It may have taken up a nauseating amount of our attention by now, but the Scarlett Johannson/SodaStream saga sure has a lot of people talking about how those seltzer machines are made in the Occupied West Bank.
Of the recent wave of boycotts against Israeli institutions and companies, this one against SodaStream has crystallized, in a particularly interesting way, the growing momentum and challenges for critics of Israel’s policies, especially the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Pressuring Johannson to step down from SodaStream, the movement argued that her promotion of products made in Israeli-occupied territory might contradict her other commitment as ambassador for the global antipoverty organization Oxfam. Oxfam, which provides basic services to Palestinians under Israeli occupation, didn’t find Scarlett’s “saving the world” comment too funny. But a serious kind of joking around, an anticolonial satire, has seemed to work well for the BDS movement. Memes of the actress enjoying soda amid iconic scenes of the occupation circulated on social media under the Twitter hashtags #NoScarJo, and #BDS.
This tactic yoked the company’s advertisements for consumer pleasure to the more principled pleasure of satirizing and mocking the occupation’s commercial propaganda. If the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself spends millions of dollars a year on its “nation-branding”—portraying Israel as a fun tourist haven, with no occupation in sight— the BDS movement has followed its adversary to this awkward territory of fun and fantasy. Awkward because the goals of ending Israel’s occupation and gaining the right of return for Palestinian refugees are quite serious. Yet, like dissidents under occupation in Syria, the movement has understood that in tough times, an aesthetics of laughter may not only provide respite but satirical punch. These memes, or Tamer Nafar’s new rap about ScarJo, might even break the ice at awkward house parties where the host has a SodaStream machine.
Still, amidst this funnily promising moment for the movement, a drier, more dinner table-ish version of the Palestine-Israel debate was droning on: the war over facts. Certain facts came to be debated, particularly in Israeli and Jewish-American media, and in ways that framed the SodaStream factory in the Occupied West Bank as good, not bad for Palestinians. These were not the structural or historical facts of Israel’s occupation and its devastating economic effects on the Occupied Territories (the New York Times, at least, mentioned these), but the slippier, subjective facts embodied in interviews with SodaStream managers and, most crucially, some of their 900 or so Palestinian workers, 500 of them from the Occupied West Bank. For some, evidently, the idea was to let the last word on the controversy be interviews with Palestinian workers – which sounds good at first.
“Palestinian workers cheer SodaStream and Scarlett Johansson,” read the headline in The Forward, the liberal Jewish-American paper. A Forward/Haaretz article title said the controversy was “Fueled by Lies and Distortion.” The reporter secured his facts with the assurance that he spoke to some Palestinian workers “without supervisors present.” (Even this slip, where “supervisors” subtly implied Jewish-Israelis, points to the absurdity of trying to absolve an employment environment in which Palestinians are systematically under-represented in higher-paying positions – discrimination that applies in different forms in the West Bank and Israel.) It became clear that the “lies and distortion” the article referred to were none other than critiques of SodaStream, apparently debunked by these magical interviews with no supervisors around! A few pages later came the punchline – an even more heavy-handed Forward editorial, “Bursting Bubbles of SodaStream’s Haters,” that conveniently cited the “facts” from a few pages earlier:
A blanket boycott of Israeli goods produced in the Palestinian territories — formulated as a more targeted version of the boycott, divestment and sanction movement known as BDS — is shortsighted, unfair, largely unenforceable, and ultimately self-defeating. Some Palestinian leaders have called for sympathizers to take up this cause. Some Palestinian workers, clearly, don’t agree.
Clearly, over one hundred Palestinian civil society institutions in the Occupied Territories, Israel and the Diaspora called for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel in 2005. The Palestinian trade union movement has backed BDS. But all of a sudden the Forward has found a few Palestinians working for Israeli settlements, who astonishingly won’t call for their employers to be boycotted—you know, while they are at work. This was saddening but not all that surprising, for while the Forward and Haaretz are generally important critics of Israel’s occupation, they often seem just as interested in discrediting a non-violent resistance tool that seems to actually be working.
A Christian Science Monitor article added to the mix a Palestinian who hates that he has to work at SodaStream. But overall, it echoed the Forward’s angle, selling its interviews with Palestinian workers as an innocent human interest story, merely out to capture the real lives of Palestinians in print. Of course, “merely” trying to represent Palestinians “as they really are” might end up coming out on one side or another of this heated political debate, and sure enough, the title of the article was: “Palestinian workers back Scarlett Johansson’s opposition to SodaStream boycott.” This made a handful of interviews sound like some kind of organized Palestinian counter-movement against the BDS movement, which (surprise) doesn’t exist.
