“Sodostream” by Maia Brown “Sodostream” by Maia Brown

Rev. Andrew Love is a United Church of Canada minister who has started a campaign to get rank-and-file members to reject a proposal from the Church’s hierarchy to launch an economic boycott against Israel following the call of Kairos Palestine. Rifat Kassis, Kairos Palestine General Coordinator, responded to some of Rev. views expressed in a lecture held by him in Canada for church members.

On February 4, 2013, Andrew Love, a minister in the United Church of Canada (UCC), gave a presentation at the Rideau Park United Church in Ottawa, Canada. Rev. Love argued against recent calls for boycott of the SodaStream company, which has its headquarters next to Ma’ale Adumim, one of the largest illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). His talk developed into a broader critique of the UCCs stance on Israel/Palestine – or, better put, into a defence of the Israeli occupation itself.

This is not the first time that Rev. Love has publicly dismissed international efforts to secure human rights for Palestinians, to ensure Israel’s compliance with international law, or to advance peace with justice in our region. In this sense, his opposition to the SodaStream boycott (and his manipulation of the facts) is hardly surprising. But his arguments – for instance, that SodaStream is a driving force for peace and economic support for its Palestinian employees and the Palestinian economy as a whole, that “settlements are a misunderstood concept,” and that, in short, the occupation itself is a myth upheld by anti-Israel smear campaigns – are so insulting to any conception of justice that we must respond to them.

Rev. Love’s presentation began with an “informational” video, “Building Bridges, Not Walls”, featuring Daniel Birnbaum, SodaStream’s CEO: Birnbaum argues that a boycott of SodaStream is harmful to Palestinians, and the video goes on to portray SodaStream as a wonderful employer for its happy Palestinian workers.[1] According to the video, SodaStream promotes economic improvement for Palestinians; it is ecological, because it makes soda without cans and bottles; its West Bank plant is only one of 20 around the world, so why boycott the company as a whole?; it is one of the largest employers in Palestine; it is “seamless” for Palestinian employees to cross the Apartheid Wall to work; Palestinian businessmen invest more in Israel than in the West Bank; and economic growth rates in the West Bank have risen 7 to 9 per cent each year.

This vision of reality is cynical at best; at worst, it is criminally misleading. For one thing, neither the video nor Rev. Love bothers to mention a crucial fact: SodaStream is in a settlement, and settlements are illegal. Whether it provides jobs or it doesn’t, whether it reduces plastic consumption or it doesn’t, SodaStream is located on and profiting from illegally occupied land and thus constitutes a flagrant breach of international law. Moreover, the emphasis on SodaStream’s economic benefits for its workers is, under the circumstances of occupation, absurd and offensive. What Palestinians need is freedom, not fancier oppression. It doesn’t matter if our cage is made of iron or gold: it is a cage. In the following paragraphs I will unpack each of the arguments and counter arguments Rev. Love used in his presentation.

Rev. Love’s presentation deceptively states that Palestinians can easily cross the Apartheid Wall on their way to work. But he omits that, by building industrial zones next to illegal settlements, Israel provides streamlined transport exclusively for employees there, that Palestinian workers cannot unionize, that they risk losing their work permits if they try, and that Palestinian-owned businesses in the oPt are systematically stifled. Rev. Love’s rose-tinted glass is not reality: it is condescension before the thousands of Palestinians severed from their families, workplaces, hospitals, schools, and freedom by the Wall, and it masks many lies.

The presentation also argued that the West Bank plant is just one of 20 across the globe, the implication being that SodaStream should not be boycotted as a whole. But if SodaStream produces its products in illegal settlements in the oPt, it should be boycotted, regardless of whether any other products are manufactured elsewhere. Let’s say a company somewhere in the world uses illegal child labour. Considering this fact, is it morally right for us to only buy the company’s products that aren’t produced by children? Or do we take an ethical stance against the company until it stops exploiting them? The former position is merely convenient; only the latter is just.

