Who won the Israeli-Palestinian Super Bowl ad showdown?

Although a SodaStream spot aired during the big game, pro-Palestinian activists claim victory for the debate it provoked

They ran no plays, broke no tackles and scored no touchdowns, but pro-Palestinian activists believe they won Super Bowl XLVIII — simply by turning a SodaStream TV commercial featuring actress Scarlett Johansson into a public controversy. The media spat over SodaStream, which operates a factory in the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, underscores growing concern in Israel and among its allies over the specter of international isolation.    

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday dismissed a warning by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, made during a speech in Munich the day before, that maintaining the status quo in the West Bank makes Israel more vulnerable to calls for economic boycotts and “a delegitimization campaign that has been building up.”

That’s Kerry’s reference to the campaign launched by Palestinian civil-society groups in 2005 for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel until, as the Palestinian BDS National Committee says on its website, the country “complies with international law and universal principles of human rights” in its dealing with Palestinians.

Netanyahu rejected the boycott effort as “immoral and unjust” and said its advocates “will not achieve their goal.”

His government, however, appears divided on how best to respond to the growing BDS campaign. Israel’s Strategic and Intelligence Ministry, tasked by Netanyahu last year with planning a response, reportedly advocates a heavily funded public-relations counteroffensive. But Israel’s Foreign Ministry believes such a campaign could actually play into the hands of boycott advocates by raising their profile.

The SodaStream Super Bowl experience illustrate that point.

‘Profiting from occupation’

SodaStream and Johansson became the focus of BDS activists in the weeks preceding the Super Bowl, after their success in persuading the American Studies Association (ASA), a body of U.S. academics, to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

The activists — a loose network of Palestinian civil-society activists and supporters abroad — took to social media to pressure the Fox Broadcasting Co. to reject a Super Bowl commercial from SodaStream on the grounds that the company operates a factory in occupied territory.

The United Nations deems illegal all settlements built on territories occupied by Israel after the war of June 1967, and a 2009 report by the Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem noted that the industrial park where the SodaStream factory is based sits on land confiscated from five Palestinian villages.

A SodaStream protest in Washington, D.C.
Mr.T in DC/Flikr

“SodaStream was profiting from Israel’s occupation,” said Ramah Kudaimi of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, explaining the boycott call.

Activists also pressed Oxfam International — a human-rights group that opposes trade with companies based in Israeli settlements — to break its relationship with Johansson, who until last week had been a good-will ambassador for the group.

But Roz Rothstein, CEO of the pro-Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, was having none of the claims of victory by BDS campaigners over the Super Bowl ad.

“It has consistently been the strategy of BDS to claim victory even when they lose,” Rothstein told Al Jazeera. The showdown and Johansson’s refusal to heed pressure to back away from the country were a victory for the Israeli side, she said. “This has given SodaStream more positive publicity not only for its product but also for being a model of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.”

The company and Johansson responded to boycott calls by pointing out that jobs at SodaStream provides a livelihood for hundreds of Palestinian families. But BDS activist and former Pink Floyd guitarist Roger Waters countered by arguing that the Palestinians who work in the factory lack basic democratic rights under the occupation.

Whether through information provided by groups like StandWithUs or through BDS activists, the SodaStream media dispute pushed the situation in the West Bank back into America’s public conversation without any upsurge of confrontation on the ground that has traditionally forced the issue into the headlines.

‘International isolation’

One reason partisans on both sides of the divide take the boycott campaign so seriously is the South African precedent. International sanctions during the 1980s played a major role in forcing the apartheid regime to accept majority rule. And that campaign also began as a civil society initiative among church, student and labor groups before it eventually changed government policy in a number of Western countries — an experience BDS activists hope to reproduce.

“International isolation is potentially more dangerous for Israel than the Iranian nuclear program,” Israeli author Hirsh Goodman wrote in an op-ed published in the New York Times on Friday.  

“The Palestinians and their supporters, particularly the young generation, some of whom have graduated from the best universities in the world, have come to realize that the stones of the first intifada and the suicide bombers of the second are yesterday’s weapons in yesterday’s war,” he wrote. “As South Africa learned in the 1980s, possessing nuclear weapons may deter foes on the battlefield, but it doesn’t help you win a propaganda war.”

The BDS activists failed to get Fox to drop the SodaStream commercial. The only problem the company faced getting the ad aired was a portion deemed disparaging to Coca-Cola and Pepsi, which SodaStream edited out. And when forced to choose, Johansson opted for SodaStream over Oxfam International.

That, according to Rothstein, was a clear defeat for the BDS side. “I think their strategy keeps backfiring,” she told Al Jazeera. “The more they publicize their misinformation about Israel and Israelis, the more they open the conversation and the more people are interested in the facts about Israel that we provide ... We don’t feel that we are in a difficult position at all. The best approach is to discuss the history and the facts on the ground, without fear or exaggeration.” 

But BDS activists are more than happy to discuss the history and facts on the ground, believing, as Rothstein does, that those facts support their cause. “We win when the public gets accurate information, which raises awareness about violations of human rights and those who enable them,” said Rafeef Ziadah, a spokeswoman for the Palestinian BDS National Committee.

Kudaimi agreed. “If we don’t win tangibly, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically a loss, because that extra exposure and that extra education that people (now) have will help.”

Putting pressure on celebrities has a similar effect, Kudaimi explained, citing examples of efforts to stop musicians from performing in Israel. While Stevie Wonder responded by canceling a scheduled appearance, Alicia Keys did not. But both instances sparked media debate that allowed activists to propagate their message.

A paradigm shift is even more visible at the liberal end of the American political spectrum, said Steven Salaita, a Virginia Tech professor of English who was active in pushing the ASA’s boycott resolution. As a result of BDS efforts, “discourse has shifted in important ways,” he said. “The argument 10 years ago used to be largely about whether Israel is doing anything immoral or not. Now that’s sort of the baseline assumption, and people are arguing over whether BDS is the most effective way to respond.”

Seeking legitimacy

Israel and its supporters have responded to the growing BDS effort with energetic campaigns of their own. But the debate within the Israeli Cabinet highlights its dilemma: Campaign aggressively against BDS and risk elevating the movement’s profile and the issues it raises; ignore it and pro-Palestinian activists dominate the conversation.

Tactical considerations aside, however, the Israeli side may be hard-wired to respond — not because the boycott campaign represents any significant economic threat but because of its symbolic psychological implications.

“The BDS campaign hits very hard at the self-image of Israelis,” said Charles Manekin, a professor of philosophy and director of the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center of Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland. 

“Like any country — especially a young, nationalistic country — Israelis take great pride in Israeli achievements, from individuals to sports teams to filmmakers to businesses. But it is not just that,” he said. “I would say that they never can take their international legitimacy for granted because of the controversy surrounding the founding of the state and its subsequent history, especially the occupation. So this has an impact on its craving for that legitimacy. In a word, Israelis have a need to feel accepted and even loved by the nations of the world.”

It’s precisely that insecurity over international acceptance and legitimacy that creates a vulnerability to BDS campaigns — and why this experience with Johansson and SodaStream is unlikely to be the last time a boycott call focuses renewed attention on Israel’s ongoing occupation.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter