This piece was written for the Forward, which published it Thursday in an abbreviated version in the print edition (not yet on-line). The entire piece is below.
Martin Buber tells the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, of the late 1700’s. A week before Passover, the great Rabbi was inspecting the local Matzah factory to make sure it was Kosher and, after completing his inspection, he said: “This factory is not Kosher.” When the shocked factory owner asked why and said, “We have followed all of the laws of Kashrut,“ the Rabbi explained, “The women in this factory work from early morning until late at night. They are laboring too long and too hard. They are not being paid fairly for their labors.”
And so he said, “This matzah is treif [not Kosher]. It is not Kosher because it was produced through oshek, oppression of the workers and exploitation.”
We thought of this story as the Forward’s and Jane Eisner’s coverage of Scarlett Johannson’s association with SodaStream unfolded. Palestinian workers are being exploited every day as they live under an oppressive military occupation that denies them their rights and their dignity. In response, the General Union of Palestinian Workers and all the other major elements of Palestinian society have called on the international community to pursue Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until conditions change. SodaStream is a target of the BDS call because it is an Israeli company whose main factory is located in the West Bank—thus profiting from the system by which millions are oppressed by the Occupation.
We were deeply disappointed that the Forward’s coverage of this affair was inaccurate, sloppy, and finally, we believe, unprincipled.
The Forward has a long and impressive history as a champion of social justice and workers’ rights, based in its roots in the early twentieth century as a voice for the Jewish working class. As Jane Eisner said in 2008, upon taking over editorship of the Forward, “I feel very strongly about the underlying values of social justice and equality that are really a part of the history here from the very beginning, and I admire that tremendously. I think that there was a real activist role that the Forward played in the community in its heyday and I think that could be again.”
Sadly, the Forward is not living up to its own history or to Eisner’s stated goals in this case.
While Scarlett Johannson’s association with SodaStream was already making international waves, Eisner was still sorting out the “competing claims,” an odd position for her to take in light of the extensive coverage the Forward has—to its credit—been giving the BDS movement. In a HuffPo interview, Eisner failed to mention the international consensus that building on occupied lands is illegal, or even acknowledge that the SodaStream factory is built on land that does not rightfully belong to Israel.
While Eisner proclaims that she is against the Occupation, she equally blames Israel (the occupier) and the Palestinians (the occupied). She says that she is in favor of a non-violent and just peace but undermines that statement by then claiming that all that is required is “an obligation to understand all sides of the story.” This perspective justifies permanent inaction, thus maintaining the status quo.
Nathan Jeffay displays the same approach in his piece, “Palestinian Workers Cheer SodaStream and Scarlett Johannson.” It features a long interview with SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum, who portrays himself as self-sacrificing for keeping the “pain in the ass” factory out of regard for his Palestinian workers, and also includes short quotes from two Palestinian workers inside the plant, as well as reports of cheers when Birnbaum gives a speech. Neither worker spoke about issues with the company, and Jeffay, it seems, didn’t make even the slightest effort to track down a single independent representative of Palestinian workers or the boycott movement to present an alternative view of SodaStream’s presence in the West Bank. In other words, the piece reads more like propaganda than investigative journalism.
In that sense, the Jeffay piece in the Forward is very much like coverage of South Africa in the 1980s under apartheid. For example, a piece about South Africa in the Christian Science Monitor in 1989 made the case against singling out apartheid South Africa, claiming that, “Blacks possess one of the highest living standards in all of Africa. Although black living conditions in South Africa (as in America) cover a wide spectrum, the housing is unequalled anywhere on the continent. Soweto is a proper city complete with schools, stores, theaters, sport stadiums and tennis courts.” From the vantage point of history, we all understand how discredited this argument is.
The Forward wrapped up its coverage of SodaStream with an editorial entitled “Bursting Bubbles of SodaStream Haters,” which, from its title onward, seeks to portray advocates of BDS as irrational “haters” as opposed to legitimate actors with a political viewpoint. Citing Jeffay’s “excellent examination of controversial claims,” the editorial tries to make the case that Palestinian society is divided by BDS tactics, which is demonstrably untrue. Further, it claims that “There’s a certain arrogance in promoting a boycott from the safety and security of America that would economically damage workers who really need those jobs, and who appear to be treated fairly inside the factory walls.” This willfully ignores the fact that Palestinian workers are exploited on a daily basis and that the call for BDS, which has the support of people across the globe, comes from a groundswell of Palestinians themselves.
Again, this is eerily similar to perspectives put forth against the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa. For example, in 1983, the New York Times ran an op-ed that included this remarkably similar quote against divestment from South Africa: “American liberals, and other well-meaning people, from the safety and comfort of their high-rise apartments, say yes….But if you ask South African blacks, the supposed beneficiaries of disinvestment, you get a different answer….”
Yet of course we now know from history how important divestment efforts were to ending Apartheid in South Africa and how strongly the South African black community supported these efforts.
We hope that in the future, as in Buber’s story, the Forward will honor those Jewish values that place justice above all, and live up to its own roots as a champion for social justice, whether that struggle takes place in the Lower East Side or in Palestine.
Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, is on the board of Jewish Voice for Peace and is a founding member of Jews Say No! Rebecca Vilkomerson is the Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace (www.jvp.org)