The assertion that Palestinian businessmen have invested more in Israel than in the oPt does not simply mean, as Rev. Love’s presentation smugly claims, that they love Israel and oppose the boycott. Indeed, it more accurately shows the extent to which the occupation has deformed our society. This manifestation of distorted psychological and economic dependency is present in every society: its representatives are what we call the war rich.

As for the claim that economic growth in the oPt is on the rise (praising, by association, SodaStream’s contribution to this growth), this grossly misrepresents the devastating way in which Israel has rendered the Palestinian economy dependent on its own. SodaStream is not saving the Palestinian economy, it is contributing to the oppressive apparatus that wants to keep it hobbled. Meanwhile, unemployment is rampant and more than 100,000 Palestinian families live on humanitarian hand-outs. Soda makers will not secure their futures or their dignity.

Rev. Love’s presentation went on to attack the report submitted by the UCC’s Working Group on Israel/Palestine Policy. To do so, he slammed several “myths” he feels were perpetuated by the report. Once again, his reasoning is arrogant and duplicitous:

The first “myth” is Israel’s wrongs and responsibilities. Rev. Love complained that the report asks nothing of Palestinians, holds Israel to a higher standard than other nations, doesn’t condemn suicide bombing, and doesn’t applaud “our withdrawal from Gaza,” especially when “all they do is shoot rockets at us.” Here, Rev. Love discards numerous essential facts: Gaza is still occupied according to international law. The disbanding of settlements in Gaza is hardly grounds for congratulation: to do so would be like applauding an assailant for hurting you not quite as severely as he could have. We never condone rocket attacks, rather we condemn violence in all forms. Yet we must also remember that Gaza is the world’s largest prison: I once overheard someone say about her own experience of oppression, “I cannot shake your hand if you are stepping on my face.”

The second “myth,” according to Rev. Love, is that the occupation and the settlements are illegal. Rev. Love complained that the Working Group report doesn’t acknowledge the Balfour Declaration, insists that the occupation is legal because Israel needs secure borders, and claims that the Geneva Conventions aren’t applicable. On his first point, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 is a piece of written communication that stated Great Britain’s intention to facilitate a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. That is to say, it is not a political agreement (unlike the Geneva Conventions, for instance), and it was delivered, for political reasons, by a country that did not own the land; it carries no political weight. Second, unfortunately for Rev. Love, his insistence on the legality of the occupation and the irrelevance of the Geneva Convention bears substantially less leverage than the numerous international institutions that have declared Israel to be in violation of its legal obligations as an occupying power: to name a few, the Hague Conventions, Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, the Fourth Geneva Convention, UN Security Council Resolution 252, the International Court of Justice Advisory Ruling on the Israeli Apartheid Wall in the oPt, etc.

Also falling under Myth #2 is Rev. Love’s delicate description of settlements as “a misunderstood concept,” stating, “if anyone could show legal ownership of the land, they wouldn’t have built there.” Rev. Love fails to grasp that the problem with settlements is not just “buying” the land – but that, rather, Israel literally adjusts its borders as it pleases. Say, for example, that someone from Germany buys a plot of land in Canada, and Germany then claims that the purchased land now lies under German sovereignty. This is not what sovereignty means, and this is not the way to achieve it. He went on to acknowledge that “many of the settlements do need to be withdrawn,” but then symbolically threw up his hands – “you can’t ask over 350,000 people to move” (there are actually over 550,000) and also claiming that 85% of settlers live near the Green Line and therefore don’t count (another convenient border-readjustment, following the example set by Israel itself).

