Scarlett Johansson not only abandons Oxfam but throws it under the bus

Israel/Palestine
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During a 2007 Oxfam trip to Sri Lanka, Scarlett Johansson heard the story of how Asela Abeytunga lost his father and brother to the tsunami. (Adrian Fisk)

“On one hand you’re thinking, [the celebrity life] is so surreal, but it’s my work and helps me bring awareness to Oxfam.”
Scarlett Johansson, 2007

On the other hand…

The Associated Press broke the story last night that Scarlett Johansson was quitting her role as an Oxfam global ambassador, ending a three-week battle that began with the announcement that the actor had signed a multi-year deal as the global ambassador for SodaStream. SodaStream has been the target of a years-long boycott campaign because one of its primary manufacturing plants is located in an illegal West Bank settlement.

The AP quoted from a statement provided by Johansson’s spokesperson:

“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.”

With this statement, Johansson and her public relations team not only extricate her from a vulnerable position, but does so cynically and opportunistically by throwing Oxfam under the bus.

The statement claims that Johansson left Oxfam over “a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement [BDS]”—an unconvincing assertion since Oxfam has never taken a position on BDS.

However, by making this allegation, Johansson frames her departure as a result of Oxfam forcing her to make a different and presumably more difficult decision. That is, instead of being asked not to represent a company that manufactures products from an illegal West Bank settlement, Johansson implies that she was being forced by Oxfam to honor the Palestinian BDS call.

There is a difference between boycotting a company and not shilling for a company. At best, Johansson was simply being asked for the latter. The issue was not about BDS, but about the contradiction in being the ambassador for one organization that opposes illegal settlements (Oxfam), while being the ambassador for another organization that is based in and profits from an illegal settlement (SodaStream).

So Johansson changes the subject, from one in which she occupied both sides of opposing interests—perhaps inadvertently at first, but unwilling to budge—to one in which Oxfam was making unreasonable demands of her.

Not only does this place the blame on Oxfam for the ensuing scandal and absolves Johansson of fault, it falsely portrays Oxfam as a supporter of the BDS movement.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with BDS—and it would be wonderful if Oxfam did support BDS—the organization has never taken a position on the issue. And while there is no shame in supporting BDS, there is an unavoidable cost. Organizations that publicly support BDS are subject to a fierce pro-Israel backlash that includes relentless harassment, false accusations of anti-Semitism, and loss of donor funding.

Thus, while absolving herself of blame for her own debacle, Johansson leaves Oxfam vulnerable to the cost of endorsing BDS without the benefit of having endorsed it.

Scarlett Johansson in India

Scarlett Johansson hears the story of Uma Mahajan, who was abused by her first and second husbands, 2007 Oxfam tour in India. (Adrian Fisk)

Unfortunately Oxfam made itself open to being exploited by its former global ambassador. Early in the scandal, Oxfam refused to take a strong public stance. Instead, it expressed both its “opposition to all trade from Israeli settlements” and its respect for “the independence of our ambassadors,” adding that it was “engaged in a dialogue on these important issues” with Johansson.

After Johansson issued her January 24 statement in which she defended SodaStream, Oxfam wrote that it was “considering the implications of her new statement and what it means for Ms Johansson’s role as an Oxfam global ambassador.”

On January 27, Oxfam GB tweeted that

such situations … take some time to resolve, but please be assured that we’re working on this right now and will be in a position to make a fuller statement very soon.

Yet it deleted the tweet soon after.

Ali Abunimah in the Electronic Intifada reported that there was an “internal revolt” at Oxfam over Johansson, with its American branch being the holdout to a resolution due to fundraising fears.

Oxfam’s assumed paralysis and its efforts to be diplomatically discreet left a wide gap in the public narrative that Johansson’s PR team was able to exploit.

Johansson got to announce her departure, and with that announcement came the privilege of defining the narrative that would cast her in the least culpable light, while deserting Oxfam for the most shameful reason.

One door closes, and another one opens.

Johansson with SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum

Scarlett Johansson announcing her deal with SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum at the Gramercy Park Hotel Rooftop Club, 10 January 2014: “I am beyond thrilled to share my enthusiasm for SodaStream with the world!”

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