Clifford D. May
In this topsy-turvy world, if you’d like to see Palestinians living in peace, gainfully employed, with access to quality medical care and reason to believe tomorrow will be brighter than today, you’re denounced as anti-Palestinian.
If, by contrast, you prefer that Palestinians remain impoverished and on the dole of America and other “donor nations,” hating their next-door neighbor and bequeathing that hatred to their children, viewing themselves as victims while aspiring to “martyrdom” in an endless war, you get to call yourself a champion of the Palestinian cause.
I share this observation because last week PepsiCo announced plans to buy SodaStream for $3.2 billion. Perhaps I need to explain.
SodaStream makes devices for making sparkling water at home—no plastic bottles to schlep home and then throw away or send for recycling.
Its CEO, Daniel Birnbaum, is an Israeli entrepreneur and visionary who came up with a wild idea: Open a factory on the West Bank and hire Palestinians. Give them “Israeli wages,” which are about four times higher than the average in the territories. Provide them and their extended families with medical insurance, a benefit few employers in the West Bank provide.
Also, hire Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews and let them all work together, learn about each other, maybe develop mutual respect and even friendships. What an achievement it would be if the experiment succeeded!
Succeed it did. By 2014, with more than 500 workers, SodaStream was among the largest private employers on the West Bank.
Unsurprisingly, champions of the Palestinian cause denounced Birnbaum as anti-Palestinian. In particular, advocates for BDS (the campaign to delegitimize and demonize Israel through boycotts, divestment and sanctions) accused him of stealing Palestinian land, profiting from the “occupation,” and exploiting Palestinian workers.
“Suddenly,” Birnbaum recounted to me over dinner in Tel Aviv three years ago, “I’m a walking war criminal!”
BDS lobbyists were particularly effective in Europe. They persuaded retailers in Sweden to tell Birnbaum not to send them SodaStream products from the West Bank. Those retailers had no problem receiving merchandise made in China, a country where about a million Muslims are right now incarcerated in “re-education camps”; that occupies Tibet (offering no “two-state solution”); and where persecution of Christians and other minorities continues to worsen.
When Birnbaum needed a new and bigger factory, he decided not to build in the West Bank but instead to relocate to the Negev Desert, well within the “armistice lines,” the temporary borders drawn in 1949 when the war between the fledgling Jewish state and the Arab nations surrounding it came to a halt.
The new factory employs 1,400 Bedouins, many of whom have never before had regular jobs with regular paychecks. BDS social warriors began attacking Birnbaum again, this time accusing him of exploiting the Bedouins. The local Bedouin sheikh told them to pound desert sand.
The news of PepsiCo’s purchase of SodaStream makes one thing abundantly clear: While the BDS campaign managed to deprive Palestinians of good jobs, it failed to prevent the company that had provided those jobs from becoming an enormous international success.
Also significant is the fact that PepsiCo is the buyer: Years ago, it was one of the companies complying with the Arab League boycott against Israel.
Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS campaign, is livid. He issued a statement declaring that the PepsiCo purchase notwithstanding, SodaStream “is still subject to boycott,” and claiming that the factory in the Negev is “displacing the indigenous Bedouin-Palestinian citizens of Israel.”
How employing people can be interpreted as replacing people, he didn’t explain. No matter: On NPR’s “Here & Now” and other left/progressive media outlets, SodaStream was portrayed as the villain in this drama, with no hint that there might be another side to the story.
BDS has lost other significant battles. Hannah Brown, movie critic of The Jerusalem Post, reports in the current issue of Commentary that Israel has become a global force in television, “one of the world’s most prolific exporters of ‘formats’—industry jargon for concepts and programs.”
BDS warriors recently attempted to persuade Netflix to cancel plans to broadcast a second season of “Fauda,” a series about an Israeli special-forces unit operating on the West Bank. Featuring sympathetic characters on both sides of the conflict, it’s become what Brown calls “a guilty pleasure” for Palestinian viewers.
In March, a BDS group sent Netflix a letter threatening “nonviolent grassroots pressure and possible legal accountability.” Among the responses that evoked: A Hollywood organization called the Creative Community for Peace urged Netflix to reject this “blatant attempt at artistic censorship.” The show’s second season was released in May as planned. (Mini-review: It’s spectacularly good TV.)
For all that, the menace BDS poses remains. The Nazi slogan of the 1930s that presaged the Holocaust was “Don’t buy from Jews!” BDS proponents have updated that to “Don’t buy from the Jewish state!” Leaders of the campaign do not hide their own exterminationist intentions. If that means innocent, peaceable and hardworking Palestinians end up as collateral damage, c’est la guerre.
Meanwhile, anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism are on the rise throughout much of Europe. And on American campuses, where left/progressive doctrines dominate, BDS sophists convince credulous undergraduates that the freest and most tolerant nation in the Middle East is singularly oppressive.
By doing so, they get to call themselves champions of the Palestinian cause. As I said, we live in a topsy-turvy world.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.