SodaStream Boss Accuses Oxfam of 'Hypocrisy’ and Funding BDS Movement

Oxfam denies charges, says it is opposed to trade with Israeli settlements in the West Bank, not Israel in general.

SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum on Sunday accused Oxfam of providing funding to the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign against Israel and said that an invitation he recently issued to the president of the organization to visit the company’s West Bank factory had been “ignored.”

“Unsurprisingly, Oxfam has joined the BDS in this movement [to close down the West Bank factory],” said Birnbaum. “I’m saying unsurprisingly because we found out that some of the Oxfam branches have been donating funds to the BDS, and this money is used to demonize and attack Israel.” Birnbaum was speaking on a conference call organized by The Israel Project, a U.S.-based pro-Israel advocacy group.

Asked to respond to the accusation, a regional spokesman for Oxfam, the international anti-poverty organization, told Haaretz: “No, we don't provide financial support to the BDS campaign or fund activities that call for a boycott of Israel. Oxfam is not opposed to trade with Israel, and we don't support a boycott of Israel or any other country. However, we do oppose trade with Israeli settlements in the West Bank.”

Under pressure from Oxfam, the American actress Scarlett Johansson last week resigned as a global ambassador for the organization. Johansson came under attack from Oxfam, as well as supporters of the BDS movement, for her decision to serve as a brand ambassador for SodaStream. Johansson will star in the company’s Superbowl commercial on Sunday.

Birnbaum said he has been in touch with her regularly since her decision to cut ties with Oxfam. “She was very disturbed by having to withdraw from Oxfam,” he said. “In her words, she loved working for them, and she felt that their cause, to fight poverty around the world, was a very important cause. She did not leave them wantingly, and I felt bad for the way it all evolved, but in the end I believe that it will be for the better because by leaving Oxfam – this is my interpretation – she’s actually exposed the hypocrisy of that organization that because of political motivations, perhaps because of financial motivations, they are prepared to sacrifice the jobs of 1,300 people, including 950 Palestinians and Arabs, and I cannot see, and she cannot see either, how that would advance peace and humanity in the region.”

In response to this charge, the Oxfam spokesman said: “Oxfam wants to see a just and lasting agreement that allows Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and security. We support a two-state solution, and we believe that settlements in the West Bank are an obstacle to achieving that peace. Any company located in the settlements contributes to their viability and legitimizes them. This is not about labor practices or Sodastream in particular, but the bigger issue of settlements, which continue to take land and resources from Palestinian communities that we work with. Some Palestinians in the West Bank do find work in Israeli settlements, but this is often because they are restricted from pursuing other livelihoods and have little other choice. For example, Oxfam works in Palestinian farming communities – they have lost much of their land to settlements and they are rarely allowed to build new wells or get enough water. Unable to make a living, their only option is often found in settlement factories and farms, which receive government tax breaks, support, and don’t face any of the restrictions on building and development that Palestinian communities nearby do.”

At Johansson’s suggestion, Birnbaum disclosed, SodaStream recently extended an invitation to Oxfam America’s president, Raymond Offenheiser, to visit the West Bank factory, but no response has been forthcoming. “Unfortunately, he hasn’t responded – he’s ignoring my invitation,” said Birnbaum.

In response, the Oxfam spokesman reiterated that “this is not an argument about labor practices or Sodastream – it’s about the location of the factory in an illegal settlement in the West Bank.”

Asked whether the recent publicity about its West Bank operations could affect sales and earnings, Birnbaum responded: “We believe at SodaStream that we have never lost a single customer to the boycott, and we’ve been dealing with the boycott for five years or more. Whenever there was an issue in any country where a retailer wanted clarification about the legitimacy of what’s going on at the factory, we invited that retailer to come to see for herself or himself. And every single time, we converted the retailer who started as an adversary – we converted them into an ambassador. I’m convinced that any well-intending individual who truly cares about peace and humanity, who sees the work that’s going on in this factory, will become a partner, will join what we’re doing and embrace the idea of cooperation, and stop this obsession about occupation.”

Asked about recent layoffs of Palestinians at the West Bank factory, Birnbaum said they were connected to a seasonal downturn in orders. “It wasn’t only Palestinians who were laid off,” he said. “We have a seasonal business. This is a low time for our production, and hopefully, we’ll be able to re-employ them in the next few months. But it has nothing to do with calls for a boycott or anything like that.”

Although Johansson has never visited Israel or the West Bank, Birnbaum said that she was “very interested in doing that, though I can’t say when.”

Regarding the Superbowl commercial, the CEO expressed great disappointment that the FOX channel had decided to delete from it the following line: “Sorry, Coke and Pepsi.”

“We at SodaSteam take exception to this ruling because it’s common practice in the United States to do comparative advertising, and in fact, Coke and Pepsi do it to each other regularly, so certainly someone is protecting the interest of the big brands,” he said. “And by the way, we ran this ad in Russia in the last few days just to make the point that what does not pass censorship in America today does pass censorship in Russia. So where has this world come to?”

Palestinians had worked alongside Jews at the SodaStream factory: Mishor Adumim industrial park, Jan. 30, 2014, before the company had to move. The picture shows a female worker wearing blue clothing and a lilac headscarf, packaging.
AFP