This past February, at the beginning of our Palestine olive tree planting trip sponsored by the Joint Advocacy Initiative of the Beit Sahour YMCA we had the opportunity to take a tour, led by a prominent Israeli human rights activist, through the large illegal Israeli settlement known as Ma’ale Adumim, and then its industrial park known as Moshe Adumim. That park, of course, is the location of the Sodastream manufacturing plant that is part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) boycott policy regarding products manufactured in these illegal settlements in the West Bank.
Pro-Israeli Presbyterians who oppose boycott, of course, are up in arms about this policy, and recently sponsored a trip through the America-Israel Friendship League (AIFL) designed for “delegates” from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who self-identified as having previously “endorsed boycotts.” The purpose of the trip, of course, was to change their minds before the next Presbyterian General Assembly so that they could stand in opposition to BDS initiatives. This was all happening about the same time that our international delegation of 50 olive tree planters found ourselves outside the gates of the same Sodastream plant where these AIFL- sponsored Presbyterians got the VIP treatment. Since some commissioners to the 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh had to admit that they had been provided with free trips before the national meeting in 2012, creating both a stir and embarrassment, groups like AIFL have changed tactics and are now providing such trips not to actual commissioners but to those who can go and lobby them at the 221st General Assembly meeting in Detroit this June.
The opponents of the Sodastream boycott cite the usual statistics: 1300 Sodastream employees including 500 Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, and 450 Israeli Arabs and Jews. The difference between these two latter categories, of course, is that Israeli Arabs live out the equivalent of what once was the Jim Crow legal structure of the American south.
Let’s be clear: It is a nice thing, sort of, that Sodastream employs so many Palestinians, especially since Israeli occupation makes it impossible for Palestinian society to do the same for its own people. And even in Israel proper, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship do not get very many good jobs because most require previous Israeli military service and Palestinians are generally exempted from such service by the Israeli government. Yes, it is nice that over 500 Palestinians have jobs at Sodastream and make a relatively decent living, but that puts them in a very small Palestinian minority. Understandably, no Palestinian employed there is going to voice complaints about actual work conditions or the fact that the very existence of Sodastream in the West Bank, and the political system and physical infrastructure that makes this possible, is exactly what is wrong with the occupation. Israelis and their businesses should not be there. In fact, according to international law they are not supposed to be. Palestinians are the only ones who are supposed to have access to the land and resources, systematically stolen from them, so that they can set up shop, create productive businesses and have ultimate control over their own economic and national destinies. What is wrong with the Sodastream plant in Moshe Adumim? It’s the occupation, stupid! It is what Scarlett Johansson inexplicably does not understand even after serving as a spokesperson for Oxfam, one of the leading human rights organizations in the world. Yes, it is possible to go there and not have a clue about what is actually going on.
I am wondering if anyone in that Presbyterian delegation did anything close to what we were doing during our simultaneous sojourn in Israel/Palestine. I am guessing that when we went back to our hotel in Beit Sahour, behind this sign,
they went back to their cushy hotel rooms somewhere in West Jerusalem. I once stayed at the cushy King Solomon Hotel on my very first “all Israeli tour” in 2001. It is very nice, and about as far away from seeing the reality of brutal Israeli occupation in Palestine as you can get. The Second Intifadeh was raging and our guide never mentioned it. He seemed genuinely perturbed when we asked questions about seeing low-flying Israeli fighters while in the West Bank and hearing explosions in the distance. In fact, it is quite easy to travel from Jerusalem on Israeli-only highways, go right through the entrance of Moshe Adumim, drive to the Sodastream plant, and never see Palestinian life in any form whatsoever. It is good, I suppose, that they got inside the factory to talk to actual Palestinians, otherwise they might have spoken to none at all. In contrast, however, we were working in the olive fields of Palestinian farmers while the Israeli military with imposing assault weapons was harassing them, and us. We were also walking the streets of Beit Sahour, behind those red signs, even at night, feeling very safe and engaging with everyday Palestinians wherever we went. We heard their stories and their struggles firsthand and know why everything about the AIFL trip to convince American Presbyterians that there’s nothing to be concerned about is an immoral mockery of this intense human struggle for freedom and human rights.
But if you are not convinced by that, try this on for size: While in the bus looking out the window at the Sodastream plant, a number of us wanted to get out and take a picture. Our Palestinian bus driver got very nervous and pleaded with us not to do that. He asked that we take pictures quickly from inside the bus so that he could get out of there before being spotted. He told us it was possible that authorities could come and hassle him at that moment, but wouldn’t do much because we were present. But what he was really worried about were the repercussions that would come later when we were not around and authorities would find him at his workplace or in his home where he could be intensely questioned, harassed, and even arrested in the presence of his wife and children. He was genuinely afraid about that. This was the same story we heard from the Palestinian olive farmers who told us that although they would not be hassled in our presence, there was always a possibility that the military would show up at their homes later, when we were gone, to make their lives miserable.
Do you think those Presbyterian delegates for AIFL heard anything like that inside the Sodastream plant?
The true shame of this cynical exercise is that they walked away seeing only what their hosts wanted them to see, and hearing only what their hosts wanted them to hear. So when they show up at the General Assembly meeting this summer and start saying that what they experienced was wonderful and even just, it will be important for commissioners to realize that the extremely small cross-section of Palestinians this group heard from still really do have struggles and fears no different from any other Palestinian. They just do not want to talk about it because their jobs are on the line. There were slaves following the American Civil War who did not want to leave the plantations, after all. The absolute worst part of occupation (like slavery) is the overwhelming conviction on the part of the victims that they cannot make it on their own. The vast majority of Palestinians (some fortunate enough to have jobs like our bus driver) live in fear that occupiers will come to their homes to hassle them, arrest them, tear down their homes, and make their lives even worse than what they already are.
Most telling is this testimony, in a recent New York Times article, from a Palestinian who repairs Israeli Army jeeps for a living: “I feel like I’m not a human being—we are serving the occupation. I am forced to work here because I have a house, I have a family. Tomorrow, if there is another place to work, if there is work in Palestine, I will do it.”
The owners and managers of Sodastream could literally do everything right and yet they would still be absolutely wrong because it does not matter what they do, it matters who they are: Sustainers of an illegal, ridiculously prolonged, intensely humiliating, unapologetically brutal, and morally bankrupt occupation of another people. And there’s nothing light and bubbly about that.