When Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for sanctions on South Africa in 1986, the apartheid government’s broadcaster declared that the clergyman “is evidently completely indifferent to the miseries that would be inflicted on the mass of blacks, on whose behalf he claims to speak, if the kind of sanctions he demands should materialize” (“Tutu’s Sanction Call Assailed By Government Network,” Associated Press, 4 April 1986).
This is precisely the line Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan deployed ad nauseam in the 1980s to justify their opposition to sanctions on apartheid South Africa.
Exactly the same kind of crocodile tears are now being shed for Palestinian workers by the supporters and beneficiaries of Israeli apartheid.
Amid the furor over SodaStream, Scarlett Johansson and Oxfam, Israel’s apologists are pushing a new line: if you don’t buy products made in Israeli settlements, then you’ll put Palestinians who make them out of a job.
A good example of this can be seen in the tweets of Jewish Agency propagandist Avi Mayer, now parroting the same position as the South African government circa 1986:
Media covering the story have been trotting out Palestinian workers to speak against boycott. In a report today, for instance, The Guardian interviewed a SodaStream worker:
“We are against the boycott idea,” said Nidaa, a Palestinian from Jericho, sitting next to an orthodox Jew on the production line. “It would destroy us. Yes, this place is a settlement, but that’s normal. It’s easy to get here and it’s a good place to work.”
Others agreed. “This is about our jobs. It’s not about politics here,” said a colleague. “Palestinian independence is a long way away.”
Let’s leave aside for now that Palestinian workers at SodaStream talk about the company’s racism when they are not on its premises under its supervision.
While The Guardian does interview Omar Barghouti about boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), it does not adequately address the broader issue that Palestinians working in settlements do so because they have few other choices.
Better than starving
It is hardly surprising to learn that Palestinians who work for SodaStream think that working for SodaStream is better than starving.
It is no more surprising than the fact that for decades Palestinian laborers have built the settlements that are destroying their land in the first place.
Who would argue that this means Palestinians support Israeli settlements on their land, or that settlements are a good thing because they provide jobs?
This would morally be no different than arguing that it was wrong to oppose Jim Crow segregation in the US South, or for the civil rights movement to employ boycotts, because white supremacists provided Black people with jobs as porters, farm laborers and domestic servants.
Occupation = unemployment
Nor do many of the media reports that focus on the handful of jobs at SodaStream mention that far more Palestinians are put out of work by Israel’s occupation and colonial control of the economy.
The World Bank estimates, for instance, that if Israel ended its restrictions on Palestinian businesses and farms operating in “Area C” – 61 percent of the occupied West Bank – “this would add as much as 35 percent to the Palestinian GDP.”
How many jobs would that create to start to make a dent in Palestinian mass unemployment?
But all that land is inaccessible to Palestinians for one reason alone: Israeli occupation. And to get to the few jobs the occupation-economy provides, Palestinians must endure horrific conditions.
Don’t make Palestinians choose work over basic rights
As Hever observes, SodaStream CEO “Daniel Birnbaum made the point that he’s employing Palestinian workers, and wouldn’t it be a shame if he had to fire them because his company’s being boycotted.”
SodaStream is effectively “using the Palestinian workers in his factory as hostages and threatening to fire them if his company’s boycotted,” Hever adds.
Hever puts this into the broader context of the limited choices Palestinians face:
People are put into the corner, and they have to choose between the livelihood of their own family and their political aspirations for freedom and equality. That’s an impossible choice to make. You cannot sacrifice your own family in order to make a political point.
So what these workers are saying on the personal level: we cannot afford not to work wherever work is available to us, because the Palestinian economy has been ravaged by the Israeli occupation. There are no other jobs. But at the same time, they’re saying, well, on a collective level we do want to be part of a struggle for freedom and equality, and therefore we’re envisioning a future in which SodaStream will not be a colonialist company, but maybe it will be a Palestinian-owned company.
Then there would be no reason to boycott it and all the workers would still have jobs.
What the debate over SodaStream reminds us is that the struggle for liberation must include a vision of economic democracy as well.
Colonization, apartheid and occupation profiteers have no place in that future.