Sure, many of the Palestinian workers interviewed express a more ambiguous position—that they would not work in Israeli settlements if they had alternatives in the Palestinian economy. One simply changed the subject, in a poignant moment that seemed lost on the Haaretz reporter. For the articles were looking past the odd circumstances of these interviews, wielding any positive statement by a Palestinian worker like a weapon, as if to say: ‘see? Even Palestinian workers don’t want a boycott of the factory!’ Only one or two of the many reporters involved mentioned the convenient fact that they had been specially invited to the settlement by SodaStream itself for a factory tour.
Do We Want This Kind of War of Facts?
Still, the wielding of these pro-SodaStream Palestinian testimonies have yet to be adequately addressed, and the first step is acknowledging their potential resonance.
Despite the Forward’s heavy-handed wielding of such testimonies, there is still the sticky situation that the Palestinian workers made such apolitical statements at all: that they need a job, and they don’t have an alternative to this one. These are difficult statements to process for foreign observers. Sure, the CSM article linked to some broader context too. And it would really help to know the long history of politicized Palestinian labor organization being ignored by Zionist labor unions, then brutally put down by Israel. But with history out of the picture, the Palestinian testimonies might just seem to express the cliché that “real life” goes deeper than political conflict. And to readers a bit less naïve, these testimonies might be downright confusing: a job some Palestinians can’t but appreciate, yet their legal and civil rights situation is objectively horrendous! How can we make sense of this dissonance?
Until recently, the clearest critical response to such pro-SodaStream worker testimonies has simply been to find Palestinian workers who say the opposite. And until this controversy, this strategy unfortunately consisted of only a single interview with a Palestinian worker who told it much closer to the story about labor violations: Sodastream “treats us like slaves,” said the worker. The company told Palestinian workers that participating in PR videos would help the company get enough money that it wouldn’t fire the workers – a subtle threat, backed up by the workers’ lack of recourse. The Israeli NGO, Workers’ Hotline, has elaborated on Palestinian working conditions in Israeli settlements: Palestinians are hired by often exploitative middlemen; they are fired for taking sick days, with no warning or process through human resources. Shifts are 12 hours, with commutes of up to two hours to get through checkpoints.
This more critical story has been a crucial counterbalance to the SodaStream propaganda, and some of the recent articles found quotes that corroborate the picture of a very, very bad labor environment. But the status of the critical testimonies in relation to the pro-SodaStream ones has been left unresolved. Is it simply up to Western readers to pick which interviews they take as true, and if readers take the critical account as true, are the pro-SodaStream stories factually false?
Before the Scarlett Johannson controversy and the journalistic swarm, the pro-Sodastream account was not in the best shape for such a contest of facts. It consisted of a PR video on YouTube whose source was suspiciously not made clear; and the video was so adamantly playing down the Israeli occupation that it sounded exactly like the Israeli government – the furthest from a neutral arbiter. But now, even as BDS is gaining traction, the pro-Sodastream claims have multiplied too. Taken together, these critical and uncritical interviews shape the debate as an all-too-familiar war of facts, in which the testimony of Palestinian workers is wielded as the transcendent fact – able to speak beyond any kind of structural facts like Israel’s systematic denial of civil rights and its stifling of Palestinian economic growth.
And in a war of this kind of facts, the deck is somewhat stacked. The company decides who to invite; it influences what workers say; and workers are undoubtedly afraid to come out about abuses, because it is common for Israeli employers in the West Bank to fire Palestinians and revoke their work permits when they complain or try to organize. This is why the anti-SodaStream interview leaves the worker’s identity anonymous—which the Forward journalist predictably used to discredit the testimony.
Lest the recent articles lull us into thinking that maybe commercial life under occupation can be a walk in the park, let’s look further at how these facts are constituted, at the questions the authors assume are worth asking and those they leave out. This cannot be just some abstract academic exercise in historicizing facts; to paraphrase Gramsci, we don’t need detached knowledge but knowledge that helps subalterns win.
But this grave task – winning – doesn’t mean we can’t have a laugh (even a wry one). In that spirit, let us plunge further into the assumptions of a strange colonial universe in which Palestinian workers are portrayed as satisfied—even grateful—at being employed in the very Israeli settlements that colonize their land. What better gateway to this fanciful world than – ah, what’s this? – a manual for whitewashing occupation.
Manual for Whitewashing Occupation
Individualize and tokenize. The implicit assumption in these articles is that if one can find a few workers who will call their working conditions OK, then the company is OK and the issue is solved—no sense of connecting the particular to the general here! Such connections are what we can try to demonstrate. And the articles do operate on some more general rules of systemic racism: individualize (divide and conquer) and tokenize (let the marginalized individual stand for the group to justify the status quo). Here’s how it works.
An organized group of marginalized people is demanding systemic change? There are widespread accusations that their labor conditions are horrendous? Their civil rights in general are systematically denied? Find a few individuals who rely on the dominant group for work, go to their jobs and ask them if they want to be working there; when they equivocate and say ‘I want to make a living,’ ask no further questions, take the soundbite as positive, and imply that their claims speak for the whole group!
