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February 10, 2014 1:00 am

The Bravery of Scarlett Johansson

avatar by David Bergstein

Scarlett Johansson filming her first SodaStream commercial. Photo: SodaStream.

Scarlett Johansson filming her first SodaStream commercial. Photo: SodaStream.

Scarlett Johansson, one of the most famous actresses in the world, stood up for her convictions recently and refused to capitulate to pressure from Oxfam, a charitable human rights organization for which she served as global ambassador for eight years.

Johansson is currently a global brand ambassador for SodaStream, an Israeli company with a factory in the settlement of Maale Adumim in the West Bank. SodaStream ensures that Arab and Palestinian employees of the factory – more than 900 of them – receive the same wages and benefits as their Jewish coworkers. All employees share a dining hall and interact openly with one another. And the company provides a place of worship for both Muslim and Jewish employees. Yet, somehow, Oxfam felt that Johansson’s position with such a company would not be in keeping with their mission, so they condemned her, leading to Johansson’s resignation over “a fundamental difference of opinion.”

For Oxfam to be openly critical of the SodaStream factory is shameless, and blatantly demonstrates that they are simply one of countless anti-Semitic organizations intent on perpetuating a certain portrayal of the conflict between Palestinians and Jews. The factory is an exemplary effort to bring peace to the region – by creating unity between Jews and Arabs, creating jobs, livelihoods, etc. This shouldn’t be a controversial issue, nor should it be condemned, but rather applauded. The factory’s very existence has been nothing but a positive, but there is such a propensity for anti-Semitism that if even the slightest opportunity to spin information into a negative for Israel arises, people will use it to further the already popular anti-Israel sentiment. Moreover, the media’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict contributes to this distorted view of reality within the West Bank.

By way of comparison, many factories in downtown Los Angeles offer jobs manufacturing clothing items, and the majority of those employees are from Mexico. The factories provide desired jobs, working conditions are good, they are compliant with the law, and ultimately they have a positive impact on the community. An American parallel to the denouncement of the SodaStream factory would be if suddenly the majority of the public became outraged over Mexican factory employees having to work for a living, and demanded that the factories be closed down immediately. The position asserted by Oxfam is absurd and could only have been given credibility in the first instance because Oxfam (an ostensibly credible organization) has a large audience ready to rally against any incident that provides an excuse to denounce Jews at their disposal.

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There is no prohibition in Israel against Arab owned businesses, and the concept of prohibiting a Jew from owning a business in any region is equally ridiculous. The existence of businesses in these regions is a necessity and should be encouraged. The issue in this case is not even a border dispute. Oxfam’s assertion is transparent, and in actuality they are protesting the two sides working together. It is Oxfam, and others supporting the end of collaborative businesses in the region, who should be protested against.

This almost obvious realization is nonetheless something that still would not have been given weight, were it not for Scarlett Johansson’s actions – which were not simply courageous, but also exceedingly rare for public figures such as herself. It is almost unheard of to see celebrities take a position based on their own ideology if it is not a popular position. The world currently seems to be against Israel, and it’s almost fashionable to openly voice one’s hate for Israel. So for Johansson to express her convictions is one thing, but doing so on a topic as polarizing as Israel takes true courage.

Regardless of what they feel, most celebrities will only speak out on popular positions. You will not see them coming out for minority interests, whether they believe in them or not, because they could lose popularity, and popularity is the basis for their decision-making. That’s the difference in what she did.

It is easy and without risk to come out in support of popular causes accepted by the majority – Hurricane Katrina, Haiti, the poor, world peace, children, climate change – but when the majority of the world is against Israel, an act like Johansson’s will inevitably face scrutiny, as it did from Oxfam.

In the final analysis, I don’t think Johansson’s actions will have a negative impact on her career within Hollywood. I don’t see anybody penalizing her for remaining true to her convictions. Hollywood has a large Jewish population that is proud of their religion and wants it to survive. Inside Hollywood’s Jewish community, Johansson is being applauded for having the courage to maintain her convictions. People won’t come out and say it publicly, for fear of backlash, but they applaud what she did. But as long as the majority of the world is against Israel, there will be a fear of repercussions that causes most to remain silent.

