Friday, January 17, 2014

Scarlett Johansson Brings Fizz to SodaStream

YESTERDAY WAS ONE OF THE FOUR New Years set forth in the Mishna. Tu Bishvat, or Jewish Arbor Day, occurs on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Sh'vat. In addition to being a birthday for trees, the holiday is deeply connected to the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel and in modern days has become a day for celebrating the environment and reminding us of our responsibility as good stewards of the land.

At the core of this ethic for environmental stewardship is the concept of bal tashchit -- the ban on wonton destruction of the earth's resources. This environmental principle, which includes waste reduction, should be a focus on the holiday of Tu Bishvat.

Last year on Tu Bishvat I published an article on the Huffington Post's website about a presentation I had heard the month before while I was visiting Israel with a group of Conservative/Masorti rabbinic colleagues. Together with a dozen other rabbis, we toured the headquarters of the West Bank-based Israeli company SodaStream, the makers of consumer home carbonated water products.

Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of publicly traded SodaStream, explained to our group the positive environmental impact of his products. "This is the new way to do soda. We're revolutionizing it with a smarter way to enjoy soft drinks." He even told us that his company had a great Super Bowl ad coming up that was sure to spark controversy. Well, this year Daniel Birnbaum's SodaStream company has another Super Bowl commercial in the works and Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson will star in it.

As reported in the Forward, "Scarlett Johansson signed on this week as the new “global ambassador” for SodaStream and will be featured in the company’s 2014 Super Bowl advertisement. For SodaStream, this deal makes sense: Johansson is remarkably sexy, eco-friendly, loves the product, and happens to be Jewish. It makes particular sense since the company’s stock recently took a hit and its image has been tarnished by the fact that its factory is located in the Mishor Adumim industrial park in Israel’s occupied territories."

Daniel Birnbaum of SodaStream unveils Scarlett Johansson as its Global Brand Ambassador 

But for Johansson, who last October mentioned to Harper’s Bazaar that she might be interested in a political career, this deal makes a lot less sense. In fact, it may have forced her into her first public stance on foreign policy — one that is way outside the official American consensus.
This 29-year-old actress is no stranger to politics. Johansson campaigned for Kerry in 2004 and more heavily for Obama in 2008 and 2012. She spent time boosting the youth vote in Iowa in 2008, did a short campus speaking tour, and co-hosted a fundraiser featuring pro-Obama clothing and accessories. She even appeared in the Will.I.Am song “Yes We Can” inspired by Obama’s 2008 New Hampshire primary speech. In her unpretentious 2012 DNC speech, she said that she was there to “use whatever attention” she was “fortunate enough to receive to shed the spotlight on what’s at stake for all of us.” But with SodaStream, her considerable attention-getting powers are being used for something far less admirable: to advertise for a company located in a place President Obama and Secretary Kerry and Secretary Clinton have called “illegitimate” and “an obstacle to peace” and a “cause for concern.”
To be clear, SodaStream’s factory is not located in a radical settlement; it is located a 10-minute drive from Jerusalem in an industrial park next to one of the largest settlement blocs — Ma’aleh Adumim — which will likely be incorporated into Israel in any future deal. But it does exploit the commercial benefits of its location, essentially profiting from occupation, and contributes to the slow closing of the E1 corridor that is necessary for the contiguity of a future Palestinian state.
One of the upsides of its location for SodaStream is that it pays cheap rent. In an interview with Globes in March of 2000, former CEO Peter Wiseburgh explained how he got to Mishor Adumim in the first place:
When I came here, the place was deserted so I just turned and walked away. A week later, the Jerusalem Economic Corporation [the Global Real Estate company that leases the property from the Civil Administration] promised me six months [rent] free, and then NIS 44,000, plus $100,000 in cash for renovations. I rented 13,000 square meters, and in the future I intend to buy this place.
The fact is that the Israeli government makes land beyond the Green Line cheaper. Recent reports place discounts on the purchase of real estate across the Green Line as high as 69% compared to inside Israel proper, a fact SodaStream is taking full advantage of.
As if this weren’t enough, Whoprofits.org, a project that researches and exposes “the commercial involvement of Israeli and international companies” in the occupation, investigated the company. On top of the property tax breaks, they report that SodaStream exploits its workers, and has been found to fraudulently use a “Made in Israel” label on its products.
In the “Behind the Scenes” video for the new Super Bowl ad, Johansson announces that her “favorite thing about SodaStream is that I don’t feel guilty when I enjoy beverages at home.” While it’s true that SodaStream has some terrific guilt-easing benefits — it’s reusable, pays for itself, and tastes great — it also has a pile of guilt-inducing disadvantages worth considering. And with the New York Times comparing Johansson’s new role at SodaStream to those of Jennifer Aniston-Smartwater and George Clooney-Nespresso — in other words, Johansson will soon become SodaStream — there is all the more reason for Johansson to do some serious research into what she’s advertising. For one who is already so politically active — not only on a national level, but also internationally (Johansson is also the “global ambassador” for Oxfam) — this seems like a poor choice.
Advertising executive and consultant on the deal Alex Bogusky was quoted as saying that “using [Johansson’s] celebrity…can really normalize the machine and the process.” While she’s openly gunning for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for 2016, Johansson would do well to realize that “normalizing” the Israeli occupation is a bad use of her celebrity.

My family's been using our SodaStream ever since I bought it after touring the headquarters in Israel. We love it. I think SodaStream is a great company and I wish them all the best. I'm looking forward to the Scarlett Johansson commercial during the Super Bowl this year!

Rabbi Jason Miller is the co-founder of PopJewish.com and a social media expert from Detroit. Ordained at the Conservative Movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City he currently serves as Interim Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Sylvania, Ohio and is president of Access Computer Technology in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Rabbi Jason is also the founder and director of Kosher Michigan, a kashrut certification agency. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason.