An artist’s collage juxtaposes the real-life conditions Palestinian workers face in the occupied West Bank with an image of Oxfam and SodaStream spokesmodel Scarlett Johansson. (Collected online)
Oxfam’s Palestinian staff in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip have sent an impassioned plea to the charity’s managers, expressing frustration at the growing crisis over its refusal to end the relationship with Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson.
In a collective message – a copy of which was seen by The Electronic Intifada – the staff write, “we are extremely disappointed with the lack of a strong and clear stance from Oxfam management to Scarlett Johansson’s recent engagement with SodaStream.”
Johansson recently signed a major endorsement deal with SodaStream, a clear conflict with her role as an Oxfam “Global Ambassador.”
While Oxfam itself has stated that settlements “further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights” of Palestinians under Israeli military occupation, Johansson has brushed off such concerns, claiming settlements and SodaStream are good for Palestinians.
“Credibility at stake”
“Our projects support vulnerable communities to increase their access to the very same livelihoods that are increasingly under threat from ever-expanding settlements,” the Oxfam staff write.
“Our relationships with Oxfam partners and Palestinian civil society are in jeopardy and our hard-won credibility is at stake.”
Many Oxfam employees “are being confronted by our partners, civil society, local media, and – increasingly – mainstream media that do not understand ‘our’ silence and delays in dealing with Ms. Johansson’s declarations,” the frustrated workers write.
While Oxfam leaders remain publicly silent, they are locked in a fierce internal battle and it is frontline staff who are bearing the brunt of growing popular anger at the charity’s complicity with the settlements that are destroying what is left of Palestinian land.
Some mid-level managers at Oxfam are just as frustrated as the debate – or rather deadlock – over Johansson appears to be among the executive directors of Oxfam’s 17 national affiliates.
Meanwhile, SodaStream has gone on a propaganda offensive, its CEO Daniel Birnbaum giving interviews boasting about how good the company is to its Palestinian workers.
But one mid-level Palestinian employee who spoke to Reuters outside the plant, away from company bosses, said:
“There’s a lot of racism here … Most of the managers are Israeli, and West Bank employees feel they can’t ask for pay rises or more benefits because they can be fired and easily replaced.”
“Settlements and occupation will never lead to peace,” the head of the Palestinian Workers Union, Shaher Saad, also told Reuters. “I support a boycott that will lead to these lands and means of economic growth returning to Palestinian ownership.”
This echoes the message Oxfam received from the Palestinian Nongovernmental Organizations Network (PNGO).
In a letter to the charity earlier this week, PNGO – which represents 135 Palestinian organizations including many Oxfam partners – pointed out that:
Palestinians are not employed at the factory of their own free will; the intentional economic suffocation of the occupied Palestinian territories by the Israeli state through extensive taxation, restrictive trade relationships, land annexations and mass resource expropriation puts Palestinians in a desperate position whereby their only means of income is often through illegal Israeli economic endeavors in the occupied lands, such as settlement work.
“Practice what we preach”
Oxfam’s staff in Palestine, who are bearing the ire of their communities over their employer’s disregard for Palestinian rights and voices, ended their message to their managers with this plea:
“If we are genuine about our efforts to support Palestinians under occupation, we have no choice but to take a principled position and practice what we preach. We ask that Oxfam compel Ms. Johansson to break all ties with SodaStream or that Oxfam ends our relationship with her.”
So far there is no sign that anyone with the power to make a decision is listening.