A high-profile controversy bubbled over this week into the mainstream over actress Scarlett Johansson’s endorsement of the carbonate-it-yourself company, SodaStream. While the controversy itself is rather narrow, its meaning and implications are far-reaching, as I’ll explain in a moment. But first, allow me to explain the controversy …
Johansson has become the celebrity face of SodaStream, an Israeli company which has its factory in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. This week, SodaStream made a promotional push in advance of her upcoming Super Bowl ad for the company, which considers Johansson a “brand ambassador,” going so far as to describe the relationship between the two as a “love story” between a socially conscious company and a passionate consumer.
The only problem is that, aside from being SodaStream’s “brand ambassador,” she is also an “Oxfam Ambassador” for the global charity organization, Oxfam International. This week, Palestinians and international boycott advocates challenged either Johansson to leave SodaStream, or Oxfam to end its relationship with Johansson, given the conflict due to Oxfam’s political position on Israeli settlements.
Johansson decided to stand firmly behind the company, painting it as a model for peace and environmental stewardship:
I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine. SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine.
In turn, Oxfam – which does not recognize the legality of Israeli settlements, and understands quite well that Israel’s military rule in the Occupied Territories is anything but democratic – has published a statement of its own:
Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors. However Oxfam believes that businesses that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support. Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.
We have been engaged in dialogue with Scarlett Johansson and she has now expressed her position in a statement, including stressing her pride in her past work with Oxfam. Oxfam is now considering the implications her new statement and what it means for Ms Johansson’s role as an Oxfam global ambassador.
It is clear that Oxfam is preparing to sever its ties with Johansson, who has worked with the aid organization on important projects since 2005. It is also clear that this never would have happened if not for the visibility, and legitimacy, of Palestinians who are nonviolently opposing Israel’s geo-political policies. For Oxfam didn’t know about Johansson’s endorsement for SodaStream – nor of the company factory in the Occupied Territories – until international activists began protesting its affiliation with Johansson.
And this is precisely why what has occurred between Johansson and Oxfam is so significant, for it has provided a high-profile test case measuring the impact, and veracity, of Palestinian efforts to mobilize international players against Israel’s undemocratic occupation.
Those efforts resulted in articles popping up in mainstream media outlets, including The New York Times, and compelled both Johansson and Oxfam to make their positions known.
Not after months of protest. But after only days of highlighting this online, via Twitter and social media.
The speed with which media picked up on Johansson’s relationship with SodaStream as a legitimate story of controversy is significant enough. Even more so that all players involved felt compelled to make their positions immediately known.
The implication being clear: Palestinian opposition to Israel’s geo-political policies is becoming not just more accepted in the mainstream as legitimate, but it is becoming more effective as a result.
If the ultimate result of all this is a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whether via a two-state resolution (my deep desire) or some other agreed upon resolution, these small efforts will be looked upon as historically significant.
Even fights over endorsement deals for soda companies.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, just out from Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.