By John Reed in Jerusalem – Financial Times
?If only I could make this message go viral,? Scarlett Johansson muses in her new advertisement for SodaStream, the Israeli home fizzy-drink dispenser company that helps the environment, she says, by using ?less sugar, less bottles?.
Ms Johansson?s new brand ambassador role and advert for SodaStream, launched online earlier this month and due to air during next Sunday?s Super Bowl, has indeed now gone viral ? but in ways neither the husky-voiced Hollywood actress nor the Nasdaq-listed company probably imagined.
The international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has seized on Ms Johansson and her association with SodaStream as a rare opportunity to add some unpaid star wattage to their long-running campaign to isolate Israel economically until it withdraws from occupied Palestinian land.
SodaStream makes some of its dispensers, CO2 cylinders and bottles at a former munitions factory in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone, outside Jerusalem, in one of Israel?s sprawling settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are illegal under international law.
BDS campaigners are now gathering signatures to pressure Oxfam, for which Ms Johansson has also served as an ambassador since 2005, to drop her. The charity says it is opposed to all trade with Israeli settlements, and that it is now ?engaged in dialogue? with Ms Johansson over her association with Oxfam.
The ScarJo/SodaStream conundrum has given birth to its own internet memes: Photoshopped images of Ms Johansson sipping soda complacently alongside Palestinians crammed into an Israeli checkpoint, or smiling as she dispenses drinks in front of Israel?s concrete separation wall that runs through the West Bank, and saying: ?Set the bubbles free! Palestinians can wait.?
Activists have launched the Twitter hashtag #ScarJos FavoriteSodaStream Flavor, garnering suggestions such as Doctor Pepper Spray, Gaza Calorie Count and Palestinian Punch.
SodaStream employs about 500 Palestinians at the Mishor Adumim factory, who work alongside about 400 Israeli Jews and another 400 Arabs with Israeli citizenship. It says it pays its workers four to six times the wages available in the Palestinian Authority, arguing ? like other Israeli companies in the expanding industrial zones laced into the settlements ? that it promotes jobs and peaceful coexistence.
?The boycotters are actually demonstrating a complete lack of humanitarian sensitivity to the thousands of people that benefit from the stable economic opportunity that we provide,? said Yonah Lloyd, SodaStream?s president.
As the controversy began to bubble last week, Ms Johansson defended SodaStream, saying the company was ?not only committed to the environment, but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine?.
Campaigners are having nothing of this. ?Palestinians are in a captive economy, so it?s not a bridge to peace,? said Rafeef Ziadah, a campaigner with the London-based Palestinian Boycott National Committee, of the Mishor Adumim factory. ?It?s a bridge to continuing the occupation and cementing the apartheid policies that exist.?
Ms Johansson?s involvement with SodaStream, while bringing the BDS movement attention it rarely receives outside activist circles, is also being watched anxiously in Israel.
Moderate figures in Benjamin Netanyahu?s rightwing government, led by Yair Lapid, finance minister, and Tzipi Livni, justice minister, have recently warned of the increasing danger of an international economic boycott of Israel if its current peace talks with the Palestinians fail.
Naftali Bennett, economy minister, who heads the pro-settler Jewish Home party, has in turn accused Ms Livni and others of fanning the threat of a boycott by talking about it. In a speech to his party faction last week, Mr Bennett warned that Israel?s economy would be ?decimated? by a Palestinian state, which he claimed would leave Israel vulnerable to attack from radicals in the West Bank. ?What if once a year a plane will crash at Ben Gurion airport?? he asked.
BDS activists claim their campaign is scoring more victories in its push to force companies it says support the occupation to change their policies. A handful of multinational companies, including Vitens, the Dutch water company, and British security group G4S, have recently cancelled contracts involving settlements after coming under pressure from campaigners.
Companies based exclusively in the settlements account for a small part of Israel?s economy, and are rarely large or international enough to serve as effective targets for activists. However, the Dutch pension fund PGGM earlier this month divested several million euros from Israel?s five largest banks because they have branches in settlements, in a move some Israelis saw as an ominous sign of things to come.
SodaStream has seen its share price drop by about 20 per cent this month, although this had largely to do with a profit warning that rattled shareholders. The advert is due to run during this Sunday?s Super Bowl, minus Ms Johansson?s words ?Sorry, Coke and Pepsi?, to which broadcaster Fox objected.
Whether the Israeli company?s association with the settlements proves good or bad for its image or that of its new spokeswoman, the ad has been a media success: it has now been viewed on YouTube more than 1.2m times.