Scarlett Johansson’s Decision to Back SodaStream Over Oxfam Puts Charity’s Anti-Israel Activism Into Spotlight (INTERVIEW)
Oxfam, founded in Oxford, England, in 1942, as the ‘Oxford Committee for Famine Relief,’ is now one of the world’s largest international charities, with an annual budget of more than a billion dollars to fight famine and poverty.
So when Scarlett Johansson, a Jewish actress who had been an Oxfam Global Ambassador for eight years — longer than many famously short-lived Hollywood marriages — was invited to become a celebrity spokeswoman for Israel’s SodaStream, she believed the company’s practices were compatible with Oxfam’s mission of fighting poverty that she had been helping to promote around the world.
“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,” Johansson said in a statement when the charity publicly questioned her decision to appear in SodaStream’s $4 million Super Bowl ad this Sunday.
“I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine,” Johansson asserted.
In fact, in one factory, SodaStream employs 900 people, about half of them Palestinian Arabs, in a Ma’ale Adumim facility that even includes an on-site mosque. But that factory is situated across the Green Line, east of Jerusalem, and is the reason why SodaStream has become a target for the BDS movement, which advocates “boycott, divestment and sanctions” to punish Israeli companies for operating in regions that could be part of a future Palestinian state, and somehow compel the State of Israel to unilaterally resolve the question of Palestinian nationalism.
When Johansson felt Oxfam was forcing her to choose sides, on Wednesday night, her spokesman issued a statement saying that she had “respectfully decided to end her ambassador role with Oxfam.” The reason given was that Johansson and “Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.”
Immediately, BDS supporters, as featured in an online article published by the Mondoweiss blog, declared that Johansson’s was “an unconvincing assertion since Oxfam has never taken a position on BDS.”
“The issue was not about BDS, but about the contradiction in being the ambassador for one organization that opposes illegal settlements (Oxfam), while being the ambassador for another organization that is based in and profits from an illegal settlement (SodaStream),” Mondoweiss reporter Phan Nguyen, “a Palestine solidarity activist based in New York,” wrote on Thursday.
Instructively, the exact same question arose five years ago when Oxfam had a public clash with another Global Ambassador who decided to accept a spokesperson role for an Israeli company.
In 2009, ‘Sex in the City’ actress Kristen Davis, who, while married to the Jewish character ‘Harry’ in the popular television sitcom, is not Jewish, accepted a job to promote Israel’s Ahava, which markets moisturizers and soaps made from mud from the Dead Sea that BDS supporters also consider off-limits because it borders what could be a future Palestinian state.
And, after a very similar war of press releases ensued between Oxfam spokesmen and the actress’s spokesmen, Davis was first reported to have been dropped by Oxfam, and then reported to have been dropped by Ahava. When the smoke finally cleared, Oxfam denied she was fired and issued a statement saying that Davis was still on board, while Ahava had decided “not to renew her contract.”
Anne Herzberg, the chief international legal adviser for NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based watchdog that follows non-governmental organizations, including Oxfam, to verify that they are truly working towards their stated missions, told The Algemeiner that she sympathized with celebrities being forced to choose.
“In the end, Kristin Davis also had to choose, and I can understand why [celebrities] would choose to walk. In a way, who needs it? Who wants to be harassed by these BDS bullies — that’s what I call them — because that’s what this is,” Herzberg said.
“These incidents pop up frequently with celebrities and though, overall the BDS movement has been a large failure, they do try magnify every incident to give the impression that they are having a huge impact, they’re not. By targeting a huge star, it’s a great way for them to get publicity, but most of the big celebrities — Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake — who’s coming to Israel this Summer — Madonna, Bob Dylan, Red Hot Chile Peppers — most of the big stars are still coming.”
“Now, a few singers from the UK, where the BDS movement really is strong, have cancelled, but there you have [former Pink Floyd bassist] Roger Waters who has been campaigning against Israel for years, and the more minor stars can get really afraid, which is indicative of the whole BDS campaign. Harass them, bully them, make threats to scare people — if you can only accomplish your goals through intimidation and using force to get people to cancel work in Israel, that’s just pretty pathetic.”
Herzberg, who was a litigation associate for New York law firms Winston & Strawn and Shearman & Sterling and did pro-bono work for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda before making Aliyah to move to Israel, said Oxfam’s relationship with the BDS movement was a more nuanced question, in part, because of the complexities of its international charter, with its 17 vocal Oxfam franchises, though its UK-headquarters has a long history of not being on Israel’s side. But Herzberg said the core of the question for Oxfam, about pursuing its goal to help alleviate poverty, seems to have been forgotten in the case of SodaStream and its Ma’ale Adumim factory.
“It’s a very telling situation and it shows the length the BDS movement will go to target this company that employees hundreds of Palestinians,” Herzberg said. “The anti-Israel campaign is so strong, that they’re more anti-Israel than pro-Palestine.”
“I’m not surprised about this from the BDS movement, which has become very extreme with their views. The fact that Oxfam would align themselves with that movement is highly disturbing and shocking.”
