Actress and SodaStream spokesperson Scarlett Johansson accused the international charity Oxfam of “funding” the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in an interview with the Guardian. Journalist Carole Cadwalladr contacted Oxfam for fair comment in her report where Johansson reaffirmed support for the controversial Israeli factory located over the Green Line. But the take was skimpy. Here’s Cadwalladr and Johansson (who is quoted first):
‘There’s plenty of evidence that Oxfam does support and has funded a BDS [boycott, divest, sanctions] movement in the past. It’s something that can’t really be denied.’ When I contacted Oxfam, it denied this.
After reading the interview I contacted Oxfam for a more detailed response. The head of media Matthew Grainger said via email:
We appreciate Ms Johansson’s past work as an Ambassador for Oxfam International and we share her desire for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Middle East.
Oxfam is not opposed to trade with Israel and we do not fund activities such as BDS that call for a boycott of Israel. Oxfam works with almost 50 Israeli and Palestinian organisations to reduce poverty and address injustice. Our work focuses on agricultural development, emergency and primary health, education, protection of civilians, and the rights of women. For example, we support cooperatives of women olive producers to improve the quality of their oil and reach wider markets.
In our daily work we see the negative impact of Israeli settlements on the lives and livelihoods of Palestinian businesses, farmers and herders. Some Palestinians do find work in settlement farms and factories, but this is often because they are restricted from pursuing other livelihoods and have little other choice.
In February Oxfam already addressed their stance on BDS in a FAQ on their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One question asked “Does Oxfam support a boycott of Israel?”. The answer:
No. We oppose trade with Israeli settlements in the West Bank because they are illegally built on occupied land, increase poverty among Palestinians, and threaten the chances of a two-state solution. However, we are not opposed to trade with Israel and we do not support a boycott of Israel, or any other country.
We do not fund activities that call for a boycott, divestment or sanctions. Oxfam believes that a vibrant civil society is the best way to overcome global poverty and injustice, and we know that a strong civil society will have many different opinions and approaches. We work with more than 30 diverse Israeli and Palestinian partners and we do not expect that all of them agree with us on all policy issues. Some of them may support a boycott, but we do not fund this part of their work.
Oxfam also does not fund or support any organizations that promote anti-Semitic or any other discriminatory practices, or advocate violence. We believe that trade with settlements, or companies located in settlements, contributes to legitimizing their presence and denying the rights of Palestinians. We promote ethical consumption and we support the right of consumers to know the origin of the products they purchase. Therefore we urge the Israeli government to ensure proper labeling of Israeli products and of settlement products so that consumers can differentiate between them. [Emphasis in original]
Moreover, Oxfam runs programs inside of Israel for the benefit of impoverished Israelis, including dialogue programs that do not meet the guidelines set out by the BDS movement. Here’s a description of their work from Oxfam’s website:
In Israel, we work with partners that reach out to communities that have been traditionally marginalized, including impoverished Ethiopian-Jewish communities, Mizrahi and other immigrant women’s groups, disenfranchised youth, Bedouins, and Arab citizens of Israel. We have also supported community groups in southern Israel that promote dialogue and an end to cross border violence. Oxfam also works with Israeli human rights organizations protecting the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Yet the mystery remains, who told Johansson it “can’t really be denied” that Oxfam supports BDS? That answer is SodaStream, specifically its CEO Daniel Birnbaum who made the first and same public accusation in Haaretz last month. “Unsurprisingly, Oxfam has joined the BDS in this movement [to close down the West Bank factory],” said Birnbaum, continuing, “I’m saying unsurprisingly because we found out that some of the Oxfam branches have been donating funds to the BDS, and this money is used to demonize and attack Israel.”
Birnbaum then went on to stress that he personally advises Johansson, which would explain to followers of “SodaGate” why the actress’s remarks sound like talking points from the company that employs her. Again from Haaretz:
Birnbaum said he has been in touch with her regularly since her decision to cut ties with Oxfam. ‘She was very disturbed by having to withdraw from Oxfam,’ he said. “In her words, she loved working for them, and she felt that their cause, to fight poverty around the world, was a very important cause. She did not leave them wantingly, and I felt bad for the way it all evolved, but in the end I believe that it will be for the better because by leaving Oxfam – this is my interpretation – she’s actually exposed the hypocrisy of that organization that because of political motivations, perhaps because of financial motivations.
Birnbaum’s accusations were lobbed at Oxfam during a press call organized by The Israel Project, an advocacy group whose raison d’être is connecting journalists—from Wolf Blitzer to Jon Stewart—to pro-Israel talking points.
Still some confusion over Oxfam’s stance on the BDS movement is warranted. In the past they funded the Coalition of Women for Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian feminist organization that oversees the Who Profits from the Israeli Occupation? project. Who Profits was “initiated in response to the Palestinian call for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement,” but the organization’s role is not advocacy. They produce reports and have a popular online portal with information about Israeli and international companies that violate international law by setting up shop on occupied territory. With respect to SodaStream, the group drafted a case study that implicated the carbonated device manufacturer with trade fraud. Who Profits discovered SodaStream products shipped to the European market mislabeled as being produced in “Airport City, Ben Gurion Airport,” rather than in a settlement.
Because of Who Profits’s research mislabeled products, or products and services that violate a corporation’s social responsibility policy have lost contracts. Indeed Birnbaum have even stated the BDS movement is a financial “risk factor” for SodaStream. It may be understandable that there was an initial misunderstanding regarding Oxfam’s policy towards BDS, however the charity has repeatedly provided clarification that Birnbaum and through his advisement, Johansson, have chosen to ignore.