After all, as Dan Rabinowitz and others have shown, a key Israeli strategy for managing Israel’s non-Jewish, Palestinian citizens – after years of military rule, that is – has been granting them individual rights but not group rights. Call it divide and conquer – and the name of this Zionist game, our naïve journalists forget, is conquest. But the journalists do get this principle well enough to apply it across the Green Line too. In this strange universe, granting full and equal rights to non-Jews remains out of the question. The result: maintain a shaky regime of conquest, and try to make that seem legitimate.
With the collective or organized claims for equality or justice safely ignored, the marginalized individual can be paraded around as being treated all kinds of nice. This is a smart strategy, actually, because it is very hard, particularly for non-Palestinians, to ignore if Palestinians at the Sodastream factory say there are things they like about their job, that they’re happy to have a job, or that their wages there are higher than they would otherwise have. Most of the interviewees were also very clear that if they had an alternative to working in the settlements, they would. But the subtlety of this point is lost when disconnected from the systematic ways in which Israeli occupation suppresses the Palestinian economy.
Ask a Palestinian! The articles are peppered with happy phrases quoted from the Palestinian workers such as, “we are all family” (referring to the Jewish bosses) and “the pay is good.” These statements are supposed to settle the issue. By “even” speaking to Palestinian workers, these reporters claim to have settled the issue. But what makes it so remarkable that they spoke to Palestinian workers? None other than the blinders of the settler society’s liberal apologists!
For these apologists as for some Israeli government agencies, Palestinians as individuals are the subject of great care, interest and intervention – yet the collective fate of Palestinians can only ever be ultimately decided by expert opinion, and according to every last whim of Israel’s needs for recognition and security. Of course, according to the needs of Israel and the Western-backed sham peace process, the expert opinion that gets to decide Palestinian fate is usually not democratically determined by Palestinians. (See the Western-backed takeover of the democratically elected Hamas government in 2006…)
So, an interview with a Palestinian in this context is a kind of special occurrence – it enters the equation not out of concern for Palestinian collective fate, but to achieve the effect of telling an audience of liberal Jews or Israelis, “see, I even asked the Palestinians, and they ‘re ok with the situation!” Even. The exception. Because as a norm, seriously consulting with Palestinians, taking seriously their claims and their right to make them, would be far too unsettling. Activists should take note: The repetition of this circus of maintaining the legitimacy of the settler regime is far more damning than the specific facts they report within this circus. Hence a “centrist” position that argues the facts but does not go after the circus is rather problematic. Let us not be dragged into it.
Got a model factory? Let’s recapitulate what is in plain view – what some of the reporters mention, what the Israeli NGO Kav LaOved has reported on, and what workers are very forthright about: SodaStream’s is a model factory, retrofitted for display – and not characteristic of Israel’s West Bank industrial zones. Every modern oppressive apparatus worth its salt has a good model factory (the U.S. had model kitchens, and the analogies get more provocative from there.) Every social activist and journalist in Israel-Palestine knows: you are not going to get anywhere near this place without an invitation. And as Palestinian workers in the industrial area, and Kav LaOved staff, will tell you: SodaStream has become one of the good places to work – it is in the other 200 or so companies in this industrial area where some of the worst abuses occur. But having a factory that can produce flash videos and elicit positive statements from colonized workers is extremely important; without it, those other factories would be subject to even more withering critique. SodaStream plays a hugely important function in what the Israeli government considers an increasingly important “war,” the war for legitimacy.
Regardless of SodaStream, labor abuses are rampant in the neighboring factories of the industrial zone. But let’s say that conditions were great at SodaStream and even OK in the other couple hundred factories in the industrial zone (which they aren’t). Let’s add that Palestinian workers have gained some small concessions from their West Bank employers, including some collective bargaining agreements and some mostly unenforced rulings from Israeli courts. The point is that these positives can be taken away at any moment until the occupation ends. Occupation means that Palestinians at this plant are under the authority of Israel’s military, which grants them special permits to work every month; these permits are commonly revoked in retaliation for demanding decent labor conditions. How many violations there are in SodaStream is a sort of red herring, and not only because anyone deemed to be causing trouble is probably no longer there! Why would an extremely successful multinational company, well aware of the scrutiny it is under, with a well-oiled PR machine, leave any dirty laundry for journalists to see? In the storm of fascination with Scarlett, a basic sense of skepticism evaporated, even if only momentarily. This is not surprising but it should be alarming. As Israel’s abuses drag on and on, they charge us to be skeptical and thorough, but not necessarily to get dragged into a dry war of facts.
What might be more fun and equally effective at this moment is satire: having a laugh on, mobilizing a laugh against, the miserable ideological contortions of a colonialism in trouble.