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  February 6, 2014

Scarlett Johansson Controversy Brings International Attention to BDS Movement

Shir Hever: From John Kerry's recent boycott remarks to Oxfam dropping actress Scarlet Johansson over her support for West Bank-operated Sodastream, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement continues to build solidarity with the Palestinian cause
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Shir Hever is an economist working at The Real News Network. His economic research focuses on Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory; international aid to the Palestinians and to Israel; the effects of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories on the Israeli economy; and the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel. His first book: Political Economy of Israel's Occupation: Repression Beyond Exploitation, was published by Pluto Press.


JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News. I'm Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Secretary of State John Kerry is coming under fire in Israel for recent remarks about the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He said, quote, "The risks are very high for Israel." "People are talking about boycott. That will intensify in the case of failure. We all have a strong interest in this conflict resolution. Today's status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained."

The statements follow the resignation of actress Scarlett Johansson as a global ambassador for Oxfam after a campaign by the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement, or BDS, brought international attention to her role as a spokesperson for SodaStream, a company that operates a factory in the occupied West Bank. In a statement, Oxfam said that the business, "such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support."

Now joining us to discuss this is Shir Hever. He's an economic researcher in the Alternative Information Center, a Palestinian-Israeli organization active in Jerusalem and Beit Sahour.

Thank you so much for joining us again, Shir.


NOOR: So, Shir, let's start off by getting your reaction to the comments of Secretary of State John Kerry and what the reaction has been to his statements in Israel, and also just your comments that, you know, he says, "We ... have a strong interest", he--in the U.S. has "a strong interest in this conflict resolution", when in fact the U.S. has placed very little pressure on Israel to actually resolve this conflict in the first place.

HEVER: What we see with the comments of Kerry is that he's actually quoting, almost verbatim, statements by Israeli politicians. There's currently a debate within the Israeli government, and there are two factions.

One faction is saying that the boycott against Israel is a growing threat that could completely marginalize Israel in the global arena and harm Israel's economy, and the only way to deal with that is to increase talking about boycott and how to counter it, and to continue the negotiations with the Palestinians, continue them forever, not until an agreement is reached, but rather just continue the illusion as if negotiations would lead somewhere. And that is supposed to shut up those people who support boycott.

The other branch of the Israeli government are saying, well, actually, these boycott statements are getting more dangerous and more powerful if we acknowledge them, if we refer to them. And they are the ones that are very angry at what Kerry just said, because they said, you'd better keep quiet.

The thing is, Kerry's adopting Israel's position almost completely. He's not acting as a mediator between two sides; he's acting on one side of the issue, supporting Israel. And he happens to be on the side within the Israeli political sphere--he happens to agree with those who believe that negotiations are good for Israel's own interests. But, of course, we're not talking about negotiations; we're talking about real rights of Palestinians and a real end to the occupation. That's not really on the table, and that's not really the plan that he's making.

NOOR: So, Shir, this whole affair with Oxfam and the actress Scarlett Johansson, specifically it was brought to attention about her Superbowl ad, which was actually banned, but the ad that promoted SodaStream. And, you know, that was highlighted by journalists. And activists, for example Ali Abunimah from the Electronic Intifada, really put pressure on Oxfam to address Scarlett Johansson's support for SodaStream, which operates a factory in the occupied West Bank.

Now, SodaStream's CEO, Daniel Birnbaum, told The Christian Science Monitor, quote, "If people learn to know each other, to respect each other, to live side by side, which is something that's going on here but not going on elsewhere, then you have a fundamental ingredient for peace." Now, he's addressing the fact that Palestinian workers and Israeli workers work side-by-side in SodaStream, in this factory in the West Bank. What's your response?

HEVER: Well, we should just put this in context. The ad was not banned because of the settlement, because of the occupation; it was banned because of comments about the competitors of SodaStream. SodaStream is a company which tries--it's a very political company. And Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO, is trying to promote the image as if he actually supports peace and he actually supports the two-state solution and the end of the occupation, and he's making a very strong point that Scarlett Johansson is of the same opinion, while at the same time he's profiting from the colonization of Palestinian territory.

