Scarlett Johansson chooses SodaStream over Palestinians

Israeli settlements in the West Bank cause misery for Palestinians - but, of course, one must lend equal weight to the joy that bubbly soft drinks bring to the rest of us.

Scarlett Johansson has been a global ambassador for Oxfam since 2007. In that time she has travelled around the world, meeting people that the charity works with - including refugees, children unable to afford schooling, and survivors of natural disasters - and raising awareness of programs that urgently need funding.

Scarlett Johansson has been a global brand ambassador for SodaStream - an Israeli company that makes a range of products for carbonating soft drinks at home - for about a month, and is due to appear in the company's Super Bowl ad on 2 February. The company's main production site is located within an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank, Ma’ale Adumim. It's one of the settlements that Oxfam opposes "all trade" with, saying they "further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support".

All week there have been calls from a multitude of groups for Johansson to drop her deal with SodaStream in recognition of its violation of international law. The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation started a petition calling for her to choose not to be "the face of the occupation", arguing that "as an Israeli settlement manufacturer, [SodaStream] exploits Palestinian land, resources and labor and actively supports Israel's military occupation".

This contradiction between her longstanding charity work and her most recent ad deal couldn't stand - so she's chosen SodaStream over Oxfam:

Oxfam has accepted Scarlett Johansson’s decision to step down after eight years as a Global Ambassador and we are grateful for her many contributions.

While Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors, Ms. Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador.

Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.

Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law. Ms. Johansson has worked with Oxfam since 2005 and in 2007 became a Global Ambassador, helping to highlight the impact of natural disasters and raise funds to save lives and fight poverty.

Who can blame her? It's not like that Super Bowl ad is incredibly tacky or anything. And imagine the free soda she must get. Quite the deal for the actor.

In its defence, the current CEO of SodaStream, Daniel Birnbaum, told Forward magazine that he inherited the "pain in the ass" factory that was built by the company's previous owners and that he would "never" have chosen to build it there himself. However, as 500 of the plant's 1,300 employees are Palestinian and closing it down now would financially ruin them, he "will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda."

Johansson released a statement last week when the controversy first appeared, defending her choice: "I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine. SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights."

Alas, it seems the dialectical merger of the two ambassadorial roles was futile.

Scarlett Johansson: she loves the bubbles. (Photo: Getty)

I'm a mole, innit.

Ralph Orlowski / Getty
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Labour's investment bank plan could help fix our damaging financial system

The UK should learn from the success of a similar project in Germany.

Labour’s election manifesto has proved controversial, with the Tories and the right-wing media claiming it would take us back to the 1970s. But it contains at least one excellent idea which is certainly not out-dated and which would in fact help to address a key problem in our post-financial-crisis world.

Even setting aside the damage wrought by the 2008 crash, it’s clear the UK’s financial sector is not serving the real economy. The New Economics Foundation recently revealed that fewer than 10% of the total stock of UK bank loans are to non-financial and non-real estate businesses. The majority of their lending goes to other financial sector firms, insurance and pension funds, consumer finance, and commercial real estate.

Labour’s proposed UK Investment Bank would be a welcome antidote to a financial system that is too often damaging or simply useless. There are many successful examples of public development banks in the world’s fastest-growing economies, such as China and Korea. However, the UK can look closer to home for a suitable model: the KfW in Germany (not exactly a country known for ‘disastrous socialist policies’). With assets of over 500bn, the KfW is the world’s largest state-owned development bank when its size is measured as a percentage of GDP, and it is an institution from which the UK can draw much-needed lessons if it wishes to create a financial system more beneficial to the real economy.

Where does the money come from? Although KfW’s initial paid-up capital stems purely from public sources, it currently funds itself mainly through borrowing cheaply on the international capital markets with a federal government guarantee,  AA+ rating, and safe haven status for its public securities. With its own high ratings, the UK could easily follow this model, allowing its bank to borrow very cheaply. These activities would not add to the long-run public debt either: by definition an investment bank would invest in projects that would stimulate growth.

Aside from the obviously countercyclical role KfW played during the financial crisis, ramping up total business volume by over 40 per cent between 2007 and 2011 while UK banks became risk averse and caused a credit crunch, it also plays an important part in financing key sectors of the real economy that would otherwise have trouble accessing funds. This includes investment in research and innovation, and special programs for SMEs. Thanks to KfW, as well as an extensive network of regional and savings banks, fewer German SMEs report access to finance as a major problem than in comparator Euro area countries.

The Conservatives have talked a great deal about the need to rebalance the UK economy towards manufacturing. However, a real industrial policy needs more than just empty rhetoric: it needs finance. The KfW has historically played an important role in promoting German manufacturing, both at home and abroad, and to this day continues to provide finance to encourage the export of high-value-added German products

KfW works by on-lending most of its funds through the private banking system. This means that far from being the equivalent of a nationalisation, a public development bank can coexist without competing with the rest of the financial system. Like the UK, Germany has its share of large investment banks, some of which have caused massive instabilities. It is important to note that the establishment of a public bank would not have a negative effect on existing private banks, because in the short term, the UK will remain heavily dependent on financial services.

The main problem with Labour’s proposal is therefore not that too much of the financial sector will be publicly owned, but too little. Its proposed lending volume of £250bn over 10 years is small compared to the KfW’s total financing commitments of  750 billion over the past 10 years. Although the proposal is better than nothing, in order to be effective a public development bank will need to have sufficient scale.

Finally, although Brexit might make it marginally easier to establish the UK Investment Bank, because the country would no longer be constrained by EU State Aid Rules or the Maastricht criteria, it is worth remembering that KfW’s sizeable range of activities is perfectly legal under current EU rules.

So Europe cannot be blamed for holding back UK financial sector reform to date - the problem is simply a lack of political will in the current government. And with even key architects of 1980s financial liberalisation, such as the IMF and the economist Jeffrey Sachs, rethinking the role of the financial sector, isn’t it time Britain did the same?

Dr Natalya Naqvi is a research fellow at University College and the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, where she focuses on the role of the state and the financial sector in economic development

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