Video: Eli Mandelbaum
SodaStream plans to bring its global ambassador, Scarlett Johansson, to Israel this year, the company said on Thursday, the same day that the Hollywood star resigned from her prominent eight-year role as Oxfam’s representative due to the controversy over her new connection to a firm with a West Bank factory.
“She has never been to Israel before. We look forward to hosting her later in the year,” SodaStream president Yonah Lloyd told The Jerusalem Post, just three days before its ad featuring Johansson was to air at Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Since taking up her new post with SodaStream in December, grassroots pro-Palestinian groups, primarily the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, have attacked Johansson and called on Oxfam to drop her as its global ambassador. Alternatively, they asked her to stop representing SodaStream.
Johansson has defended SodaStream as a company where Israelis and Palestinians work together, and refused to cave to the public pressure to drop her new role.
On Thursday, Johansson’s spokesman wrote that “she and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”
The international charity Oxfam, on its site, said that it accepted Johansson’s resignation.
“While Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors, Ms. Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador,” it said. “Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support. Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.”
But Lloyd, a New Jersey native who moved to Israel in 2003, said that the West Bank factory allowed Palestinians to make a living wage to support their families in an atmosphere of coexistence.
He had not, he said, paid attention to some of the more vitriolic attacks against Johansson on social media, that included a photograph of her sipping soda against a background of caged Palestinians.
If these Palestinian activists were to come to the factory, he said, they would change their minds – and after that, they would ask him for a job.
He gave the Post a tour of the SodaStream site in the Mishor Adumim Industrial Park, located just outside the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement.
There, do-it-yourself carbonated soda kits are produced for most of the 45 countries that make up the company’s customer base.
As he picked up a thin cylinder out of a large box, Lloyd noted that the language on the label was English.
“But come back later in the afternoon,” he said, “and the words could be in Japanese.”
He explained how, in the factory’s one-floor white stucco sprawling building, some 1,300 employees produce as many as 20,000 boxed kits a day.
The factory is one of 25 such facilities worldwide, and one of six such sites in Israel, he said.
“But this is the one that everyone is interested in,” said Lloyd, as it is the only one of their factories located over the pre-1967 lines.
“We recognize that it is in an area that is a flash point of tension, with activists on both sides of the story,” he said.
The current owners of SodaStream, who took over the company in 2007, could have shut down the factory, Lloyd said, but they saw it as an opportunity to improve people’s lives.
He cautioned that in spite of its desire to improve society and the environment, SodaStream is first and foremost a for-profit company.
“We are a business that happens to have a social conscience, but we are not a socially conscience organization that is running a business, so it is two different things,” he said.
In the 1970s, the building was a munitions factory that produced bullets and other weapons for the Israeli government, said Lloyd.
The former owner of the SodaStream brand purchased it in the 1990s for a food and beverage factory.
“He literally turned it from bullets to bubbles,” said Lloyd.
As a physical illustration of that philosophy, the former owner placed a statue outside the factory doors with a quote from the prophet Isaiah: “And into plowshares beat your swords, men shall study war no more.”
Lloyd said it was an important metaphor for the business under its current ownership.
“You are talking about a place that makes food. When people break bread together, they can make peace together. They can get to know each other,” he said.
As he spoke, he showed the Post how a machine blows plastic into bottles, which he was quick to note are reusable and recyclable. At points in the process, some of the mechanism for each kit is built by hand, said Lloyd.
He brought the Post into a room where Palestinians and Israeli workers sat with thin instruments, placing intricate minute pieces into a copper nozzle.
He estimated that 500 of the workers were Palestinians that lived nearby in the West Bank, 400 to 450 were Israeli Arabs and the remainder were Jewish Israelis, some of whom were also immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia.
One of the best places in the factory, he said, is the cafeteria where everyone eats together every day. It is there, he said, that the diversity is most visible.
Israeli law ensures that wages and benefits are applicable to all workers, he said.
Everyone receives pay raises, and there are both Israeli and Palestinian managers, Lloyd said.
SodaStream pays Palestinians four to six times what they could make if they worked for a company in an area of the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority, he said.
Lloyd said that controversy had not harmed its business, “other than the fact that I am here talking to you and not at my desk doing what I should be doing.”
Some nations in Europe have had a problem with the Mishor Adumim facility, he said.
“We have factories elsewhere, so we are able to accommodate [those who] do not want to have products that come from here,” Lloyd said.
SodaStream sells well in the US and Germany, Lloyd said. In Sweden, he said, one in four homes use SodaStream.
Lloyd also noted that SodaStream would soon open a large facility of a million square feet near Beersheba and the Beduin city of Rahat.
He hoped the factory would provide jobs for Rahat, a city of 70,000 people, where one-third of the working population was unemployed.
But what he really wanted to talk about, Lloyd said, was how his company was the wave of the future, and how it could change the way people purchase and consume soda.
“The most important aspect of what we do is to bring about a revolution in soda beverages. Home soda-making is better for families and better for the planet than the old ways of Coke and Pepsi,” he said.
Reuters contributed to this report.