By Khaled Diab
The furore surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream endorsement raises the question to what extent BDS can help end the occupation… and how.
Tuesday 4 February 2014
Lost in Translation brought Scarlett Johansson global fame. Will the actress’s latest role – lost in the occupation – earn her widespread infamy?
Since the announcement that the Hollywood star was the new face of the controversial Israeli firm SodaStream, a war of words between pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis has gripped the (social) media. While pro-Palestine activists condemn Johansson for whitewashing the Israeli occupation, pro-Israel activists see the American’s insistence on sticking with the endorsement deal as a vote of confidence in Israel’s economy and democracy.
Meanwhile, sensing a contradiction in Johansson’s dual roles as an Oxfam and SodaStream “ambassador”, the international NGO castigated the American celebrity, eventually parting ways with her. This came after, according to the BDS movement, a reported “internal revolt” within Oxfam, or in ScarJo’s own words, “a fundamental difference of opinion” with the charity over BDS.
In her own defence, Johansson contends that: “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine.”
In this, she echoes the Israeli company’s own publicity. “At SodaStream, we build bridges, not walls. It’s a fantastic sanctuary of coexistence and an example of peace in a region that is so troubled and so needs hope,” the firm’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum said in a promotional video.
It is true that SodaStream employs hundreds of Palestinians under terms they probably wouldn’t get at a similar Palestinian firm and Birnbaum, to his credit, was willing even to embarrass the Israeli president in defence of his Palestinian workers.
However, it is hard to miss the elephant in the room: if Birnbaum is such a prophet of peace, why is he profiting from the occupation by operating a factory in an illegal Israeli settlement which makes the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state impossible? Surely, if SodaStream really wished to act as a “bridge”, it should relocate its main factory to the Israeli side of the Green Line or, better still, set up shop in PA jurisdiction.
The high-profile campaign against Johansson, as well as other recent successes has been interpreted by many pro-Palestinians as another success for the BDS movement. In contrast, a lot of pro-Israelis have seen in the actress’s refusal to back down a clear signal of what they call #BDSfail.
Setting aside the ethical debate surrounding BDS, this raises the question of whether efforts to pressurise Israel by isolating the country can really achieve their stated goals of “Ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall”.
One way of determining this is to examine similar efforts in the past. By putting pressure on a firm’s reputation and profits, corporate boycotts have a relatively decent success rate, as reflected in a number of recent examples, though some companies are more vulnerable than others to this kind of pressure.
Despite the growth of neo-liberalism and the associated privatising of government, countries do not tend to operate like corporations, with the financial bottomline only one factor in many affecting their behaviour.
Hence, the record of boycotts and sanctions against states is far more patchy. In reality, when faced with a determined adversary, punishments of this kind can often fail to deliver the desired results, even in their most extreme manifestations: full sanctions.
More than half a century of American sanctions against Cuba did not lead to the demise of the Castro regime, but impoverished Cuba, leaving it suspended in a decaying time bubble. Other Cold War sanctions hardly fared much better.
A decade of international sanctions against Iraq only succeeded in turning what was once the most-developed Arab country into a graveyard for children and a public health catastrophe. Similarly, the Gaza blockade grinds on, with Egypt too tightening the screws, yet Hamas is still very much in control while the people suffer terrible destitution and isolation.
In fact, in the three examples above, sanctions actually had the unintended effect of strengthening the regimes in question. In each case, sanctions were portrayed as an unfair and unjust form of foreign meddling and the regime as a heroic force of resistance, enabling it to intimidate opponents and shutdown dissent.
There have, of course, been some successes. Many advocates of BDS point to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa as a clear precedent. “Sanctions were the final blow to the apartheid regime in South Africa,” the BDS movement says on its website.
“Such action made an enormous difference in apartheid South Africa. It can make an enormous difference in creating a future of justice and equality for Palestinians and Jews in the Holy Land,” believes none other than Nobel prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu.
But what kind of a role did the campaign of disinvestment and sanctions play in toppling apartheid in South Africa?
Although South Africa was under African sanctions since the 1960s, these had only a marginal effect, and it was not until the West joined the movement in earnest in the mid-1980s that it began to have a perceptible impact.
Among the boycott’s clearest effects was the flight of capital and credit, the rise in economic hardship, and a slow-down in the flow of much-needed foreign technology, which had a knock-on effect on economic growth and the cost of doing business.
On the other hand, even at the height of anti-apartheid sanctions, South Africa managed to find “sanctions-busting” alternatives, and began a process of recalibrating its economy and finding alternative trading partners. There is also evidence that the boycott was losing steam. For instance, even though the United States had passed a Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act only in 1986, US imports from South Africa, by 1988, rose by 14% and exports by 40%.
In addition, sanctions had some unintended consequences. For instance, it forced the country to innovate more, such as developing alternative energy technologies, and had economic consequences for poor blacks and post-Apartheid governments. This explains why opposition to sanctions was not only the preserve of neo-cons, with some South African black and white anti-apartheid activists expressing serious misgivings.
If economic sanctions had only a marginal effect, the academic boycott was even more questionable in its efficacy. “That most of the scholars in our study judged the boycott to be an irritant or inconvenience, rather than a significant barrier to scholarly progress, suggests that it proved more a symbolic gesture than an effective agent of change,” concluded one extensive survey of South African academics conducted at the end of the apartheid era.
In many cases, rather than causing guilt and galvanising opposition to the system, “many scholars felt left out, isolated, unjustly discriminated against”.
If boycotts and sanctions played such a vague and marginal role in toppling apartheid, what actually brought down the system?
It is my conviction that the lion’s share of the credit must go to internal dynamics. Apartheid was not only an unjust system but an unrealistic one. It is impossible to oppress and disenfranchise the majority of a population indefinitely. Mounting, sustained and highly organised black (and, to a lesser extent, white) resistance was the pivotal factor. Of similar import was the enlightened leadership of Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, who managed to neutralise stiff conservative opposition to dismantling apartheid.
With hindsight, there is a tendency to afford boycott and sanctions against South Africa a more central role in defeating apartheid than they actually played, thereby depriving the real agents of change, who risked all for their convictions, of some of the glory they deserve.
That is not say that boycotts and solidarity campaigns are useless. If anything else, they at least provide a morality boost through solidarity to the oppressed and enable outsiders to distance themselves from policies and actions of which they do not approve. However, these are tools that need to be handled with caution and care to ensure they do not misfire.
In the Israeli and Palestinian context, the most effective approach is to continue to demand the grassroots boycotting of corporations that profit from the occupation, thereby promoting a more virtuous and constructive cycle of investments. For instance, a campaign could be launched to force SodaStream to relocate its facilities to areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
In addition, like with South Africa, the United States should end its military aid to Israel until it ends the occupation, which might possibly be the single most effective economic action any party can take.
I also believe that the academic and cultural boycott needs a major rethink and revamp, especially its Arab variant (which sees many Arabs unwilling or afraid to engage with even sympathetic Israelis), to penalise Israeli peace-breakers and to embrace and empower peacemakers. Such engagement, especially between Palestinians and Israelis, will also help lay the ground for the post-occupation era.
Ultimately, like in South Africa, the occupation, segregation and injustice of the situation will be defeated by Palestinian resistance and Israeli opposition, which would be a far truer “bridge to peace” than the words of a self-interested beverage company or glamorous actress.
This article first appeared in Haaretz on 30 January 2014.