Room for disagreement

Even in the heat of moral indignation, we have to keep an open mind


It’s Israeli Apartheid Week in Toronto, and we have a features article by Dana Bibi on the Israeli company SodaStream. The main point of interest is that it operates its principal factory in a settlement in the West Bank—i.e. on Palestinian land that most of the world does not recognize as Israeli.

Israel is a very delicate topic and has blown up in The Medium before. I don’t mind blow-ups, but we have to be very much on our guard to tell both sides of the story.

Boycotts of this factory have cropped up in the last few years, mainly instigated by BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions), a Palestinian organization dedicated to stopping the Israeli occupation through economic and academic sanctions. Many clear-thinking people have withheld their support from BDS, including some of Palestine’s most prominent advocates, such as Noam Chomsky (who says its “hypocrisy rises to heaven” and that it “harms Palestinians”) and even the Palestinian Authority itself, the provisional government of the West Bank. Similarly, some of those who decry the injustice of Israeli settlement have expressed concerns about BDS’s founder, Omar Barghouti, being something of a charlatan and hypocrite, being that he recently studied at Tel Aviv University in Israel. All of this is on the decently balanced Wikipedia page.

But BDS is very popular across the globe and has a lot of support, including here at UTM, as the over 60 heated comments on a former UTMSU VP equity’s letter to The Medium show. In general, even if BDS is a poorly run organization, its general goal of encouraging Israel to stop building settlements in Palestine, stop refusing Palestinians entry to Israel, and stop doing other things controversially referred to as “Israeli Apartheid” (the Wikipedia page redirects you to a more neutral phrasing, a good indicator of the term’s not being widely accepted), is a good goal. Even the Palestinian Authority supports boycotting not of all Israel but products made in the West Bank. It’s easy to see why people get behind it without doing research on the particulars: Nobody in their right mind wants to see Israel continue to oppress Palestinians.

So that brings us to the SodaStream factory. Again, the bad is that it’s on land that almost nobody considers belongs to Israel but was seized in the Six-Day War of 1967. Many of these settlements are enclosed by walls, and some even by electric fences, as though Palestinians were wolves. A huge part of the international pressure on Israel is to cut out the settlements. The PA’s economy minister has warned Palestinians not even to patronize the industrial park it’s in, Mishor Adumim.

But they do patronize it—and in fact work there. That brings us to the good side, which is that large numbers of otherwise unemployed Palestinians work there and at SodaStream specifically. At that factory, 950 of its 1,300 workers are Arab, and 500 of those are Palestinian. At the factory they receive significantly more than the minimum wage the PA has set for the West Bank. The vast majority of employees interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor (a very well-respected paper for its coverage of the Middle East and, despite the name, mostly secular) did not want to see the factory close.

However, some employees did protest the unfair working conditions. For example, Jewish dietary requirements are the norm there, not Muslim ones, and the article mentions that there is difficulty arranging for Ramadan fast-breaking feasts under the restrictions in force. Perhaps more notably, the upper levels are all Israeli while the assembly line workers are Arab, leading to a disturbingly colonial image in which a lower class provides labour for an affluent upper class. In other words, the Palestinians working there might get a better deal than elsewhere in Palestine, but it’s still essentially geared to making them second-class.

All of this argument is somewhat dated now, however, because just in October SodaStream announced that it would close the factory by the end of 2015. They say it’s because of profitability issues, whether or not that’s true—I don’t know if it’s as much about revenue loss from the successful boycotting of its products or the image loss resulting from the fact of boycotting. A potentially looming follow-up is that the factory is moving to an area that is on what is internationally agreed to be Israeli territory, but it’s close to the predominantly Bedouin city of Rahat, which could create some of the same issues all over again. Lots of Bedouin would be employed… but is it really good for their people to implicitly support Israeli manufacturing? After all, among other reasons for their becoming sedentary, they’ve suffered mobility issues since Israel put up the extremely controversial West Bank wall.

So it is a story of great interest with multiple angles. Yes, boycotting can be prudent, but there are times and places. Yes, the message was valid, but it wasn’t complete. Yes, we can celebrate the outcome, even if we acknowledge that the short-term loss of jobs is a cost Palestinian workers pay.

When we take sides we don’t need to lose our power of criticism.