On Scarlett Johansson and ‘Blood Bubbles’

The debate over BDS rages on in the United States due to movie star’s Sodastream affair.

Scarlett Johansson has been criticised for signing on to represent Sodastream [Getty Images]

The American Studies Association’s (ASA) historic decision to boycott, divest from and sanction Israeli academic institutions has inadvertently become a site for a long overdue debate about the taboos in US public discourse and media regarding the Israeli apartheid and Zionist settler-colonialism in Palestine.

BDS (boycott-divest-sanction) activists and pro-Palestinian voices are receiving more exposure to public platforms and media venues that were inconceivable a few years ago. However, the violent and irrational Zionist backlash against the ASA, in particular, and the BDS, in general, is not going away anytime soon.

A war of delegitimisation 

Those who oppose the ASA and its call for BDS are wasting no time in their quest to crush the ASA and delegitimise it. As Ben Cohen put it in The Algemeiner: “Much as some Jews are uncomfortable with acknowledging this reality, we have the power to harass, frustrate, and crush the BDS movement wherever it appears. Let us do so without mercy.”

His scary call for “Jewish power” smacks of a long history of fascist usurpation of democratic institutions and civil society.

The fact is that the field of public opinion is still in flux, and many people, especially academics, are still making up their minds about the ASA and the BDS. Mired in their multicultural mantras and cultural relativism, many of these liberal academics are still wavering in their support of the ASA.

They are hiding behind the veil of “teaching the debate” through the painstakingly long process of contextualisation, displacement, and abstraction of concrete oppressive conditions. Indeed, their whole (Eurocentric) ideological system, and Israel’s fetishistic position at its centre, let alone their health, income, and any academic reputation they may have, are all at stake here.

However, the Zionist lobby and the “Israel right or wrong” cheerleaders have radicalised public discourse in such a way that the lines are clearly drawn, leaving one no choice but to choose sides. And choose we must, for the post-ideological age is steeped in ideological mystification. Not even mainstream pro-Israel advocates, as AIPAC’s critique of the chair of the National Democratic Committee Debbie Wasserman Shultz has shown, are safe from this backlash anymore. It is thus more urgent than ever to engage these academics not only in dialogue and deliberation, but also in polemics regarding the symbolic meaning and moral importance of the BDS and the ASA’s historic resolution.

People & Power – About a boycott

The Scarlett Johansson scandal has taught us this much. One cannot stick to her inane ideological liberal guns in the fight for a single issue (ecological responsibility, or clean air, in this case), while mystifying the same system that makes ecological racism a big part of the Israeli apartheid policies and Zionist settler-colonialist project in Palestine.

Johansson’s progressive politics, including her charity work for Oxfam, cannot harmoniously co-exist with her endorsement of an oppressive system that promotes capitalist enterprises built on ethnically-cleansed land. These two issues are not disconnected; rather, the struggle for ecological responsibility and conscious consumerism in the region won’t be over until the Palestinians are free.

Exploitation as cooperation?

Johansson’s pathetic apologia, released on January 24, for settler-colonialism and Israeli apartheid policies reflects the poverty of her progressive liberal ideology. In it she maintains that the global corporation Sodastream is an example of “economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine”. Johansson also adds that:

“As part of my efforts as an Ambassador for Oxfam, I have witnessed first-hand that progress is made when communities join together and work alongside one another and feel proud of the outcome of that work in the quality of their product and work environment, in the pay they bring home to their families and in the benefits they equally receive.”

There are so many absurd fabrications and inconsistencies in this statement that one must wonder where the line between cynicism and conviction begins. To even suggest that a colonial factory built on ethnically-cleansed and illegally-obtained land in an illegal settlement is an example of economic cooperation is obscene. The sole function of a corporation, as many CEOs would tell you, is the extraction and maximisation of profits.

This happens through, among other things, the exploitation of cheap labour – any available labour, including the indigenous work force, which is usually compensated less than adequate salaries and benefits. Just ask Sodastream’s Palestinian workers, who have no choice but seek employment with such corporations, as a result of Israeli deliberate underdevelopment of the Palestinian economy.

Her ludicrous claims are nothing but a recycling of the same tired racist arguments that white slave owners in the American South circulated in order to justify their noxious antebellum regime. Slave owners even concocted perfectly outlandish claims about the rights, privileges and benefits their slaves enjoyed under slavery.

Indeed, for them, their slaves were much better off than many Africans or Blacks anywhere in the world. During the Jim Crow era, moreover, American businesses employed African-American workers, while upholding the oppressive segregation system in the American South.

Furthermore, new life is breathed into these narratives in a post-racial United States, where any struggle for political power in the republic is displaced onto other terrains that entertain and delight, but obfuscate the fundamental antagonism. Newt Gingrich, for instance, once used a basketball analogy to describe racial relations in a post-racial US. For him, a black basketball player passing the ball to his white teammate serves a shining example of racial harmony and cooperation. 

‘Blood Bubbles’

The only thing these analogies do is de-politicise the brutality of a colonial or racist regime. They translate its contentious political realities into a spectacle of (athletic) entertainment or cultural festivities that celebrate our respect for the law and our common humanity. However, these flawed analogies do not only displace the actual oppressive structures of slavery and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. They also transmute the troubled relations between oppressors and oppressed, into opposed but equal teams who voluntarily accept to play by the same rules of the game.

Inside Story – On the road to Israeli apartheid?

This reference to Gingrich is not a coincidence. It really shows that a progressive liberal is merely the obverse side of the conservative right-wing ideologue. Indeed, Johansson‘s reference to Sodastream and the exploitation of Palestinian labour as an example of cooperation between “communities” is laughable, unless corporations, in the words of Mitt Romney, are considered to be “people, my friend”.

In other words, Sodastream is a part of the problem, not the solution, for it perpetuates the daily atrocities committed against Palestinians in the occupied territories.

In a normal situation, devoid of the realities of apartheid and settler colonialism, such cooperation would be an ideal to strive for between Palestinians and their Jewish neighbours. Nonetheless, as Jewish settlers, living in illegal settlements that exist on Palestinian land against all international conventions and laws, continue their campaign of terror against the rightful owners of the land, to speak of cooperation in those terms is obscene.

Ultimately, Johansson’s appeal to ecological awareness is a pathetic mystification of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation and Zionist settler-colonial project. The former must be linked back to the struggle for Palestinian freedom where the true antagonism of the class struggle is turned inside out.

In the words of the brilliant Palestine Solidarity Network image, “Blood Bubbles”, one should not worry about setting the bubbles of Sodastream free, but about freeing Palestine from colonial oppression. There is no time for complacency now and for thinking that the racist and fascist anti-Palestinian backlash will be over anytime soon. Let’s take it to the Super Bowl.

Dr Jamil Khader, Professor of English at Stetson University, is completing a year-long Fulbright  Fellowship at Bir Zeit University, Palestine. He is the author of numerous publications on postcolonial feminism, popular culture, and literary theory.