Sodastream Bows to BDS, and the Only Losers Are the Palestinians

Pressuring the company to close its West Bank plant doesn't bring a state of Palestine anywhere closer , but it does make a handful of BDS activists feel good.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Employees at the SodaStream product at the factory in the West Bank (Reuters)
Credit: Reuters
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

SodaStream appears to have finally surrendered to the global boycott, sanctions and divestment movement. The Israeli manufacturer of machines for making fizzy drinks at home, which achieved some fame for recruiting Scarlett Johansson as its pitchwoman,is closing its factory in the West Bank.

The BDS movement may feel it claimed a victory. But against whom? Neither the company, nor the occupation, nor Israel lost much, but the hundreds of Palestinians employed at the plant lost their jobs.

BDSers zeroed in on SodaStream not because it was a fair or logical target, but because it was an easy one. It is one of the very few big Israeli companies actually operating in the West Bank, rather than inside pre-1967 Israel. So even more moderate BDSs who might feel squeamish about boycotting Israel could comfortably snub SodaStream.

Moreover, unlike most Israeli exports that sit in the bowels of your smartphone or part of an anonymous corporate computer network, SodaStream has an easy-to-identify product line vulnerable to boycott – a soda-maker you buy to start off with and then C02 capsules and flavored syrups you buy for years thereafter. A guilt-ridden boycotter, having bought the device not realizing the full extent he or she was contributing to Palestinian oppression, could find relief from guilt by refusing restock it with syrups and capsules, or buy a rival's.

And even though SodaStream enjoys a certain amount of cachet, even in left-liberal bastions like Brooklyn, it is certainly not a product you can't do without. In other words, it perfectly fit the model of the anti-Israel BDS movement—and for that matter lots of other boycott movements – that demand few if any personal sacrifices from supporters, and places the moral burden and its costs on others.

Thus universities are routinely urged to divest holdings in companies whose products the boycotters themselves use. Thus people living in Europe and the United States make a moral decision to put hundreds of Palestinians out of work while they move on to the next cause or campaign.

Those Palestinians might be quietly lauding the activists, but I doubt it: If they found working for SodaStream so morally loathsome, why were they working there at all? If it is because they desperately needed the jobs, how moral was it for BDSers to tell them they must give up their livelihood to score a point for Palestine?

Lipstick for war

It was an easy target, but did SodaStream really merit the kind of rage it elicited from BDSers?

Yes, if you take the view of the BDS movement, which regards anyone and everything connected with Israel as morally tainted. When Israel sends an aid mission to Haiti, it is only doing it to present itself in a good light, not to help Haitians like everyone else, says the movement. If Israel respects gay rights, it's only to distract attention from its oppression of Palestinians.

Actress model Molly Sims reveals SodaStream's 12-foot sugar glass installation to raise awareness for sugarless sparkling drinks, in Union Square, N.Y., Aug. 27, 2014.Credit: AP

When the French cosmetics company Garnier sent free products to female soldiers during last summer's Gaza conflict, it became an inseparable part of Israel's war effort. "If Garnier supports IDF, they will not see a single penny from me ever again for as long as I live" was a typical on-line response.

In this universe of moral black and whites, where even eyeliner can be tainted with Palestinian blood, SodaStream was doomed to be black because it is Israeli.

But in the real world of limited moral choices, where people and even large businesses often can do no more than act the best they can under the circumstances, SodaStream did pretty well. It's a business, so BDS spokesman Rafeef Ziadah's charge that SodaStream wasn't acting out of the "kindness of its heart" is irrelevant as it is ludicrous.

More to the point is that the company has been paying wages four or five times higher than the average for the West Bank (BDSers angrily say it was only three or four times). Even Israeli labor rights groups have not accused it in recent years of treating its Palestinian employees badly.

Moreover, SodaStream isn't an ideologically motivated settler intent on occupying the West Bank at all costs. It's a business that chose to manufacture in the territories because of cost considerations, most of which are due to tax breaks whose costs fell on the Israeli government, not on Palestinians. If Israel and the Palestinians ever reach an accord, it's hard to imagine SodaStream in the frontlines fighting to stop it; in fact, it might have easily decided to continue doing business in Palestine.

Indeed, SodaStream's high public profile and vulnerability to consumer boycotts makes it such a tempting target that the movement appears to be gearing up a campaign against it. On the heels of the factory closure, the movement accused SodaStream of preparing to exploit the local Bedouin population when it moves manufacturing to a new plant inside pre-1967 Israel Negev region. "It's new Lehavim factory is close to Rahat, a planned township in the Naqab (Negev) desert, where Palestinian Bedouins are being forcefully transferred against their will," Ziadah thundered.

Ignoring the over-the-top terminology about forced transfer, BDS is saying that SodaStream will remain a corporate criminal for building a plant near a controversial place. It's grasping for straws.

And for now, straws is all it has. BDS remains a movement of a lot of noise, but few results. SodaStream is such a tempting target that it can't be allowed to go away because there are so few others the movement can target with any hope of succeeding and because meeting the high standards of ethical behavior by Israel and anyone associated with it is impossible. Are BDSers going to try to convince supporters not to use Intel chips and consign themselves to the Stone Age because the company's Kiryat Gat plant is near the site of the former Palestinian village of Iraq al-Manshiyya? Will it dare urge people not to buy homes or work in office building constructed with Caterpillar tractors?

If the movement is making the case that any association with Israel is morally wrong, how can it not apply these same impossibly high standards to struggles for freedom and against oppression elsewhere in the world?

BDS supporters should be asking themselves these and other difficult questions, but they won't, because even as they cast their struggle in the framework of right-versus-wrong, what they are really waging is a tribal battle animated by hatred for the enemy, Israel, and reversing the humiliation of losing Palestine in 1948. The goal is to score victories. The fact that not a single Palestinian is better off today without SodaStream in the West Bank is irrelevant.

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