I’d given up all carbonated drinks over a decade ago (sorry Coke and Pepsi… and SodaStream) so I have no brand loyalty when it comes to SodaStream or any other sparkling beverage. But thanks to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and Oxfam, SodaStream has become the latest flash-point in the demonization campaign against Israel.
So, despite the fact that Scarlett Johansson was not going to be there, I jumped at the opportunity to visit SodaStream’s factory in Mishor Adumim, some ten minutes outside Jerusalem.
I joined a group of some 40 journalists representing media outlets from across the globe, all of them drawn to a story that has received a remarkable amount of attention in recent days.
It has it all – the glamorous movie star, a dispute with a major “human rights” organization, controversy over Israeli “settlements,” an international boycott campaign, a Super Bowl ad. What more could you want from a story involving Israelis and Palestinians?
SodaStream, to its credit, has come out fighting against the campaign being waged against it. After visiting the factory, meeting Palestinian employees and hearing from CEO Daniel Birnbaum, I could see that the BDS brigade had picked the wrong target on so many levels.
Here is a company that was not only promoting less sugary beverages and environmentalism, but also promotes peace between peoples by creating workplace coexistence.
A cacophony of noise from machinery greeted us as we entered the factory work space. Dozens of workers sitting at production lines manually putting together the familiar bottles and soda-making machines found in homes around the world. The media pack was literally let loose in the factory to roam with microphones and cameras in hand with no restrictions on who to grab for an interview or comment.
I’m not a journalist by trade and I must admit to feeling uncomfortable with the way that the workers putting together the recyclable bottles and carbonating machines were on display. Whether they liked it or not, they would find themselves the subjects of the cameras.
Interestingly, there were also a few Arab women, clearly observant Muslims, working side-by-side with the men on the factory floor – a further sign that SodaStream runs a “progressive” workplace.
Much has already been written about how the SodaStream factory employs nearly 1300 people, 500 of them Palestinians from the West Bank and another 450 Israeli Arabs and how they work as a “family” with Jewish co-workers, earning far more than the average West Bank wage and employment benefits.
But this was a chance to hear from the workers themselves, many of whom were happy to go on the record with the journalists there. I wandered around the factory listening to Palestinian workers extolling the virtues of working at SodaStream. The overwhelming impression was of a workforce that was truly invested in what they were doing. No senior managers looked over their shoulders or ours while these interviews were taking place.
When one Palestinian worker repeatedly told me “I love SodaStream,” he wasn’t just referring to the fizzy stuff. He told me how much he appreciated working for a company that treated all of its employees well, paid them a good wage and created a working environment where everyone was part of a family irrespective of nationality. Many expressed similar sentiments.
Granted, I’m not sure how much I’d “love” working on a production line for a living but the employees I heard from flatly denied there was any discrimination between Jews and Arabs pointing to the equal opportunities that existed in the company.
Following this, we had the opportunity for a Q and A with SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum. Much of the questioning demonstrated the journalists’ framing of the issue – it was all about the “settlements.”
The opening question was a statement from one journalist that the location of the factory in “occupied territory” was an “obstacle to peace” and how could Birnbaum not see the contradictions between this and his vision of bringing Jews and Arabs together in the workplace. Birnbaum replied by asking how could a place of employment be an obstacle to peace?
He pointed out that the factory at Mishor Adumim is not a settlement but an industrial zone and and as far as he was concerned, he would operate the factory whether it was under Israeli or Palestinian control. After all, SodaStream has a factory in China along with 21 other countries. Does that mean that it is occupying China?
When asked about the effect of the BDS campaign on SodaStream’s business, Birnbaum pointed to 30-40% growth over the past five years. The people who pay the price for boycotts are the Palestinian workers themselves. Some Scandinavian countries have demanded that their SodaStream products be sourced from elsewhere, instead preferring that they get their goods made in that beacon of human rights, China. Were it not for a boycott like this, the Mishor Adumim factory would employ more Palestinians.
Asked about the current controversy and publicity, Birnbaum stated that it is convenient and popular to demonize Israel and that NGOs such as Oxfam were more concerned with attacking Israel than dealing with human rights. After all, what would be achieved if SodaStream were to lay off hundreds of Palestinians leaving them jobless with no way to feed their families?
Birnbaum also accused Oxfam of funding groups responsible for the BDS campaign.
I was tremendously impressed with Daniel Birnbaum’s commitment to peaceful co-existence and SodaStream’s practical role in promoting it. While the boycotters may wish to see the factory closed down, he would not let his workers down.
Less impressive, however, was the line of questioning from many of the journalists. The same people who had just met with and interviewed Palestinians happy with their lot were still unable to get beyond their preconceptions. It seems that even if Birnbaum were to throw wads of free cash for the Palestinians, it wouldn’t be good enough for them.
In their eyes, the welfare of ordinary Palestinians is secondary to the wider consideration of cleansing Jews from the West Bank. Sadly, some of the journalists’ worldview evidently isn’t that far from that of the BDS movement.