Scarlett Johansson faced a dilemma this week, and that dilemma has become an international political controversy. On the surface, it seemed like a choice between her volunteer gig and a paid sponsorship deal. But she ended up getting mired in one of the touchiest, most sensitive and most controversial political issues in the Middle East.
It started when Johansson took a presumably lucrative contract as spokesperson for SodaStream, an Israeli company that makes at-home soda-making machines. The complication is that, since 2007, she's been a "global ambassador" for Oxfam, a well-respected NGO that fights poverty around the world, and which also opposes SodaStream's decision to build a big factory in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
Oxfam did not like that Johansson was repping a company that, in its view, benefits from the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and from the Israeli settlements it sees as illegal and as "further[ing] the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support." You can see how they might consider that inconsistent with their work in the Palestinian territories.
After Johansson responded to Oxfam by posting a defense of SodaStream on the Huffington Post, Oxfam announced that it was "considering the implications of her new statement and what it means for Ms. Johansson's role as an Oxfam global ambassador." On Wednesday, the actress made her choice and resigned from Oxfam, which the NGO said it accepted.
This has grown into a big controversy for a few reasons. First, Americans don't like it when celebrities appear greedy or unprincipled, and choosing a soda-maker company over an international poverty-fighting NGO certainly risks that appearance (Corollary: News organizations have an incentive to write about frequently Googled celebrities, which requires engaging with controversies around those celebrities, which increases the controversy.)
Second, any story that involves Israeli settlements or Israeli policies toward the Palestinians is going to be enormously sensitive – diplomats with years of experience trip over this stuff all the time – and Johansson did not traverse these issues with the greatest nuance or delicacy. Her Huffington Post defense argued that SodaStream's factory in the settlements is a "bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights."
The legal and ethical issues around these settlements are highly complicated – much more so than activists on either side would like to admit. But this defense was at best tone deaf toward valid concerns about the implications of building factories in Israeli settlements, and at worst seemed to outright ignore the larger implications of Israel's presence in the Palestinian West Bank, which a significant number of left- and right-leaning Middle East analysts agree is bad for Palestinians, bad for the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace and thus bad for Israel itself. You don't have to support a boycott against all Israeli-made products in the West Bank to see how Johansson framing the SodaStream factory as a net positive for Palestinians, no caveats, can offend.
It gets even more complicated. (This is the Middle East, it can always get more complicated.) A third reason this has struck such controversy is that the entire issue got wrapped up in a separate-but-related issue called "BDS," short for "boycott, divestment and sanctions." BDS is an international movement that calls on the world to boycott and sanction all of Israel as a means of changing its policies toward the Palestinian territories. That movement has, as the Financial Times reports, seized on the Johansson controversy to further its larger campaign. Strategically, from BDS's point of view, that makes sense: An issue closely related to their issue is in the news, and Johansson is getting hammered by the press, so why not seize on that sentiment at a time when it would seem to be unusually sympathetic?
The effect, though, has been for the conversation around Johansson's sponsorship deal to develop increasingly into a conversation about BDS, about boycotting Israel. And that debate is far more polarizing and contentious than the separate-but-related question of whether Johansson should have chosen Oxfam over SodaStream. (To be clear, Oxfam does not support BDS or oppose all trade with Israel.) As so often happens with matters pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and peace process, as the conversation has shifted to larger questions about BDS, it's become highly ideological and divisive. That Johansson's statement was so politically muddied, and thus open to interpretations sympathetic and not, has helped to invite this.
What happens next will depend on whether the conversation remains focused on the narrow, specific issues around whether it's okay for an American celebrity to rep a company with factories in the Israeli settlements (the U.S. no longer calls those settlements "illegal" but it does call them "illegitimate" and "an obstacle for peace," which are pretty widely accepted positions) or whether the debate continues to drift into more contentious issues around BDS. In either case, it's not a controversy that seems likely to go well for Johansson.