This event of the last few days with the ending of Johansson's work with Oxfam was a propaganda blow to Israel. It exposed how the Israeli economy is exploiting the Palestinian territory and Palestinian workers and the Palestinian land. But inside Israel it was seen as a victory, because what was important is that the decision of Scarlett Johansson was to work with SodaStream, where she gets money, and not to work with Oxfam, which is humanitarian or charity work. And that was promoted inside Israel as if it was a propaganda victory. I think it kind of shows the somewhat closed-mindedness and this kind of bubble mentality, where they're not quite following what's going on around the world.

But Daniel Birnbaum then immediately moved on to try to exploit his fame within Israel to try to put pressure on the Israeli government to get more benefits, more money.

Over the past years, when SodaStream was criticized for being a company in the occupied territory and violating international law, Daniel Birnbaum made the point that he's employing Palestinian workers, and wouldn't it be a shame if he had to fire them because his company's being boycotted. So actually he's been using the Palestinian workers in his factory as hostages and threatening to fire them if his company's boycotted.

But we should remember that all labor unions, all Palestinian labor unions endorse BDS, endorse the boycott movement. So in fact the workers have made their choice already and they would ask us, all of us, not to buy products from SodaStream.

NOOR: Well, Gawker and other publications, they quoted some of the workers, who said that we'd rather, you know, work at this factory, 'cause if you don't work at this factory, like, how else are we going to make money, have a job.

HEVER: People are put into the corner, and they have to choose between the livelihood of their own family and their political aspirations for freedom and equality. That's an impossible choice to make. You cannot sacrifice your own family in order to make a political point. So what these workers are saying on the personal level: we cannot afford not to work wherever work is available to us, because the Palestinian economy has been ravaged by the Israeli occupation. There are no other jobs. But at the same time, they're saying, well, on a collective level we do want to be part of a struggle for freedom and equality, and therefore we're envisioning a future in which SodaStream will not be a colonialist company, but maybe it will be a Palestinian-owned company. Then there would be no reason to boycott it and all the workers would still have jobs.

So that's exactly the kind of struggle that we need to support, where we don't force Palestinian workers to choose between their own basic livelihood, the food that they have on their table, and their basic human rights.

NOOR: And finally, Shir, do you see this movement in the last few weeks and months, and even years, this BDS movement, do you see it as having made significant gains? Because, obviously, the work that remains to be done is still massive and daunting.

HEVER: I think that if you'd asked me this question a month ago, I would have given you a completely different answer. Over the last month, there's been an explosion of discussion about BDS in the Israeli public, in the Israeli media. There's a lot of excitement among BDS activists around the world with the current events, the decisions that were adopted also by European governments to put more pressure on Israel. And for the first time, BDS is appearing again and again in the headlines of Israeli newspapers, Israeli television shows, and getting the attention of the public. And, now, this is a major achievement for the BDS movement. In a relatively short time--it's an eight-year-old movement. And if we compare it to the South African boycott, the boycott of apartheid South Africa, it took decades to reach that point where everyone is talking about it and thinking about it. Many Israeli politicians are already saying we're close to the point of South Africa. In fact, Israel's minister of justice made this comparison and said, we don't know what would be the moment where it explodes all of a sudden.

But you said there's a lot of work to be done, and that's absolutely true, because the BDS movement, with all of its importance, with all of its amazing contribution to the debate and to the knowledge about the Palestinian struggle, cannot in itself change anything. The BDS movement is not a political program about what the future should look like, what kind of state Palestinians should have, and what kind of end the occupation should have. It's a movement that aims to create solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom. And the Palestinians are the ones who are actually holding the wheel and deciding their own future. And now all eyes are looking to the Palestinian--various groups and various movements who are debating which is the best way to achieve their basic rights, their political and human rights.

And because of the negotiations that were the beginning of our conversation, those negotiations mediated by the U.S., there is this kind of expectation that all these movements should wait and do nothing until the peace process goes through its entire course, even though everybody knows that the end result will be a failure. And I think a lot of Palestinians don't have the patience for that anymore. They're not going to wait until the peace process collapses yet again. But they're going to start very active action to free themselves from Israeli occupation. And then BDS becomes a very important component to that struggle.

NOOR: Shir Hever, thank you so much for joining us.

HEVER: Thank you for having me.

NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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