In sensitivity to Palestinian students, Harvard is moving away from SodaStream

Activism

In the Spring semester of 2014, Palestinian students and allies of the struggle for Palestinian rights at Harvard University were outraged to find the SodaStream label on water machines in five house dining halls, including Mather, Lowell, and Currier. SodaStream is a beverage machine company notorious for operating out of an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. Israeli settlements on Palestinian land are a constant and state-sponsored project, with Palestinian villages demolished and hundreds of families displaced every year to make room for new, exclusively Israeli neighborhoods, complete with segregated buses and highways. These settlements have been condemned universally, including by the UN and the Obama administration, as one of the most significant impediments to the peace process between Palestine and Israel. They are considered illegal due to their directly contradicting land treaties and agreements signed by both Israel and Palestine.

SodaStream also appeared in the news last year when their celebrity spokesperson, Scarlett Johansson, was forced to resign from her role as Oxfam Ambassador due to her continued appearance in Sodastream advertisements. Oxfam stated, “businesses that operate in settlements, such as SodaStream, further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.” Scarlett Johansson chose to leave Oxfam. Now, in the face of this international outcry and plummeting profits, SodaStream announced that it will soon be moving its main production facility out of the West Bank.

For Palestinian students at Harvard, the presence of the SodaStream label represented a direct endorsement of land theft that has destroyed their communities and left thousands without homes. Students quickly brought the issue to the attention of the Mather house masters, Dr. Michael Rosengarten and Dr. Christie McDonald, who to their credit, responded thoughtfully and immediately, organizing a meeting with Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde, representatives from Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS), and Dr. Allen Counter, Director of the Harvard Foundation. A subsequent meeting occurred with Interim Dean of the College Donald Pfister. A final meeting was arranged in Lowell House, to be moderated by Professor Diana Eck, Lowell House Master and Director of the Pluralism Project. Present at this meeting were representatives of Harvard College, HUDS, students supporting the move away from SodaStream, and students opposing it. The discussion was vibrant and productive, culminating in a verbal commitment by HUDS to purchase from vendors other than SodaStream in the future. The aformentioned meetings took place from February 2014 to March 2014, with the release of a statement (copied below) by Professor Diana Eck on April 7, 2014. In the weeks after our final meeting, HUDS showed their commitment to this decision by cancelling an order they had already made for a new SodaStream machine in Adams House, paying the restocking fee, and making an order from a different company.

On behalf of Palestinian rights activists here at Harvard, including members of the Progressive Jewish Alliance who helped us tremendously in this effort, we would like to thank HUDS and the Harvard administration, particularly the House Masters, for their decision to stand on the side of international justice as well as sensitivity to their own students. The discussion surrounding this move was enlightening, and we hope these events will only spur further discussion on the issues of Palestinian human rights and a lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians.

Contact the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee at: [email protected]

Portions of this article were originally published in the Harvard Crimson on December 18th, 2014.

About Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee

The Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee, founded in 2002, is dedicated to supporting the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and equality. The PSC is non-sectarian and believes that true peace will be reached only when self-determination and equality are guaranteed to Palestinians.

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4 Responses

  1. Henry Norr
    December 21, 2014, 11:32 pm

    Harvard higher-ups have now over-ruled this decision. From Charlotte Silver in the Electronic Intifada:

    Top Harvard University officials have stepped in after campus food services administrators agreed to remove the SodaStream label from equipment in their dining halls and not to make any new purchases from the company.

    The decision to boycott SodaStream came after a series of meetings with faculty and concerned students to discuss the implications of using a product manufactured in an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.

    But now Harvard University Dining Services is reconsidering its decision on the grounds that it should not have taken “political” factors into account. This flatly contradicts a decision in another recent case — that administrators did not contest — to boycott a company whose chair made anti-gay comments.

    Read the rest at http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/charlotte-silver/harvard-boycotted-company-anti-gay-stance-says-sodastream-ban-too-political

    • Walid
      December 22, 2014, 1:23 am

      Henry, these little BDS victories and losses are of little significance in the global context of Israel’s overall economy and how much it’s getting out of Arab states. So we win one little battle at Harvard about the relatively insignificant SodaStream, which we may end up losing, but in the same time period, Jordan’s government whose 3/4 of its citizens are of Palestinian descent and hurting for what’s happening to their bretheren in Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine, goes on to sign a 15-year $15 billion deal to buy gas from none other than the bad guys, The irony of this is that Qatar with its huge gas production is known to be extra lenient on prices it charges poorer Arab states in need of its gas. And if not Qatar, Algeria another Arab state that’s also super rich in gas production would have surely helped out Jordan. Either way, Jordan cannot pay for the gas whether from Arab states or from Israel and the money for it has to come from foreign grants, a good part coming from the Arabs states, so one could say that these other Arabs will be contributing to Israel’s economy. This week, Jordanian parliamentarians are threatening to bring the government down if it decides to go through with the Israeli deal.