And Rev. Love’s third “myth” is that Arab justice trumps Israeli security. Rev. Love condemned the report for failing to address “the threat to Israeli security,” dispatching such “facts” as suicide bombings, Palestinian-implemented violence, and Iran’s nuclear intentions. In this way, Rev. Love brandishes the same logic used by the Israeli state to justify every house demolition, every eviction, every arbitrary arrest, every residency revocation, every NGO blacklist, every rubber bullet or round of live fire fired at a non-violent demonstration, every blow dealt to Palestinian children in detention, every bomb dropped on a residential area of the Gaza Strip, every shooting at a teenage boy collecting gravel along the fence separating Gaza and Israel (because of every one of Israel’s refusals to permit the entry of concrete into Gaza after blowing entire neighbourhoods to bits over four years ago[2]), and every insult to human rights it commits, whether in the face of a family in line at a checkpoint or before the United Nations: the justification is security, security, security.

The message is, then: if you cry out “threat to Israel’s security,” you can do anything, and no one can say you are wrong. The twin message is: if you do anything to advocate for Palestinian rights, you are a threat to Israel’s security. It is astonishing that this logic still functions and its effects are devastating for Palestinians, for Israelis, and for human decency at large.

Since Rev. Love sought to dispel the reality of an entire occupation and deny the validity of an entire people, it is unsurprising that he also aimed a bit closer to his own roots: the Palestinian Christian community and international Christian support for us. Attacking the legitimacy of the Kairos Palestine document, he claimed that Palestinian Christian leadership did not support the document and that our claims to the contrary have been proved false. To this, I must say that Rev. Love is a dubious voice for the cause of legitimacy: How does he define it? The Kairos Document represents the people’s voice and Rev. Love challenges their legitimacy. More than 60 Christian organizations, 13 heads of churches in Jerusalem and more than 3,000 Christian leaders signed and endorsed the document. “The United Church doesn’t have courage,” Rev. Love declared, expressing his distaste for the UCC’s recognition of the Kairos initiative. But it is his own accusations and presumptuousness that reveal his lack of it.

Whether extolling the virtues of SodaStream, condemning the evils of boycott, erasing many decades of systematic oppression, or generally expressing what he thinks is best for Palestinians, one thing is clear: Rev. Love sees the world through a colonial lens, assessing our problems as if he understands them better than the victims do. And as Ben White comments in the Electronic Intifada,[3]

The rationale behind the boycott, like the BDS campaign in general, is to enable an end to impunity for systematic gross abuses of human rights and international law (in the context of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and decolonization). In other words, it is grounded in the facts of occupation, colonialism, and the discriminatory exploitation of natural resources.

The claim that boycotts primarily harm those they are intended to help is reminiscent of those who defended Apartheid South Africa (or who urged ‘engagement’ rather than boycott). 

Justifying the appropriation of our land, rights, and history is one thing. Appropriating the narrative of our oppression to serve one’s own colonialist intentions is quite another, and we will not permit Rev. Love to speak on behalf of what Palestinians need.

I will close with some words by Desmond Tutu, a true supporter of peace with justice and of all human rights. He writes, recalling his advocacy work for divestment during apartheid in South Africa, that “regrettably,the time has come for similar action to force an end to Israel's long-standing occupation of Palestinian territory and refusal to extend equal rights to Palestinian citizens who suffer from some 35 discriminatory laws.” He adds, later, “Not only is Israel harming Palestinians, but it is harming itself.”[4]

Tutu quotes Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a perfect rejoinder to the “Building Bridges, Not Walls” video shown by Rev. Love. Rev. King writes that he has been,

“…gravely disappointed with the white moderate…who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action;' who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom. ..."

Rev. Love cannot set the timetable for our freedom. And it is freedom we want. We will not settle for less.

*Rifat Odeh Kassis is the General Director of Defence for Children International – Palestine Section (DCI-PS) and the General Coordinator of Kairos Palestine.

[2]Please visit the DCI home page www.dci-palestine.org.

[3]Ben White, “Apartheid apologists respond to BDS with fake concern for Palestinians”, 30 April 2012 at http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ben-white/apartheid-apologists-respond-bds-fake-concern-palestinians.

[4]Desmond Tutu, “Justice requires action to stop subjugation of Palestinians”, 30 April 2012 at http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/justice-requires-action-to-stop-subjugation-of-palestinians/1227722.