It extends beyond Hollywood, as a recent survey of European Jews found that 1 in 4 are afraid to wear a kippah, in fear of persecution. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to be Jewish or aren’t devoted to their religion. But it does mean that the negative connotations associated with Israel are widespread and comprise the majority. All of this, when carefully considered, makes Scarlett Johansson’s refusal to capitulate to Oxfam all the more remarkable.

Inside Hollywood, from experience, I can tell you that if you get past what people are saying publicly, the vast majority of Jews are outraged by what’s going on in Israel. The common sentiment among Jews in Hollywood is that Israel is unnecessarily persecuted because there is still a largely anti-Semitic view in the world, but they keep quiet about it. Israel is close to their hearts, many donate to Zionist causes, but they won’t publicly speak out about it because it is the minority position. It is the unpopular position.

However, when someone in Hollywood is outwardly anti-Semitic, they’re finished. Mel Gibson is the best example. He had everything – money, fame, popularity, critical acclaim, and creative freedom – but following his infamous “Jews are responsible for all the wars…” quote, his career has floundered, essentially to the point of non-existence. You won’t hear people come out and say that they will never work with Mel Gibson again, but the results are self-evident.

Will Johansson’s actions inspire others to come out in support of Israel and other minority issues? If history is any guide, it’s unlikely. Left alone, this act of courage will probably be a one-off. You have to add fuel to the fire in order to make it a movement. She needs public support, having other people stand with her, and a lot of it if any tangible change is going to occur. And since maintaining popularity drives decision-making among actors and actresses in Hollywood, it’s highly unlikely that any of them would do anything that – accurately or inaccurately – might jeopardize their careers.

But the opportunity is there. At the very least, Scarlet Johansson’s stance caused a few new people to realize that groups such as Oxfam have an interest in perpetuating a distorted view of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, and they should listen to these messages with a more discerning ear. That little push could spark greater awareness. It often takes subtle acts to make one pay attention to what’s really occurring, primarily because most realities are too harsh or inaccessible to us. The crux of the SodaStream issue is not about what started the conflict, but it puts the spotlight on strong interests like those promoted by Oxfam, which seek to disrupt any efforts of peace between the groups. And Scarlett Johansson made this dispute accessible to the masses.

Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” brought attention to the Holocaust like never before. He made the Holocaust accessible to a mainstream audience through an emotionally powerful film, but without including the barbaric atrocities and sheer brutality that could have made the film over-the-top. He distilled the message to a human level, and it resonated accordingly. It raised awareness and secured the Holocaust’s existence in the mind of the public.

Since “Schindler’s List,” there have been countless Holocaust films. And, because of “Schindler’s List,” Holocaust deniers are rightfully viewed as absurd. Setting the record straight on Israel would have a similar effect.

As an overtly proud and devoted Jew who has worked in Hollywood, I, too, applaud Scarlett Johansson’s courage. I hope and trust that her courage will inspire other supporters of Israel to defend her, and speak out against the onslaught of negativity directed toward Israel. It will take a concerted effort if such actions are ever to be considered acceptable among the majority, but Scarlett Johansson is the perfect person to lead the charge. Little-by-little, people might become more comfortable supporting Israel publicly, without fear of persecution. If you would have told me two weeks ago that Scarlett Johansson would have remained resolute in the face of public censuring from Oxfam, I would have had a hard time believing you. Her actions were so rare, so remarkable, that it makes one wonder what it might lead to in terms of support for Israel.

David Bergstein is the CEO of Cyrano Group. He is a board member of the Sheriff’s Youth Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing Los Angeles County youth with safe facilities, planned programs, and the vital tools they need to thrive and succeed in life. He is founder of the Leonard and Sarah Bergstein Learning Center at the Conejo Jewish Academy.

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