SodaStream CEO slams government 'disregard for human dignity' over Palestinian work permits

Birnbaum says government decision to let dozens of work permits expire sends children to hunger, gives ammunition to BDS.

Employees pack boxes of the SodaStream product at the factory in Maaleh Adumim (photo credit: REUTERS)
Employees pack boxes of the SodaStream product at the factory in Maaleh Adumim
(photo credit: REUTERS)
SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum reacted with palpable frustration and anger Monday to the government’s decision to let work permits for 74 of his Palestinian employees lapse.
“I had dozens of discussions with nearly every ministry and minister and clerk that could possibly have a part in this saga,” he told The Jerusalem Post, saying he made little headway with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Economy, Finance, Public Security, Interior and Foreign ministries, or the police.
SodaStream built its Lehavim plant, which employs around 1,200 workers of all stripes, to replace its plant in the West Bank industrial zone of Mishor Adumim near Ma’aleh Adumim, which closed last autumn. Some 500 Palestinians lost their jobs in that closure, but 74 who had families were given permits to work in Israel.
Birnbaum said he has been working on the permit issue for a year and a half, expressing outrage that the government would allow the permits to lapse, especially given the large numbers of other legal and illegal Palestinian workers in the country. Each of his workers, he said, supported an average of 10 other people with their income, including children, but was unlikely to find equally good work at home.
“I cannot believe that a Jewish administration would ask me to send children to their hunger,” he said. “This has been the most difficult and sad day of my life. I’m the son of a Holocaust survivor.
I cannot watch this disregard for human dignity.”
An official in the Prime Minister’s Office refused to elaborate on its earlier position, which stated that the government favors Israeli workers over foreign workers, but would do its best to help support the factory. The government offers incentives for companies to open offices and plants in the South, in part because there are so few employers to create jobs in the area. SodaStream’s employment of 400 Beduin makes it the largest employer of Beduin in Rahat, Birnbaum said.
Allowing the permits to lapse, he continued, would add fuel to anti-Israel propaganda.
“This is all I’ve been doing for many weeks, trying to save the State of Israel from the public global humiliation of doing an act that is once again perceived to be immoral, unjust – an act that eradicates an island of peace that proves that we can coexist,” he said. “The Israeli government just lost its best ambassadors against the lies of BDS.”
The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeted SodaStream for its West Bank plant.
Birnbaum slammed the administration for its inability to make progress on a seemingly simple issue.
“If they can’t solve 74, how will they solve the big problems facing our nation? Where’s their moral compass? If little Israel can’t pull itself together and leverage whatever assets it has, then we’re doomed!” He continued: “And where are the people of Israel? Why is everyone not shouting? Where are the Jews in the Diaspora, yelling that this type of governance is unacceptable, that it does not reflect the value of the Jew? We know better.”
On Monday afternoon, hundreds of SodaStream workers parted from their Palestinian colleagues, linking arms in a symbol of unity. “We’re heartened by all the support that everyone has shown us, but in the end, when I get up tomorrow, I won’t have a job to go to,” said Yasin Abu Ateek, a 29-year-old father of two from Sawahrah, near Ma’aleh Adumim, who has been working at SoadStream for six years.
Though Birnbaum walked back earlier threats to close the plant if the permits did not come through, he said he was determined to find solutions for the outgoing workers, who have been employed with him for six years.
“I don’t need to close the whole plant, I need to close one department and move it to Ramallah,” he said.In the coming days, he would look into ways of helping his former employees set up shop as a supplier for the company.
David Brinn contributed to this report.