The SodaStream Factory and Peace in the Middle East

It is an industrial park located about ten minutes drive from Jerusalem. This industrial park is named Mishor Adumim. The name denotes a plain or flat area made up of red earth. This industrial park is in the West Bank and it is the home of SodaStream.

SodaStream is the largest private employer of Palestinians on the West Bank, and it also employs Jews drawn mainly from the nearby settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. Ma’ale Adumim’s name is taken from the book of Joshua in the Bible, and literally means the Red Ascent, meaning the trek up from the Dead Sea where the rock faces are red in color. The population of the town is over 39,000 and the place was historically the border area between the Jewish tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

SodaStream has now become famous principally because its spokesperson, the attractive actress Scarlett Johansson, came under attack from Oxfam International on the grounds that supporting SodaStream violated Palestinian rights. The result of the argument was that Johansson resigned from Oxfam as their “ambassador” and continues her support of SodaStream. This was highlighted by a SodaStream advertisement during the Super Bowl.

Whatever one wants to say pro or con on the relationship between Israel, the Palestinians, and the West Bank territories, there is no way one can say that Palestinian rights are being violated by SodaStream. The company goes out of its way to treat all its employees equitably. Palestinians and Jews make the same money and enjoy the same benefits in the company. The Palestinian employees are, in some cases, taking home three times the pay of their counterparts in the West Bank, that is if their counterparts have employment. Unfortunately unemployment is discouragingly high in the West Bank. The Palestinian authority puts the current overall unemployment level at 27.1%, but the unemployment level of young people between 20 and 24 is 43.1%. If one adds in under-employment which is more the norm, the average person is having a hard time in the West Bank and, without a good job, is at risk.

It follows that part of the solution is more employment for Palestinian workers either in Israel or in companies located at or near Israeli West Bank settlements. And, in fact, that is the trend. Again, as reported by the Palestinian Authority and noted in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, “the number of Palestinians employed in Israel and the West Bank settlements increased in the third quarter (2013) over the second, to 103,000 from 96,000… Of that total, 51,000 Palestinians had work permits [in Israel]; another 34,600 were working without permits, and 17,600 had an Israeli identity card or foreign passport. Some 20,000 of them were working in West Bank settlements, the rest in Israel, the bureau said.”

What hinders the growth of employment for Palestinians is the pressure put on potential workers by Palestinian officials and by various pressure groups inside and outside the West Bank, by incessant anti-Israel propaganda in the West Bank, especially in the media and in all schools, by threats from shadowy terrorist organizations, and by security concerns on the Israeli side that a worker coming from the West Bank may intend harm against Israel.   We can add to this the fact that European and American organizations, who should know better, are stirring up trouble.  Oxfam is one of them.

Even so, the picture is a little brighter than what happened in the Erez Industrial Zone in the Gaza strip. The Erez Industrial Zone in the Gaza strip housed 187 businesses including carpentry shops, textile factories, metal works and garages and employed about 5,000 Gazans. The trouble started well before the Israeli unilateral pullout from the Gaza strip starting in 2004. It was largely due to the Palestinian Intifada (or uprising) and the murder of numerous Jewish businessmen and workers in the Erez Industrial Zone. In turn this sparked the shutdowns of businesses in the Zone. At the same time, thanks to the Intifada and attacks launched by terrorists coming from Gaza into Israel, the border between Gaza and Israel, where thousands of Palestinians crossed everyday to work, was closed.  Tens of thousands of Gazans were out of work as a result.

The general academic theory is that economic cooperation is a necessary prerequisite for normal political relationships. Many intellectuals have long believed that when people have jobs they are more likely to work out any differences that, if not settled, would cause them to lose their jobs.

In short, employment is an incentive for peace while unemployment is the enemy of peace.

The problem with the theory is that a small minority can destroy economic advances and set back the chance for political dialogue, perhaps indefinitely. That is precisely what happened in Gaza, and it is what threatens in the West Bank.

What is most peculiar, is that the trouble making is not only local and it is hardly limited to Palestinians or even Arab pressure groups who sympathize with their cause. The fact is that groups in Europe and the United States, especially among academics, are lobbying governments to boycott Israeli business in the West Bank. Effectively their lobbying, if successful, denies Palestinians good jobs and brings them irreparable harm.

Even the U.S. Secretary of State has threatened Israel saying that if it did not cooperate with him on his terms, Israel would end up suffering boycotts.  This, in fact,  creates incentives for boycotts and harms Palestinians much more than Jews.   No matter how the Secretary tries to explain his “observation,” the damage is huge.  

Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of SodaStream, took over the company after it was acquired by outside investors. He has told journalists that it would not have been his first choice to support a manufacturing plant in Mishor Adumim, because of the implied investment risks for his company, and the threats and dangers to his employees and their families, Jewish and Palestinian. But since the factory was already there, he has worked hard to make it the best manufacturing facility it can be with the best employment opportunity for all its workers. He was incredibly lucky or really smart to have chosen as his spokesperson the gutsy Scarlett Johansson.

Let’s hope the example will spread.  Only good can come from it.

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