps half the money on deposit because entrepreneurs cannot show them investible business plans. If Birnbaum were serious about helping the Palestinian economy he would do what the Veritas Venture Fund managing partner, Yadin Kaufman has done, work with a Palestinian partner—in Kaufman’s case, Saed Nashef—and set up venture fund to help launch Palestinian businesses in his area of expertise.

Let me be clear. I am not advocating for disinvestment from global companies doing business with Israel, nor am I suggesting that globals should refrain from doing business with Israeli companies. I am not arguing for boycotting Israeli universities or hospitals. On the contrary, such actions isolate and undermine the very people in Israel who are our firmest constituency for peace: the international business community, including Birnbaum, ironically, who are pressing the Netanyahu government to pursue the two-state solution. I argued in The Hebrew Republic that Israel’s most reliable peace constituency would be Israeli business community, spooked by the fear of global isolation. This is now coming to pass: the forces of global Israel are finally confronting those of greater Israel.

But boycotting companies operating in the settlements is not the same as boycotting “Israel.” Many Israelis, myself included, refuse to buy wines, eggs, beauty creams — and fizzy-water makers — produced in the settlements. The least we can do is demonstrate against these ersatz, destructive communities by refusing to let them profit from our purchases the same way they’ve profited from the cheap land and tax breaks that drew them there in the first place. This is not personal, Mr. Birnbaum. It’s business. Ms. Johansson has meanwhile made a rash decision.

Bernard Avishai is Visiting Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and Adjunct Professor of Business at Hebrew University. He is the author of The Tragedy of Zionism, The Hebrew Republic, and, most recently, Promiscuous: Portnoy’s Complaint and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness. He writes frequently for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Nation, and other publications. He blogs at bernardavishai.com. On Twitter: @bavishai.

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