Hollywood celebrities usually bring a hammer to political issues, so it’s surprising and welcome to see actress Scarlett Johansson adopt a nuanced position on a highly contentious controversy, an Israeli business operating in the disputed West Bank.
You might have seen the Super Bowl commercial Johansson made for a product called SodaStream, a device that takes plain water and various ingredients to make soda. It turns out that it’s manufactured in a factory in the Israeli town of Ma’ale Adumim. To pro-Palestinian and Israel-phobic activists, that is a “settlement” and anything going on there must be condemned no matter that good might be taking place.
So condemnation rained on the talented and beautiful Ms. Johansson, even though she is a reliable advocate of liberal causes, including the presidential aspirations of Barack Obama and John Kerry.
Her biggest critic was Oxfam, an international aid organization for whom she served eight years as an ambassador. Her good works included visiting tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka, donating three years of funding to a school for low caste children in India, and doing prodigious fundraising for Oxfam programs.
Johansson worked hard to help Oxfam’s mission “to change the world by mobilizing the power of people against poverty.” Unfortunately, her ad for SodaStream ran afoul of another Oxfam priority: opposition to “all trade from Israeli settlements.”
Oxfam claims businesses “that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty” of Palestinians. But as Johansson notes in a statement on the Huffington Post, Palestinians working for SodaStream receive the “equal pay, equal benefits, equal rights” accorded Israeli employees.
The Christian Science Monitor talked to some of those workers and found them to be happy to be employed in good-paying jobs — hard to find in Palestinian Authority-ruled locations — and opposed to any boycott of SodaStream.
Johansson says SodaStream is “not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace” between Israel and Palestinians. Not good enough for Oxfam, so she resigned from it. SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum could move operations to another plant but says, “We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda.” Good for him.
“Settlement” hardly describes Ma’ale Adumim. Anyone who’s been there can tell you its a thriving, modern, energetic suburb of Jerusalem. It’s about the same distance, a little over four miles, from the city as Belmont Harbor is from Chicago’s Loop. Under any settlement of the conflict, this town will be part of Israel.
Any hope for an economically successful Palestine will depend on investment and employment opportunities from Israeli businesses like SodaStream. What other nearby country will be a source of economic opportunity for Palestinians — Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria? Please.
Johansson begins the SodaStream commercial saying, “Like most actors, my real job is saving the world.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek introduction to the benefits of the product. But in her work for Oxfam and her support for SodaStream, Johansson is doing her part to make a better world.