Op-Ed by Mady Frischer
In 2014, Scarlett Johansson found herself under extreme scrutiny after starring in a Superbowl ad, as the brand ambassador for the Israeli-made home soda system, SodaStream. SodaStream allows consumers to make soda water or lower sugar sodas in the comfort of their own home and uses reusable containers to prevent waste from single-use plastic bottles.
SodaStream was facing significant criticism, however, because one of their factories was located on an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. When asked about the factory, Johansson commented, “I was aware of that particular factory before I signed. And it still doesn't seem like a problem – at least not until someone comes up with a solution to the closing of that factory and leaving all those people destitute.”
The popular Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement targeted SodaStream and boycotted the company, claiming that despite evidence to the contrary, Palestinians faced discrimination and lower wages in the SodaStream facility. Finally, CEO David Birnbaum, moved the factory out of the West Bank and into the Negev. Hundreds of Palestinians found themselves unemployed as they were not able to procure work documents to travel over the 1967 armistice line. Ali Jafar, a former Palestinian SodaStream employee, said to the press, “All the people who wanted to close [SodaStream’s West Bank factory] are mistaken. … They didn’t take into consideration the families.” Hundreds of people once able to provide for their families were now without a source of income.
In the case of SodaStream and the BDS movement, the effect of boycotts on businesses for the sake of human rights or peace can actually be a roadblock to their goals.
Boycott, Divest and Sanction Movement
The Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement has been gaining popularity for more than a decade. BDS is now a global movement that has gained the support of unions, academic associations, churches and grassroots movements across the world. Its approach has 3 parts, as described in its name: boycott, divestment and sanctions. Boycott means withdrawing support for Israel or Israeli products. Divestment is campaigned to urge banks, churches, universities and others to withdraw investments from all Israeli companies and from international companies involved in violating Palestinian rights. Finally, sanctions are the push for governments to oppose Israel by ending military trade, free trade agreements, and expelling Israel from international forums like the UN.
Through its three-part protest, the movement hopes to force Israel to allow for the Palestinian right of return, the end of occupation and the return of all Israeli territories (including in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Syria and Lebanon), and the end to Israel’s denial of UN-sanctioned rights of Palestinian refugees. Founder of the BDS movement Omar Barghouti outlines these goals as the “minimal requirements for a just peace” in his book BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights.
Barghouti, has been outspoken about his excitement over the closure of the SodaStream West Bank factory. “This is a clear-cut BDS victory against an odiously complicit Israeli company,” he said on the subject to the press. Furthermore, now that the factory has been moved to the Negev, the BDS movement continues to boycott the company, because the land the factory is now on was previously promised to Arab Bedouins for resettlement.. SodaStream employs more than 300 Bedouins at their new factory.
The BDS movement fails in many ways to fulfill its own goals. Beyond anti-Semitic overtones, it fails to aid the people that it seeks to advocate for. BDS was inspired by the successful anti-apartheid boycotts against South Africa, which is why BDS continuously attempts to declare Israel “an apartheid state.” By aligning with this previously successful movement, BDS frames boycotts as the best way to advocate for human rights. However, not all boycotts are well-intentioned. In the 1930s, a Nazi-run boycott of Jewish businesses increased anti-Semitism and violence against Jews. In fact, this boycott spread to Poland, planting the seeds for the Holocaust in the next years.
BDS is also helping aid the rise in anti-Semitism. The movement claims to be “an inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement that is opposed on principle to all forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.” However, BDS targets Israel in a blatantly anti-Semitic way. Natan Sharansky, Israeli human rights activist, outlines the a test for modern anti-Semitism with “the 3 Ds.” The first “D” stands for demonization, which is “when Israel's actions are blown out of all sensible proportion; when comparisons are made between Israelis and Nazis and between Palestinian refugee camps and Auschwitz; this is anti- Semitism, not legitimate criticism of Israel.” BDS supporters frequently draw parallels between Israel and Nazis through political cartoons, chants and protest signs during rallies. The second “D” is for double standards. The BDS movement unfairly calls out Israel for human rights violations while ignoring terrorism from Palestinian terror groups and not protesting human rights violations by China, Iran, Cuba, Syria and several other countries. The final “D” is delegitimization, which is when Israel’s right to exist is denied as the sold Jewish state. In addition to the BDS movement failing all three D’s thus qualifying as an anti-semitic movement, they further spread anti-Semitic cartoons and rhetoric that mock Jewish stereotypes.
Beyond anti-Semitism, BDS ends up negatively impacting the Palestinian victims themselves. On college campuses, BDS-related protest ends up creating bigger issues, and headlines become more about the controversy or the detriments of the protest rather than the plight of Palestinians. Sometimes, the aggression of protestors shocks the public more than the crimes of the Israeli army. Noam Chomsky has even warned against the BDS movement claiming that “those who are sincerely dedicated to the Palestinian cause should avoid illusion and myth, and think carefully about the tactics they choose and the course they follow.” Chomsky makes clear that BDS is not an effective method to help suffering Palestinians.
When it comes to boycotting businesses in the West Bank such as SodaStream, the BDS movement has a counterproductive effect, and Palestinians are still negatively impacted. In the 16 industrial zones in the West Bank, it is estimated that more than 11,000 Palestinians are employed working for Israeli companies. In these jobs, wages are double the average wage for the West Bank, at 120 NIS a day. As BDS’ influence increases, however, and more and more Israeli companies begin to move out of the West Bank, negative changes to the Palestinian economy are already occurring. In 2017, the growth to Palestinian GDP was 2.7 percent, but it decreased to 2.5 percent in 2018 and is predicted to drop further to 2.3 percent in the next two years. This decrease in GDP growth implies a decline in real per capita income as well as increased unemployment. In fact, as of 2017, unemployment rates in the West Bank remained high at 27 percent. The World Bank has determined that only 41 percent of 15-29 year olds were active in the labor market and that 21 percent of Palestinians live below the $5.50 a day poverty line. Continuing to remove employment opportunities from the West Bank will only increase unemployment and decrease per capita income. BDS thinks it’s helping Palestinians, but it’s damaging their economy.
The BDS movement ignores the nuances of Israeli businesses that operate in the West Bank and continues to ignore the positive impact those companies can have on the Palestinian economy. A beneficial alternative to asking for the closure of the businesses would be to encourage Israeli companies to take on Palestinian partners at the executive level. This suggestion comes from President and CEO of the Middle East Investment Initiative, Jim Pickup. Pickup explained that one of the major issues that critics of Israeli companies in the West Bank have is that they are perceived to be exploiting Palestinian labor. By taking on Palestinian partners, Israeli companies would become a “marriage of equals” that could improve Israeli-Palestinian relationships and ultimately lead to more peaceful results than what the BDS movement could provide. No matter the intentions of BDS, the effects of its protest have not benefited the Palestinian people, and moving business out of the West Bank will continue to damage the Palestinian economy.