“Oxfam’s humanitarian mission is to improve the economic situation of Palestinians, so why they wouldn’t be in favor of employment for Palestinians is pretty surprising. If this organization wants to have a stronger reputation why would it align itself with these extreme activists who are so outside the mainstream?”
“I can understand it from Scarlett Johansson’s perspective, there are different ways to frame the conflict and people can disagree. But Oxfam not willing to stand up for her, and to not be associated with them [BDS] anymore, not willing to take a stand against the BDS movement, after their organization’s history, is surprising.”
Herzberg described a 2003 campaign by Oxfam’s Belgium branch that produced a poster showing an “Israeli orange” dripping with blood to promote an anti-Israel boycott. The caption read, “Israeli fruits have a bitter taste…reject the occupation of Palestine, don’t buy Israeli fruits and vegetables.” NGO Monitor objected to what it deemed its very anti-Semitic “blood libel” overtones.
At the time, NGO Monitor wrote, “Well-known Israeli brands and logos are declared as unfit for consumption. The message is blatantly political, and thus in clear contradiction of Oxfam’s mission statement. NGO Monitor consistently attempted to question Oxfam Belgium – via telephone and email – regarding their purpose in conveying the message against Israel. Oxfam Belgium refused to respond.” In the end, Oxfam withdrew the campaign.
“Oxfam goes back and forth on how it’s part of BDS campaigns, and it changed some when the Belgian Oxfam got a lot of criticism for what was a very anti-Semitic poster,” she said.
“Oxfam in Britain has tried to reach out to the Jewish community, but many people there were wary of partnering with them. The thought was that perhaps they were becoming a bit more moderate, that they had moderated as the organization grew, which is why they didn’t immediately end their association with [Scarlett Johansson], but, at the same time, they were not willing to stand up the BDS movement to keep her.”
“It does reflect that there is a split between those that are more radical and people who are more moderate and more pragmatic within the international organization,” Herzberg said, echoing a report by Electronic Intifada, a pro-BDS online magazine, that described the rivalry between UK-headquarters and Oxfam America, which was seen by one anonymous insider source as “stamping on anything seen to be critical of Israel.”
Herzberg asks, “Is Oxfam pro-peace, pro-Palestinian development? How can there be an end to the conflict with so many extreme positions?”
“And here you have a company trying to bring people together. Either you want to take steps to end conflict or be on the other side, which is taking steps to be more divisive,” she said.
Another example of Oxfam seemingly working against its mission of helping alleviate poverty was its protest against the Israeli olive harvest, in 2010.
“Rather than making constructive suggestions about how Israel and the international community could facilitate olive harvest to develop industry, instead Oxfam issued a report that was simple demonizing of Israel, blaming the whole conflict on Israel, which doesn’t do a thing to further peace or to end the conflict.”
NGO Monitor, which has followed the evolution of the BDS movement and anti-Israel campaigns closely, traces much of the current furor to the “Trading Away Peace” report from mid-2012, which, pointedly, Oxfam did not join.
“About a year and a half ago, 22 humanitarian and church NGOs came out with settlement boycott, and Oxfam did not join in,” Herzberg said, with the understanding that the organization’s rival factions were trying to be more moderate. The “Trading Away Peace” report “became the basis for the EU directive on settlement guidelines, all of it stemming from this report, which was generated by anti-Israel activists,” Herzberg said.
If not actually signing on to the boycott campaign, Oxfam, according to its own WikiPedia page, “has called for Israel to lift the blockade of the Gaza Strip, and believes that products made in Israel but over the 1949 armistice lines should be labelled as such.”
In January 2013, Oxfam UK agreed specifically “not to call for a boycott of Israeli goods or to support groups that do so, and will not partner with organizations that advocate violence or oppose a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” as reported by the Times of Israel, when Oxfam partnered with the British Jewish Community’s Board of Deputies in a project called Grow-Tatzmiach, sending 25 people to an activist training program to help fight global hunger.
But, Herzberg, again came back to Oxfam’s intent, asking if it wants to pursue its mission, to fight poverty, or does it want to stand on the side of the BDS movement, whose purpose in supporting sanctions is to force companies to close shops that hire Palestinian Arabs.
In one “win” for the BDS campaign, Herzberg described a meeting with a senior executive of an Israeli pretzel company called Bagel Bagel that was owned by Dutch multinational Unilever and relocated its factory in Ariel’s Barcan Industrial Area, over the Green Line, to open another facility in Galil, on the other side.
“He had to tell 150 weeping men that they were about to lose their jobs, in fact that they had lost their jobs, because they were shutting the factory down,” Herzberg said. “Because of a BDS campaign, 150 Palestinian families lost their livelihood. How is that a victory?”
To return to the question of Scarlett Johannson’s decision to break-up with Oxfam, Herzberg said she can understand why some people think “it’s so great.”
“She took a very principled stand — and I can understand why other celebrities don’t, and it might be because she is more famous than the others — but, she said, you know what, this is crazy, BDS people, you’re crazy, and Oxfam, if that’s who you want to sign on with, fine.”
Whether Oxfam formally sanctions the movement or not, by not distancing themselves from the BDS movement and sticking up for her and the eight years she worked for them, because of SodaStream, a company that’s creating real jobs for real families, “she just said, I’m through with you.”