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Why We Called for Boycotting an Israeli Soda Company

By Alexander Abbasi and Andrew W. Schutts

In the spring of 2014, Palestinian students and allies of the struggle for Palestinian rights were outraged to find the SodaStream label on water machines in five House dining halls. SodaStream is a beverage machine company notorious for operating out of an Israeli settlement in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. Israeli settlements on Palestinian land represent an ongoing state-sponsored project, with Palestinian villages demolished and hundreds of families displaced every year to make room for new, exclusively Israeli neighborhoods, complete with segregated buses and highways. These settlements have been condemned by both the UN and the Obama administration as a violation of the Geneva Accords and a significant impediment to the peace process between Palestine and Israel.

SodaStream also appeared in the news last year when their celebrity spokesperson, Scarlett Johannson, resigned from her role as Oxfam Ambassador due to her continued appearance in Sodastream advertisements. Oxfam stated, “Businesses that operate in settlements, such as SodaStream, further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.” Scarlett Johannson chose to leave Oxfam and remain affiliated with SodaStream. Now, in the face of international outcry and plummeting profits, SodaStream announced that it will soon be moving its main production facility out of the West Bank.

For Palestinian students at Harvard, the presence of the SodaStream label represented a direct endorsement of land theft that has destroyed their communities and left thousands without homes. Many Palestinian students at Harvard come from families who have been displaced or refugeed as a direct result of settler expansion and infringement on Palestinian land. Students quickly brought the issue to the attention of the Mather House Masters, Michael D. Rosengarten and Christie A. McDonald, who responded thoughtfully and immediately. Throughout February and March of 2014, multiple meetings were conducted, which together included then-interim Dean of the College Donald H. Pfister, Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde, representatives from HUDS, Director of the Harvard Foundation Dr. S. Allen Counter, Lowell House Master Diana L. Eck, students supporting the move away from SodaStream, and students opposing it. The discussion was vibrant and productive, culminating in a commitment by HUDS to purchase from vendors other than SodaStream in the future. HUDS even demonstrated their commitment to this decision by purchasing a new machine for the Adams House dining hall that was not made by SodaStream. This occurred in early April of 2014, long before the SodaStream announcement in November of 2014 that it would be withdrawing from the settlements.

Critics of this move will declare that the conversations behind it were one-sided. They were not. Students representing multiple viewpoints and backgrounds were in attendance, including students who disagreed and voiced a very strong dissenting opinion. These opinions were taken into account and HUDS still chose to move away from SodaStream. Students of dissenting opinions then chose to remove mention of their participation in the official memo documenting the discussions. We ask these students why they removed their names and intentionally made it look like there was no vibrant discussion or progress made on the issue.

Critics will say that it is unfair to single out Israeli human rights abuses when so many other nations are guilty of similar crimes. We would first like to make the distinction that this move was made against an Israeli company which was directly engaged in activity deemed illegal by much of the international community. Even the Israeli High Court of Justice has deemed settlements illegal in the past. Secondly, however, we do not consider the ubiquity of human rights abuses around the world as an excuse for inaction in this particular case. Rather, we have supported and will continue to support moves for Harvard to not endorse the illegal actions of any company in any nation, particularly when these actions directly affect Harvard students.

Critics will ask why we are politicizing the purchase of soda machines, as if to ask why the issue even matters. The SodaStream factory, by virtue of its existence on illegally occupied land, politicized itself. Settlements are an unacceptable violation of international treaties that makes a lasting, political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible. Palestinian students have suffered from these settlements, which SodaStream directly helped to propagate. The issue was politicized long before the SodaStream machine entered the dining hall.

Critics will accuse this move of being nothing more than thinly-veiled anti-Semitism. It is not. To criticize a foreign nation’s policies is not to be biased against its people, as evidenced by the many Israeli and Jewish supporters of a boycott against SodaStream and their calls to end human rights abuses in their own nation.

Critics will say that because SodaStream has announced that it will be moving out of the settlements, we should no longer take a stance against it. As a reminder, these negotiations happened nearly 8 months ago, long before any indication that SodaStream would be leaving the settlements. We understand now that the issue has changed, and are excited to continue working with HUDS and the Harvard administration on it.

Lastly, critics will say that the decision to boycott SodaStream simply limits dialogue and does not allow for true collaboration. We disagree. The initiative itself sparks dialogue and awareness of the human rights issues at hand, and we are sure that many Harvard students were not aware of SodaStream’s presence on illegally occupied land before this move occurred. To discuss SodaStream’s practices promotes thoughtful engagement with the issue. We look forward to hearing and reading the dissenting opinions of our fellow Harvard students and working with them to end the crisis of violence in Israel-Palestine.

On behalf of Palestinian students and Palestinian rights activists here at Harvard, including members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee and members of the Progressive Jewish Alliance who helped us tremendously in this effort, we would like to thank HUDS, the Harvard college administration, and the House Masters for their decision to stand on the side of international justice as well as sensitivity to their own students. The discussion surrounding this move was enlightening, and we hope these events will spark further discussion of the issues of Palestinian human rights and a lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians.

Andrew W. Schutts ’16 is a government concentrator living off campus, and Alexander M. Abbasi is a student at Harvard Divinity School. Both are members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee.

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