The chief executive of SodaStream has accused his company’s critics of antisemitism and hurting the interests of the Palestinian workers they claim to protect as it shuts down its factory in the West Bank and moves to Israel’s Negev Desert.
SodaStream, which sells home fizzy drink machines, has been targeted by international protests. Citing financial reasons, SodaStream announced in 2014 that it was closing the West Bank factory. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement said its pressure was behind the decision.
Standing in the new factory in Israel’s Negev Desert that will replace the West Bank facility when it closes in two weeks, Daniel Birnbaum said the boycott movement has only had a “marginal” effect on his business. He accused it of spreading lies and said Palestinian employees were given pay and benefits far higher than anything else they could find in the West Bank.
“It’s propaganda. It’s politics. It’s hate. It’s antisemitism. It’s all the bad stuff we don’t want to be part of,” Birnbaum said.
The West Bank factory is within an illegal settlement in the Israeli-occupied territory. SodaStream said it employed up to 600 Palestinians there, and had sought to transfer their jobs to the Israeli plant. But Birnbaum said Israel had granted only 130 work permits so far due to security issues and many likely would lose their jobs.
Ali Jafar, a shift manager from a West Bank village who has worked for SodaStream for two years, said: “All the people who wanted to close [SodaStream’s West Bank factory] are mistaken. … They didn’t take into consideration the families.”
“SodaStream should have been encouraged in the West Bank if [the BDS movement] truly cared about the Palestinian people,” Birnbaum said.
Palestinians, like other employees, are offered a bus service that brings them to the factory but that will now become a two-hour journey each way that involves crossing an Israeli checkpoint, where workers must show permits and be screened for security checks.
The BDS movement wants to end Israel’s occupation of territories captured in the 1967 war, end discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to family properties lost in the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948. Israel says the Palestinian “right of return” would lead to a massive influx of refugees that would mean the end of the country as a Jewish state.
For the BDS movement, SodaStream’s pullout from the West Bank was part of a domino effect that would see more companies sever interests to spare their bottom line. “This is a clear-cut BDS victory against an odiously complicit Israeli company,” said Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the movement. He said it would continue to target SodaStream because its new factory is located in an area where Israel has in the past proposed to resettle Bedouin Arabs. The company employs more than 300 Bedouins.
SodaStream made headlines in 2014 when the actor Scarlett Johansson parted ways with the international charity Oxfam because of a dispute over her work as brand ambassador for the Tel Aviv-based company. Birnbaum said the relationship with Johansson was for a limited time and ended shortly after.
After years of growth SodaStream’s revenue dropped drastically in 2014 and its stock price continues to fall. Birnbaum rejected suggestions that BDS pressure has hurt the company, attributing the slump to a changing US market that is moving away from sugary drinks.
BDS has accused SodaStream of paying Palestinian workers less than their Israeli counterparts, but Birnbaum and employees at the factory said wages for Palestinians and Israeli workers were commensurate.