SodaStream Meets Kafka in Its Battle With BDS

The BDS activists will have breakfast on their tables tomorrow. The 500 Palestinian workers SodaStream is forced to fire won't.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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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.
Palestinians had worked alongside Jews at the SodaStream factory: Mishor Adumim industrial park, Jan. 30, 2014, before the company had to move.Credit: AFP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Anyone looking for insight into Franz Kafka and “The Trial” can go to a library. Or they can witness the real-life tribulations of SodaStream, the company that bizarrely, has a lot in common with the novel’s protagonist, Joseph K.

Poor Joseph K wakes one morning to find himself summoned to court for an unspecified crime. He becomes enmeshed in a surreal, shadowy bureaucracy, never learning what the charges are against him, but finally consenting to his own execution.

Unlike the hapless Joseph K, SodaStream – let’s call it Soda S – hasn’t entirely buckled under to the forces of the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement. But it is dealing with a campaign no less Kafkaesque.

Myths of titanic battles

Under pressure from BDS, Soda S moved its main Israeli plant out of the West Bank into Israel proper, firing most of its 500 Palestinian workers in the process. It then tried to save the jobs of the last 74 of them, who began to commute to Israel.

Just as Soda S escaped the reach of BDS, it encountered the mysterious justice of the Israeli government, which refused to give these workers permanent work permits. This week the 74, too, lost their jobs.

Protestors in the U.S. call for the boycott of SodaStream last year.Credit:

To his credit, Soda S’s CEO Daniel Birnbaum has tough words for both BDS and the Israeli government. But in that respect, Soda S is no better off than Joseph K, who tells off the court, hires a lawyer and tries to win influence through the backdoor, only to be frustrated by the insanity of the whole process.

Soda S’s one advantage over Joseph K is that it knows what the official charges BDS is leveling against it are. The problem is the charges are divorced from reality, a strange brew of abstract justice and myths of titanic battles between the forces of good and evil.

In the court of BDS, nothing Birnbaum can say or do will exonerate his company.

The BDS case is that Soda S is violating international law and helps support the occupation, which is more or less true, since the Mishor Adumim plant had been located on land confiscated from Palestinians.

Sodastream CEO Daniel BirnbaumCredit: Bloomberg

But while violations of international law and the occupation are certainly of great concern to people writing college term papers, or members of Brooklyn food coops or work for nongovernmental organizations, what does it all mean to the Palestinian on the street? The answer is not very much, because the intricacies of international law don’t change their lives. On the other hand, unemployment does.

No state, and no jobs

So here we have Mahmoud Nawajaa, the BDS coordinator in the West Bank town of Ramallah, calling the loss of the Palestinian jobs at Soda S “part of the price that should be paid in the process of ending the occupation.” The problem is that no one consulted with Soda S’s Palestinians about whether they were prepared to pay the price.That would, after all, have been dangerous question since the answer would have been a politically incorrect “No.” Their loss of livelihood was imposed on them by activists who aren’t paying any price at all.

And here are the stark consequences of all that. When Nawajaa and those former Soda S workers all wake up tomorrow morning, there will be no Palestinian state. And, as things stand now, they will all probably wake up one morning in 10 years and there were still be no Palestinian state.

Nawajaa, at least, will put breakfast on the table for his family, thanks a job he has at a European Union-funded NGO; the former Soda S employees won’t.

How did Soda S get ensnared in BDS justice anyway? The company isn’t a settler in the sense that it did not make its home in the West Bank at the expense of the Palestinians. It’s not determined to frustrate the peace process. Birnbaum shows no sign of being a Great Land of Israel ideologue. He doesn’t chop down Palestinian olive trees, or spray paint graffiti on their mosques, or worse. And, while there are certainly Israeli companies in the West Bank that exploit cheap Palestinian labor, in Soda S’s case, the overwhelming evidence points to the opposite – they were well-paid by Palestinian standards and there was no discrimination between Soda S’s Israeli and Palestinian staff.

Shades of black and white

That the BDS movement doesn’t distinguish between Soda S and the others is because its fight with Israeli is framed in Manichean terms of forces of dark and light.

Soda S is an Israeli company operating in the West Bank and so, as the BDS leader Omar Barghouti said, it is “odiously complicit” in the occupation, period.

BDS can’t make fine distinctions because its supporters are animated by the idea they’re on the right side of a war between Israeli evil and Palestinian justice. The fact that things are more complicated than that wouldn’t fire up the synapses of self-righteousness. How can you build a movement by saying, yes, the occupation is bad, but sometime it’s not so bad and sometimes Palestinians may even benefit.

In any case, Soda S is too tempting a target. It is one of the few Israeli companies that make a consumer product that is easy to boycott; only the most pampered BDS activist can’t live without a home-carbonation machine. And, when Soda S hired Scarlett Johansson as its celebrity spokesperson before the 2014 Super Bowl, the free publicity was big for BDS as for the company. Who would let go of an asset like that?

Credit: YouTube

Not unlike Joseph K, who thought he could somehow convince the court of his innocence and undermine its authority, Birnbaum believed that by picking up and moving to the Negev, the campaign against Soda S would let up.

How nave. Now the company is being attacked for violating Bedouin rights, although like in the West Bank, Soda S is providing badly-needed, well-paying jobs.

The Israeli government’s attitude toward Soda S is no less Kafkaesque. On the one hand, it allows tens of thousands of Palestinians into Israel to work in construction and keep the Palestinian economy afloat, and is planning to increase the number. But when Soda S comes and asks to allow 74 skilled, loyal and veteran Palestinian employees to continue working at its Negev plant, the answer from Netanyahu’s office was, "The policy of the government is to give priority to the employment of Israeli workers."

We’ll let you, dear reader, try to fathom this.

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