Israel’s SodaStream is famous for three things. The first is hiring Scarlett Johansson to pitch its products during the Super Bowl three years ago. The second is that it is a favorite target of the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement. And third, the company makes machines used to produce carbonated drinks at home.
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All three of these things collided in a sort of media pileup in early 2014. Johansson’s ad created as much buzz for BDS as it did for SodaStream, giving the movement something it so badly needed. Images of suffering Palestinians, which is the mainstay of the BDS campaign, don’t attract nearly as much attention as one Hollywood celebrity.
BDS jumped at the opportunity to argue that SodaStream was an integral part of the Israeli apartheid regime because its main plant was in the West Bank at the time.
As it turned out – and through no fault of her own – Johansson’s pitch didn’t work any magic for SodaStream sales, which plummeted in the months that followed. The BDS movement for its part was quick to take credit for this.
“BDS' campaign pressure has forced retailers across Europe and North America to drop SodaStream, and the company’s share price has tumbled in recent months as our movement has caused increasing reputational damage to the SodaStream brand,” Rafeef Ziadah, spokesman for the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, claimed at the time.
If you were to take everything that appears on the BDS movement’s website, you would get the impression that the forces of right and good are rapidly tightening the screws on wicked Israel. But, the truth of the matter is that BDS might just as well stand for balderdash as for boycotts, etc.
SodaStream’s troubles had nothing to do with moral outrage over the occupation. It was because consumers began shunning soda pop in favor of bottled water and other "healthier" alternatives.
Johansson’s commercial took aim at Coke and Pepsi, telling viewers they would do better to make their fizzy drinks at home, but they were no longer drinking Coke or Pepsi either.
That was the wrong message and SodaStream’s CEO Daniel Birnbaum was quick to realize it. Within a year, the company repositioned itself as a “leading manufacturer of sparkling water makers.”
Investors waxed skeptical, but the image makeover worked. Last year profits quadrupled and its Wall Street-listed shares climbed 340% from their low in February 2016.
SodaStream also moved its plant from the West Bank to the Bedouin town of Rahat, in the Negev, well inside the green line. That made no difference to the BDS movement. The company is still highlighted on its website, along with Ahava cosmetics and Sabra hummus, as three Israeli companies the faithful should boycott.
The three are hardly pillars of the Israeli occupation. Ahava does take minerals from the Dead Sea and processes them in a factory in the West Bank, but it’s really minor stuff. The Dead Sea is shared by Israel, Jordan and the West Bank and when Ahava moves it plant over to the Israeli side of the border, as it plans to, it will be extracting the same minerals.
Sabra is a joint venture between Israel’s Strauss and PepsiCo. It manufactures all its prepared salads in America.
What they do have in common, however, is that they are Israeli products you can find on your store shelf and can choose not to buy without making much of a sacrifice -- or so, the BDS movement, hopes. As the SodaStream saga shows, it’s all wishful thinking. It inspires grassroots activists to think they are making a change, but it has none of the economic impact the movement claims.
Worse still, it inspires them by demonizing Israel. I don’t think BDS itself is anti-Semitic, although you can be pretty sure that a lot of anti-Semites are affiliated with it. Rather, the demonization is inseparable from the movement's agenda of making economic and cultural war.
The movement has no vision for a future Palestine, which leaves it with nothing to justify its campaign but loathing Israel. That’s a pretty cynical strategy for a movement making a moral claim.
Among the fake victories BDS proclaims, you won’t find the real story about its much bigger failures.
This week’s bigger failure is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel, which signals a major upgrading of the two countries’ relations. It not only demonstrates that Israel isn’t growing increasingly isolated but that the world’s up-and-coming powers are happy to do business with Israel on an unprecedented scale.
Far from addressing the Palestinian issue, the top of Modi’s agenda is arms and technology deals, all of which will swamp whatever achievements BDS can point to.
The occupation and the settlement building should come to an end, for Israel’s sake as much as the Palestinians. But it’s not going to happen by trying to convince people to change their shopping habits.