      All this to say that this BDS victory and other ones that have us thumping our chests is somewhat absurd in light of the countereffect created by Jordan’s dealing with Israel and Egypt too that signed a similar deal. BTW, Egypt will be paying for its Israeli gas 4 times what it was itself charging Israel when it was supplying it with gas. A few weeks back, there was a report on the UAE government having awarded an Israeli company a $300 million contract for security equipment. I think BDS has to re-orient its overall direction. There’s also talk about a super gas deal project between Israel and Turkey. These all make the battle over SodaStream at Harvard insignifant.

      • Henry Norr
        December 22, 2014, 2:37 am

        Thanks for that important perspective, Walid. Couple of points:

        1) For whatever it was or wasn’t worth, we can no longer classify this episode as a “BDS victory.” If you read Charlotte’s piece, you’ll see that Harvard’s provost (second highest official) pretty definitively overturned the dining service’s decision to cancel the order from SodaStream: “Harvard University’s procurement decisions should not and will not be driven by individuals’ views of highly contested matters of political controversy.”

        2) As for the larger picture, I agree with you that the issues the BDS movement has focused on in the US are of little economic significance in the context of the overall Israeli economy. So even when, occasionally, we win, and some BDS proponents claim we’ve done real damage to Israel’s economy, that’s really not even close to true, IMO. (Sodastream may be a partial exception – the boycott and negative press almost certainly made some contribution to the recent sharp decline in their sales, and though soda machines are hardly a strategic sector, that has certainly hurt their investors. Things are also a little different in Europe, where reducing Israel’s ability to sell agricultural exports would have a real impact on some sectors – not the most powerful, but substantial – of the Israeli economy.)

        But from my perspective (definitely not shared by all BDS activists) pointing out the economic insignificance of the BDS issues is beside the point, because at this stage these battles are really political – some might say symbolic – even though they take an economic form. In other words, organizing even around pretty trivial economic interests (Sodastream, Sabra hummus, etc.) is a vehicle for educating more Americans about the realities of Israel and its abuse of the Palestinians. (This is one reason I find Chomsky’s critique so absurd: he says we have to educate the public before BDS activism can be meaningful, but he refuses to see that BDS work is precisely a mechanism for educating people.)

        Some day, if we can continue to educate and organize people around this issue, we can hope to get into a position to impose some more substantial economic costs on Israel. For now, though, that’s only a dream. For the sake of the Palestinians I sure we wish could mount more effective economic pressure now, but we have to face the realities and work through the process. If you look at the history of the anti-South African apartheid struggle in the US, it followed a similar trajectory: it wasn’t until the last years of the old regime that the anti-apartheid movement was powerful enough to inflict serious economic damage on the South African ruling class (when IBM, Chase Manhattan, and so on were finally forced to pull out), But that never would have happened if (among other factors) activists hadn’t been working for decades to build a movement by fighting around issues that were more symbolic. (And, of course, if the South African masses hadn’t continued to wage their heroic struggle, and if the Cuban army hadn’t defeated the South African “Defence” Forces at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola, and so on – I find it pretty disgusting when BDS proponents talk as if Western activism was the sole or most important factor in ending South African apartheid.)

        With respect to the BDS movement needing to “re-orient its overall direction,” could you elaborate on what that would look like? It sounds like you’re suggesting that we should focus on issues like Jordan’s gas deal and the UAE’s purchase of Israeli security equipment. But how could activists in this country get any kind of leverage on issues like that, if US companies are not directly involved?

      • Walid
        December 22, 2014, 3:37 am

        Thanks for the reply, Henry, I hadn’t accounted for the major thrust on settlements agricultural products in Europe. My hope is to see the orientation being aimed directly at Israel rather than just its settlements activities. I’m all for BDS and happy to have it around, but I feel it will take an eternity to reach the point you mentioned about South Africa that had just about everything about it boycotted. About your question on the reorientation in the states instead of picketing Leviev’s store on upper Madison Ave. for the sake of Bi’lin, they could be picketing the various consulates of countries that deal with Israel. Leviev has had a jewelry store where he’s surely making a ton of money in Dubai, or Jordan’s because of the gas deal. It was such noise that caused Saudi Arabia to reconsider dealing with Veolia that it was giving billions in contracts while it was stil involved in building Jerusalem’s tram line into the WB. Europe’s BDS is much more active as its going after supermarket chains, banking, transportation companies and other things. Arabs are almost doing nothing at all with forces in most Arab countries working at normalization with Israel.

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