SodaStream: Building walls, not bridges

Israelis and Palestinians need to co-resist against the structures of injustice, not co-exist within an unjust system.

Jillian Michaels, Daniel Birnbaum
"SodaStream's brand recognition is rising steadily, and given a series of recent partnership agreements it is likely that SodaStream will continue to increase its US presence," writes author [AP]

The Israeli beverage company SodaStream is rapidly gaining a foothold in US markets. Its brand recognition is rising steadily, and given a series of recent partnership agreements it is likely that SodaStream will continue to increase its US presence. 

However, as SodaStream has gained visibility so has the boycott campaign targeting the company in protest over the location of one of SodaStream’s main production facilities in an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank. This boycott is part of the growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement which targets companies and institutions whose actions support or help sustain Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories and/or violations of international law. 

Late last year SodaStream produced a video, “SodaStream – Building Bridges Not Walls,” as part of its effort to counter this boycott campaign. The video appears to make a strong case for supporting SodaStream.  However, the transcript of an interview with a Palestinian SodaStream employee (hereafter M.), recently obtained by the Electronic Intifada, calls into question the veracity of many of the claims made in the video.

Propaganda vs. reality

In the video SodaStream holds itself up as a company that is challenging the status quo in Israel and Palestine and thereby helping to overcome difference and build bridges to peace. It highlights the provision of prayer spaces for Muslim employees, claims it provides Palestinian employees with above average working conditions and social benefits, and contends everyone in the factory is treated equally. All of these claims are challenged by M. 

After watching the video, M. told his interviewer, “I feel humiliated and I am also disgraced as a Palestinian, as the claims in this video are all lies.” He then noted several mistruths.  

According to M., the prayer space shown in the video is actually a locker room converted for the video and workers are not provided breaks to pray while at work. He also reported institutionalised discrimination in the factory, with Palestinians limited to manual labour positions and not advanced into management positions. His description of working conditions was equally bleak. According to M., Palestinian employees are required to work 60 hours per week and receive no overtime compensation, a clear violation of Israeli labour laws.  M. also reported that workers are often fired if they are sick for longer than one day.   

So what accounts for the difference between M.’s account and the statements made by workers in the video?  M. asserts the video was staged. 

“I actually saw the company preparation work [for the video]; they were preparing all the workers and telling them what to say…”

M.’s claims place the video in a new light, but what if the claims in the video were all true? Does the provision of basic and obligatory social benefits and a non-discriminatory work environment really deserve praise, or are these actions that any decent employer should take? Clearly the latter holds.  

Occupation and colonisation

It is important to note that there is at least one kernel of truth in the claims made by SodaStream. The company does provide jobs for Palestinian workers who otherwise might be unemployed.  However, obscured by this point is any explanation of why SodaStream’s Palestinian employees might not be able to find other jobs. 

The primary reason is the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories and the captive Palestinian economy. The reality is that a self-sustaining Palestinian economy cannot develop under occupation.  The Palestinian Authority has no control over either the import of the inputs needed to produce goods or the export of final products.  It does not control Palestinian airspace, water and electrical systems, radio frequencies, most natural resources, significant tax revenues, monetary policy, the movement of goods and people inside the occupied Palestinian territories, and many other factors needed to ensure development.  

In short, it does not control the Palestinian economy. Israel controls the Palestinian economy, and its policies and actions have resulted in underdevelopment and de-development which contribute to both high levels of unemployment and high levels of Palestinian dependence on work in Israel and for Israeli companies. 

Hizma, the home village of the worker featured in the SodaStream video, demonstrates perfectly how the occupation creates unemployment. The main source of income in Hizma was traditionally agriculture, but the village lost most of its land to the nearby settlements. Due to its proximity to Jerusalem, village life and economics were also closely tied to Jerusalem. 

However, villagers’ access to Jerusalem has been severed as a result of Israel’s permit regime and the Wall which runs adjacent to the village. Additionally, over 90 per cent of Hizma’s land, including both built up and less developed areas, is located in Area C of the West Bank which is under full Israeli control. Building and development in these areas requires permits from the Israeli military authorities and these permits are almost never given. All of this has created unemployment and furthered villagers’ desperate turn to settlement jobs with companies like SodaStream.   

SodaStream’s complicity

So how is SodaStream complicit in all of this? It is complicit because it has chosen to locate its factory in the Mishor Edomim Industrial Park, which is a part of the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim. By choosing to locate its factory in a settlement, SodaStream has chosen to support the settlement enterprise and the occupation. The taxes the factory pays do not go to benefit Palestinian workers. Rather they go to the Israeli government and the Ma’aleh Adumim Municipality where they are used to support the growth and development of the settlement and to sustain the occupation.             

Since the SodaStream factory is located in a settlement in the West Bank, the checkpoints that Palestinian workers from the West Bank must pass through on their way to work (as mentioned in the video) are also located inside the West Bank and separate one Palestinian area from another.  The Wall itself also pushes far out into the West Bank, presumably in order to one day annex Ma’aleh Adumim to Jerusalem, directly impacting Hizma and many other villages.  Thus, SodaStream is not building bridges, but rather directly supports the building of barriers and walls.                                                                                                                  

For the Palestinian population as a whole the negative impact of settlements on the Palestinian economy and environment, the political consequences of settlements, and the movement restrictions which are put in place to ensure the “protection” of settlements all far outweigh any limited benefits that SodaStream may provide its Palestinian employees. 

Co-existence vs. co-resistance

It is also important to address the idea put forward in the video that SodaStream helps improve the situation by bringing people together and facilitating a process where they can overcome individual differences and learn to coexist. 

There are good reasons to question the claims made in the video.  When asked about SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum’s claim that the workers were “like family” M. responded:  “I have worked here for a long time, and I have never seen him at the factory. This is the first time I see him [in the video].”

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that SodaStream does bring Palestinians and Israelis together in the factory.  Does this really make a significant difference? 

In the long term, building understanding between people will be important, but in the current situation structural inequalities and violence cannot be ignored. The conflict is not an interpersonal and relational struggle based on misunderstanding and conflicting historic narratives that can be addressed through people to people programming. Rather, it is a political conflict that centers on Israel’s continued military occupation of the Palestinian territories and ongoing and historic Palestinian dispossession. It is a conflict that is defined by deep legal and structural inequalities and injustices that privilege Jewish Israelis over Palestinians. 

In this context, Birnbaum’s idea that the conflict can be resolved by building interpersonal understanding and co-existence won’t work, particularly while he and his company are perpetuating a system that is steeped in inequality. If Israelis and Palestinians are going to come together, what is needed is co-resistance against the structures of injustice, not co-existence within an unjust system. 

Comparing SodaStream to Woolworth’s during the Jim Crow era is useful.  When the sit-ins at the Woolworth’s lunch counter finally ended and the eating area was integrated, the first African Americans served in the store were not the protestors who carried out the sit-in.  Rather, the first African Americans served were Woolworth’s African American employees.  Woolworth’s employed African Americans even while perpetuating segregation. 

Equally, SodaStream employs Palestinians while perpetuating another system of segregation.  Did the protests and sit-ins at Woolworth’s risk hurting the African American employees of the store?  Yes they did. Were they right?  Yes they were. The same can be said about the boycott targeting SodaStream and other BDS campaigns. 

Mike Merryman-Lotze works with the American Friends Service Committee as the Palestine-Israel Program Director.  Prior to joining AFSC he spent more than six years living in Israel and Palestine where he worked with the human rights organization Al-Haq and Save the Children UK.