The attractive and talented American actress Scarlett Johansson had to make a choice last week, one that may have a profound effect on peace in the Middle East.
Ms. Johansson, who regularly tops the charts as one of the sexiest women in the world, recently signed a multi-million-dollar contract to promote the up-and-coming Israeli soft drink manufacturer SodaStream. The company, which markets a do-it-yourself soda pop system, was all set to unveil its pretty new face in a TV commercial this weekend on the highly-watched U.S. Super Bowl football game.
The fact that the TV spot was going to cheekily slag the soft drink giants Pepsi and Coke triggered a spat among advertisers and the TV network that soon went public. Some say it was a clever attempt by SodaStream to draw attention to itself. If so, the Israeli company may rue the day it did so.
The advertising kerfuffle drew attention to the photogenic Ms. Johansson whom, many people pointed out, also fronts as a "goodwill ambassador" for the international aid program Oxfam. (Originally a famine relief group founded in Oxford, England, in 1942; hence the name.) So far so good.
Until some of those observers also pointed out that SodaStream's largest factory is situated not in Israel, but in part of the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and occupied ever since. Indeed, it's located in an industrial zone outside the giant Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim, just east of Jerusalem, overlooking the Jordan Valley.
As such, under international laws recognized by most countries including Canada and the United States, it is deemed to be an illegal enterprise.
Ms. Johansson, it seemed, was under contract to represent both a company that operates illegally in occupied territory, and a worldwide charity that denounces such operations for exploiting Palestinians and their land. Something had to give.
On Thursday, Ms. Johansson announced she had resigned from her position at Oxfam, citing "a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement," a reference to the international campaign that advocates boycotting Israel until it revises many of its policies toward Arab Israelis and Palestinians. It is a campaign that Oxfam supports.
From the moment it learned about Ms. Johansson's new role with SodaStream, the BDS movement was on Oxfam's case calling on the organization to drop its superstar ambassador.
Ms. Johansson decision to side with the Israeli company was embraced by SodaStream that wanted everyone to know it employs Palestinians as well as Israelis in its West Bank plant, and she was applauded by the World Jewish Congress for "standing up to the international bullies."
"By ending its association with Miss Johansson," WJC CEO Robert Singer said, "Oxfam has chosen to align itself with the unprincipled and anti-Semitic BDS movement."
The BDS movement often is described by Israeli supporters as anti-Semitic, yet there is nothing in its manifesto to justify that description. It is a non-violent campaign – in contrast to the armed resistance and terrorism of the past – that seeks to change Israeli policies toward its own Arab citizens and toward its stateless Palestinian neighbours.
Omar Barghouti, cofounder of the 2005 BDS movement, describes the anti-Semitism charge as an "unfounded allegation" that is "intended to intimidate into silence those who criticize Israel and to conflate such criticism with anti-Jewish racism."
Ironically, Ms. Johansson, an Ashkenazi Jew from Brooklyn, has inadvertently become the poster child for the international campaign to boycott Israel. While she rejected the BDS position, her picture will forever evoke the boycott campaign in many people's minds.
Like it or not, the BDS movement is gaining popularity and power, as this week's events show. Activities in settlements are increasingly being held up to scrutiny. And people are increasingly heeding the call to boycott.
Last year, physicist Stephen Hawking decided to cancel his appearance in Israel out of respect to Palestinians, as did a number of international artists and performers. The European Union ruled that its financial supports could not be applied to Israelis in West Bank settlements, and the $200 billion Dutch pension fund, PGGM, elected to divest from the five largest Israeli banks due to their involvement in occupied Palestinian territory.
In late December, Tzipi Livni, leader of the Hatnua Party and Minister of Justice in the current coalition government, urged her countrymen to wake up to Israel's increasing international isolation.
"The boycott is moving and advancing uniformly and exponentially," Ms. Livni said. "Those who don't want to see it, will end up feeling it."
Finance Minister Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, the coalition's second largest party, has issued similar warnings. Yet the government continues to promote settlement development.
As a result, Israel is increasingly being described as an "apartheid state." It is a misnomer (I repeat, a misnomer), but because of Israel's policies toward its own Arab citizens and toward its stateless Palestinian neighbours whose territory Israel ultimately controls, the A-word is sticking.
Very soon, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will present Israel and the Palestinian Authority with a plan for resolving the current impasse in peace talks between the parties. If his plan fails, the Palestinian leadership will call on the international community to recognize it as a state and to boycott Israel. The BDS movement will boom. And Israel will be branded with the Scarlett letter A.
It shouldn't come to that. At root, the Palestinians want a state based on the pre-1967 borders (with some land swaps), and Israel wants recognition as a Jewish state. Perhaps it's a straightforward trade.
It should be noted that the contentious SodaStream plant is situated in one of the settlement blocs that Israelis and Palestinians have agreed, off the record, would be part of the land that is swapped between them and would end up inside Israel's borders.
Had there already been a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinains, SodaStream's location and Scarlett Johansson's double endorsements wouldn't have been a problem.