The BDS campaign against SodaStream took an unexpected turn yesterday when actress Scarlett Johansson announced her resignation as a representative of Oxfam. The British-based coalition of philanthropic groups had condemned Johansson’s role as a commercial spokesperson for SodaStream, an Israeli soda machine manufacturer, because of its location in the Jerusalem suburb of Maale Adumim in the West Bank. Initially, Johansson sought to remain with both organizations, but it was soon clear that she had to choose and released the following statement through a spokesman:
“Scarlett Johansson has respectfully decided to end her ambassador role with Oxfam after eight years,” the statement said. “She and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. She is very proud of her accomplishments and fundraising efforts during her tenure with Oxfam.
In response, Oxfam thanked Johansson for her service but made it clear that her decision with SodaStream meant she was no longer welcome:
While Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors, Ms. Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador. Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, 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. Ms. Johansson has worked with Oxfam since 2005 and in 2007 became a Global Ambassador, helping to highlight the impact of natural disasters and raise funds to save lives and fight poverty.
This is a remarkable turn of events. For Johansson, a prominent Hollywood liberal who has campaigned for Democrats and progressive causes, Oxfam was a perfect fit because of her interest in poverty-related causes. But as one of the most visible international charities, it was also a good match for a career in that it added a touch of gravitas to an actress who might otherwise be trivialized as the only woman to be named the sexiest woman in the world by Esquire twice. One might have thought that in terms of an immediate monetary reward, Johansson would choose SodaStream over Oxfam because one pays her and the other doesn’t. But in terms of positive publicity and maintaining her status as a member in good standing of the Hollywood liberal establishment, Oxfam might have been the more sensible choice.
In sticking with SodaStream, Johansson will win the praise of many Americans, especially fellow Jews, but it opens a new and potentially bitter chapter in the struggle by the BDS movement against Israel. The question facing the actress as well as friends of the Jewish state is whether her decision will herald more defeats for those seeking to isolate Israel or will instead provide a new focus for a BDS movement that is gaining support in Europe even as it remains marginal in the United States.
It is possible that Oxfam’s decision wasn’t entirely based on the anti-Israel bias of its London-based leadership. One of the leading corporate donors to Oxfam just happens to be the Coca Cola Company that has given millions to the group. That tie between a company that can be linked to obesity and bad nutrition and a charity that promotes feeding the hungry is seen as a contradiction by some and only explained by the cash that flows from Coke to Oxfam. But the fact that SodaStream is a competitor that is already eating into Coke’s market share could account, at least in part, for Oxfam’s speed in denouncing Johansson.
But even if contributions from Coke had nothing to do with Oxfam’s decision, the most important conclusion to be drawn from the way this controversy developed is the ease and speed with which a theoretically apolitical charity like Oxfam publicly embraced the BDS stand even though it meant losing the services of such an effective ambassador as Johansson. The decisiveness and alacrity with which Oxfam’s leaders condemned her ties with an Israeli company may well have come as a rude shock to Johansson after she signed on to appear in SodaStream commercials, including one scheduled for broadcast during the Super Bowl. Though she is an active supporter of many liberal causes who embraced Oxfam because of its apparent compatibility with her personal values, it may not have occurred to her that in international progressive circles such associations with Israel aren’t kosher.
The point here is not simply the factual inaccuracy of Oxfam’s accusations that settlements further Palestinian poverty or deny Palestinian rights. Having seen SodaStream’s operations herself, Johansson knew that charges that it exploited its Arab workers were nothing but propaganda and absurd lies. She rightly understood that its owners were committed peaceniks who genuinely believe that the cooperative and mutually profitable relations between Jews and Arabs that go on at SodaStream are exactly what the region needs. But in the world of Oxfam, opposition to West Bank settlements isn’t about what’s good for the Palestinians. The factory’s location, a few miles from Jerusalem’s city limits in territory that almost certainly would be incorporated into Israel in the event of a peace treaty, is merely an excuse to continue a campaign of delegitimization against the Jewish state. And in that struggle, there can be no exceptions or even any grey areas where people of good conscience may differ.
The arrogant moral certainty of Oxfam’s statement simply assumes that the presence of Jews in what is, under international law, disputed territory rather than that of a sovereign state, is repugnant. That is exactly the mindset of BDSers whose purpose is not aiding poor Palestinians but to further impoverish them by destroying businesses that provide them with income and an opportunity to better themselves that is largely denied them by the corrupt governments led by both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza.
But now that Johansson has rejected the leftist groupthink of Oxfam that assumes the Jewish state to be beyond the pale, it remains to be seen whether there will be a price to be paid for her principled choice. As I noted earlier this week, it is possible that in the future Johansson may become the focus of a concerted boycott by Israel-haters. Though their efforts won’t put even a minor dent in her career prospects in the United States, it is entirely possible that she will be become better known in Europe and Asia as a supporter of Israel than as a gifted A-list actress. The implications of such a development would not be trivial for film producers who increasingly rely on international markets to realize profits, nor for other companies seeking film stars to promote their products.
If Johansson had abandoned SodaStream it would have signaled an immediate and high-visibility victory for the BDS campaign, certainly its most important victory in the United States. But having cast her lot with defenders of the Jewish state, the actress must understand that this isn’t the end of the story. She may have thought her work for Oxfam gave her common ground with progressives in Europe and around the globe. But she may now discover that, from this day forward, they will only see her as a public figure to be rejected and shunned as a principled Jew who stands with Israel.