SodaStream: A Case Study in Middle East Insanity

Even after living in this country for over 32 years, I am still amazed about the lack of logic that causes serious financial harm to both Israelis and Palestinians. SodaStream is a classic example.

If you are not familiar with the company, they are an Israeli-based firm that produces soda-making machines for the home.  They have been eminently successful worldwide in redefining the flavored soft drink industry and providing a tasty but less costly alternative to buying similar commercially bottled products.

Their Israeli plant operated in the Mishor Adumim area of what the press calls the West Bank (and what many of us call by its more biblical names of Yehuda and Shomron), 10 minutes from Jerusalem but easily accessible to large swaths of Palestinian workers.   The company employed close to 600 such workers who were paid wages significantly higher than their brethren working in Palestinian owned business when such jobs were available, and who had better physical working conditions as well. There has been some discussion about whether the Palestinian workers were being paid less than their Israeli counterparts but, even if that were true, they were definitely being paid much more than what they could have earned in their local communities and seemed quite satisfied with the opportunity to provide a better life for their families.

But in late 2014 and early 2015 the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement began digging their rotting teeth into SodaStream.  The movement cared little about what might happen to all the people working in the plant.  Their greater goal of hurting Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians was important enough to make the employees become financial martyrs to their cause.

SodaStream, rightly concerned about their long term profitability and not wanting to spend every waking hour fighting the BDS pressure, decided to close its plant in the West Bank and relocate to an area in the south of Israel, in the northern Negev desert.  That decision meant that 500 Palestinian workers lost their jobs while approximately 75 others were given permits to work in the new location, at least until the end of February of this year.  Chalk one victory up for BDS but a big financial defeat for 500 families whose lives were negatively altered for the cause, whatever that might be.

Now Israel comes along and for security reasons, or so we are told, refuses to renew the entry permits of the 75 Palestinians who were willing to travel 2-1/2 hours each way every day in order to work in the new SodaStream plant.  Company management had threatened to close the plant and put everyone else out of work as well if Israel did not authorize the extension, but later decided against that move.  So, as of today, March 1st, 75 more Palestinians are out of work.  Another great victory (sic) for the BDS cause, or so they say.

But for some anti-Israel activists even this is not enough.  Having put almost 600 Palestinians out of work, Ramah Kudaimi of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation needs a new cause. And what is it? Well, the new factory is close to Rahat, a new planned township for the Bedouin population of Israel, designed to make it possible for local Bedouins to have 21st century facilities so that they can live better lives.  According to Kudaimi, SodaStream will remain a target of boycott efforts because the new factory is close to Rahat “thus still implicating the company in Israel’s displacement policies.”

And, amazingly, nobody on either side of the line is yelling or screaming about this. The Palestinian leadership has remained silent even though 600 formerly gainfully employed people are now looking for work. The organizations here that one would think should be defending the right of an Israeli company to operate unhindered and without insane outside pressure have also seemingly remained silent.

The only heroine in all of this has been Scarlett Johansson who had been a spokesperson for SodaStream as well as a global ambassador for Oxfam, the international organization committed to reducing poverty. When the BDS activity started Oxfam gave Johansson a choice, either end her relationship with SodaStream or with Oxfam, and she chose to resign from Oxfam.  The world needs more people of principle like her.

I run a company here in Jerusalem that employs Jews and Arabs.  One of our Arab researchers left the company at the end of last month for a better paying job with more responsibility in a government agency.  At a going away lunch last week in her honor we asked her what she learned working with and for us over the last five years? Her answer? That she realized that people of different backgrounds and different national interests really can work together if they shelve their differences and work for a common goal. She made our day.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if our political leaders on both signs would be capable of internalizing that lesson as well? What an incredibly better place this country could be if that could happen.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 29 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, regional entities and Invest Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Immediate Past Chairperson of the Israel Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a Board Member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.