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On SodaStream, Occupation, and Nuance

On SodaStream, Occupation, and Nuance

In the flurry of Super Bowl ads, you may not have noticed one for SodaStream, starring Scarlett Johanssen, but this one ad stirred up quite a controversy behind the scenes.

Ms. Johanssen was an international ambassador for Oxfam International when she became a spokesperson for SodaStream.


SodaStream is an Israeli company, but their headquarters and factory is located, not in Israel proper, but in Ma’ale Adumim–a massive settlement block that sits smack between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the West Bank. According to the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, and the consensus of international law, the settlements in the West Bank are illegal, and so Oxfam requested Ms. Johanssen not participate in the ad promoting this company. She refused the request, and so resigned her post as an Oxfam ambassador.

For a good rundown of why this matters, see Matt Yglasias in Slate and this article in The Economist for an indepth, dispassionate take.

This raises again the issue of ethical investment vs divestment for the Church. As people of faith, what are we called to do with our money? Divestment came up at General Convention 2012, and got very heated (as issues around Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories tend to do– Jerusalem has long been known as the ‘heart of the world’ for a reason, and we react strongly when issues surrounding that heart come up.)

Until a proper, peaceful, two-state solution is achieved in Israel and Palestine, we are going to keep having this conversation. So, in an effort to smooth the way for an effective conversation, here are a few important to keep in mind:

1. Via media is the friend of nuance.

The Israeli Palestinian conflict is nuanced beyond all nuance– something we can struggle with in our political discourse. Nothing, and I mean nothing, in this situation has one answer. Not all Israelis agree on anything, not all Palestinians believe the same things, either. Even in our own church, there is a spectrum of faithful reactions to the investment/divestment issue.

Bishop Dawani of Jerusalem has spoken against divestment, and has been supported in this by our Presiding Bishop. They both argue that it will hurt Palestinians, and irreparably damage the ability of the Palestinian Christian Church to operate. Bp. Dawani recommends instead a method called ‘constructive investment’, where we would intentionally invest our money in the Occupied Territories whenever possible, in Palestinian-owned businesses.

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a former Palestinian Authority representative, current Palestinian politician, and Anglican herself, argues in favor of divestment as a strategy, comparing the current struggle to South Africa in the 1980s. She’s joined in this Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

We have a proud history in our church of finding the middle way together, and being attentive to nuance. That is never more important than in a situation like this, where the nuances are increasingly being flattened out as people take to their respective corners.

2. Those aren’t statistics; they are people.

In a glaring sense, it is a luxury for us here in the US to even debate how to invest our money. (We have spare money to invest; most people around the world don’t.)

Meanwhile, Bishop Dawani is entirely dependent on the Israeli government for the ability to do his job, or move around freely. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/mar/04/anglican-bishop-jerusalem-sues-israel As a Palestinian, he needs Israeli permission to travel to Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, to the Anglican churches throughout Galilee which make up his diocese–even to live in his cathedral close. Israel denied his visa renewal once already, and tried to deport the bishop and his family. It took several months of international diplomacy before he was granted permission to stay.

The decisions we make with our money (read: our power) need to reflect consciousness of all those whose lives it will ultimately touch in a very practical sense. What we do with our power cannot just be about us and our emotions, however heartfelt or worthy they might be. What we do with our power, be it financial or otherwise, has to be done in relationship with all those it will affect.

3. Complicated unjust situations are still unjust situations.

The Israel/Palestinian conflict has been going on for decades, and is plenty complicated, but that does not mean we have an excuse to throw up our hands and not act. It just means we have to be very careful before we act.

There is a clear difference between calling for divestment from all Israeli companies, full stop, and calling for a boycott of those companies who set up shop in the Territories, like SodaStream, in order to profit from cheaper labor. SodaStream’s defense of their factory’s placement was that they were teaching cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis. As Matt Yglesias argues, we need to first consider why it’s a given that SodaStream should teach this lesson in a place where only the Israeli half the workforce could drive on the roads, drink the water, and access the electricity. Is that really the sort of complete transformation we are called to enact in the 5 marks of mission?

We are still called to action in complicated, nuanced situations–perhaps even more so. Perhaps it is in these very tricky, heart-wrenching situations that the voice of faith is needed most of all.

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