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Scarlett Johansson quits Oxfam amid flap over SodaStream ad

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JERUSALEM — It's a rare thing when a Hollywood actress and a kitchen appliance spark a debate about policies in the Middle East.

But that's what happened after Scarlett Johansson filmed a Super Bowl advertisement for a company that employs Palestinians to produce seltzer-making machines in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The company, SodaStream International Ltd., is a target of a growing boycott movement of products made on land seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War and claimed by Palestinians for a future independent state.

Activists with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement barraged Johansson with editorials and tweets, demanding she sever ties with the company. When she refused, they took the campaign to a humanitarian group she is associated with, urging an end to their relationship.

Their efforts paid off Thursday when the charity, Oxfam International, announced that Johansson had stepped down as one of its ambassadors. In a statement, the group said Johansson's endorsement deal was "incompatible" with her work for Oxfam.

It is the latest in a string of victories for the boycott movement, which supporters praise for its nonviolent methods and critics accuse of unfairly targeting Israel and seeking to undermine the nation's right to exist.

In recent months, activists have persuaded a number of European businesses to limit trade with Israeli firms involved in West Bank settlements and helped win several high-profile boycotts by U.S. academic groups of Israeli academic institutions. The boycotts have generated a backlash from some educational leaders, including Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, who said they "subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas."

The movement has also won divestments in Israeli companies, with the Norwegian Finance Ministry announcing Thursday that it will exclude two Israeli firms from a government pension portfolio.

The boycott efforts have raised alarm among Israel's leadership, with Finance Minister Yair Lapid warning this week that the country will become more isolated and lose markets in Europe if it fails to strike a peace agreement with the Palestinians. The two sides are in talks to negotiate a framework for a peace deal.

"If negotiations with the Palestinians stall or blow up and we enter the reality of a European boycott, even a very partial one, the Israeli economy will retreat, the cost of living will rise, budgets for education, health, welfare and security will be cut and many international markets will be closed to us," Lapid said at a security conference in Tel Aviv.

Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti said Lapid's concern is proof that the boycott effort is working.

"The Israel brand today is more toxic than ever," Barghouti said.

He helped found the movement nine years ago with a coalition of pro-Palestinian groups seeking an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the right of Palestinians to return to land in what is now Israel. The activists were inspired by the international boycotts of South Africa's apartheid government.

The new movement has tepid support from the Palestinian leadership, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas saying he does not support a boycott of all Israeli products, only those made in the West Bank.

Executives at SodaStream, which was founded in the industrial zone of Mishor Adumim in the 1990s, say their business is helping the local economy. About 500 of the company's 1,300 employees are Palestinians, they say.

The West Bank site is among 22 manufacturing plants that the company operates around the world, including in the United States and China, according to its website. SodaStream's home appliances use recyclable carbon dioxide cartridges to turn tap water into carbonated soda water.

In a statement last week defending her role with SodaStream, Johansson nodded at that fact. "I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine," she said.

Still, Daniel Birnbaum, who was named chief executive of SodaStream in 2007, recently acknowledged to a local newspaper reporter that the factory's location was an annoyance.

The firm is expanding and building another factory. It's location? The Negev desert, well within Israel.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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