In SodaStream boycott push, Palestinians may be the victims

For proponents of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, SodaStream would appear to be a straightforward target.

The Israeli company, which sells a popular kitchen gadget that turns tap water into carbonated drinks, has a large factory in a West Bank settlement. When SodaStream announced that it would run an ad during the Super Bowl, the pro-Palestinian boycott campaign against the company reached a fever pitch.

But for hundreds of Palestinians, SodaStream isn’t a target; it’s their employer.

On a recent afternoon, women wearing hijabs hurried to their shifts at the plant located in Ma’ale Adumin, a suburban settlement about 15 minutes west of Jerusalem. Some 500 West Bank Palestinians work at the site, in addition to 400 Arabs from eastern Jerusalem and a mix of 200 Israeli Jews and foreign workers, including refugees from Africa.

The Maale Adumim factory has an on-site mosque and a synagogue, and Jewish and Arab employees share the same dining hall. SodaStream has two other facilities in Israel, in Ashkelon and the Galilee town of Mount Tabor. The Galilee factory employs several hundred Israeli Arabs.

“Everyone works together: Palestinians, Russians, Jews,” a Palestinian employee named Rasim at the Maale Adumim site told JTA. Rasim has worked at the plant for four months and asked that his last name not be published. “Everything is OK. I always work with Jews. Everyone works together, so of course we’re friends.”

For SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum, treating Arabs and Jews equally is a doctrine, not a convenience.

“We practice equality and full cooperation both on the job and off it,” Birnbaum told the Arab publication Al Monitor in a recent interview.

When he was invited to the Israeli president’s residence recently to receive an award, Birnbaum brought with him a few Palestinian employees and insisted on undergoing the same rigorous security checks to which they were subjected. When it came time for Birnbaum’s speech, he broke with protocol and publicly upbraided his host, President Shimon Peres, for the unequal treatment that his Palestinian workers had received, including strip searches down to their underwear.

“We are committed to continue serving as a bridge and to sowing hope,” Birnbaum said in his speech. “Who knows as well as you, Mr. Peres, how important it is to remain optimistic that one day there will be peace?”

SodaStream’s case, some say, is one example of how boycotting an Israeli company doing business in the West Bank can end up hurting the very goals that boycott proponents say they are trying to achieve: Palestinian rights and Israel-Palestinian peace.

“The SodaStream situation is extremely complicated because it’s a clear case of where the owners are making real efforts to engage the Palestinian workers with fair wages and in management positions,” said Kenneth Bob, president of the liberal Zionist group Ameinu, which supports the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank but still opposes boycotts of settlement products. “At the same time, it does on some level strengthen the occupation because it’s a factory over the Green Line,” the boundary between Israel and the West Bank.

Advocates of BDS say supporting SodaStream amounts to supporting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and that boycotting the company is an effective way to support Palestinian national aspirations.

“In the absence of global and international political pressure for Israel to abide by international law, BDS hopes to use nonviolent pressure to get Israel to stop the occupation,” said Kristin Szremski, a spokeswoman for the Interfaith Boycott Committee, a pro-BDS group. “The boycott of SodaStream felt like it was a great opportunity to raise awareness about settlements and thwart SodaStream’s effort to get into the American market.”

Szremski dismissed the argument that hurting SodaStream could hurt the livelihood of Palestinians, calling it “a way to obfuscate” the issue.

“The point is not just to make SodaStream go out of business,” Szremski told JTA. “Were there no settlements to begin with, Palestinians could be working their own lands. The fact that a worker goes to work every day does not indicate that it is a good thing.”

Another Palestinian worker at SodaStream’s West Bank site, who gave his name as Mmdoh, said politics don’t enter the workplace.

“We don’t get into that,” said Mmdoh, 34. “I feel normal. I don’t have conversations about it.”

For its part, SodaStream sees growth on the horizon. Its Super Bowl ad cost about $3.7 million, according to Ad Age, and won notice not just for its exploding bottles of brand-name sodas, but because a version of the ad highlighting digs at Pepsi and Coca-Cola was rejected by CBS, which broadcast the game.

Present-Day Apathy Not Always Case

“Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” by David Von Drehle (Atlantic Monthly Press, $26)

We live in cynical times. For years, young people have felt disengaged from the political process. Knowledge of governmental figures and the workings of law seem more tenuous among college students every year. Now, driven by electoral ambiguities and corporate scandals, Americans have grown increasingly disillusioned about the impact individuals can really have on the governance of this country.

This hasn’t always been the case. The first half of the 20th century was a time of unrivaled activism. That involvement took many forms. In New York, the infamous Tammany Hall political system openly bought and sold votes and the influence that came with them. Opposing the forces of the ward bosses, sachems and scouts — as the Tammany operatives were called — were the ranks of progressive thinkers who agitated for change. Among the latter group, Eastern European Jews, recent immigrants from such oppressive and anti-Semitic regimes as Russia, Hungary and Lithuania, were in the vanguard. Having lived through the pogroms (as well as other forms of discrimination and intimidation) in their hometowns and cities, they came to the United States prepared for better treatment, and willing to fight for it when it was not forthcoming.

The immigrant’s life was not an easy one. As is well known, many ended up in the tenements of the Lower East Side, working for slave wages in sweatshops and dreaming of better days to come. That their bosses were often other immigrant Jews did not ensure that they would be treated fairly or even humanely. Those who could amass their fortunes at the expense of other, more recent arrivals, did so without a second thought.

It is hard to understand where they drew the strength to take on a system stacked against them; factory workers had little money, no clout with city officials — who had been paid off by the shop owners — and practically no time to organize. They worked from early in the morning until late in the night in cramped, poorly lit rooms, being driven to produce more and more by foremen who stood over them with eagle eyes, aware that they could be replaced by another desperate person for any infraction.

Then there were the safety hazards: fire was common. According to one source, approximately 136 people died in workplace fires every year. Tenement fires were common, too, and with up to 150 people squeezed into a narrow, six-story building, surviving was a matter of luck and chance. Conditions were so unsanitary at work and home that people often fell sick with diseases we think of as belonging only in underdeveloped, Third World countries.

Life indeed was hard, but somehow that difficulty galvanized people, and things were ready to burst by 1909, as David Von Drehle comprehensively and often chillingly relates in his new book, “Triangle: The Fire that Changed America.” By the autumn of that year, conditions in the shirtwaist factories, where mainly young women toiled to produce ladies’ blouses, had deteriorated so far that the workers, many of whom barely spoke English, inspired thousands to stage a walkout in hopes of forming a union.

The young women drew some influential supporters, among them J.P. Morgan’s daughter and Frances Perkins, who would go on to hold the first Cabinet position held by a woman in American history. These “society women” had money, influence and the ability to draw media attention to the cause of the shirtwaist workers. What they did not have was the vote. Women’s suffrage did not pass until 1920, and yet all these women, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, threw themselves into the fray. Even though they could not affect elections, they still believed they could have an impact on the way things were run.

And they were right, but first there had to be a fire. Von Drehle brings the situation that led up to the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire — the deadliest workplace disaster in New York City until Sept. 11, 2001 — horribly to life. His book shows how the events of the previous year and a half led to the changes instituted in the wake of the devastating blaze. Primed by the strike’s impact, the government was finally ready to change business practices to protect the safety and well-being of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The outcome was by no means assured. The owners, who had locked their workers into the factory floor to make sure no one stole some thread, lace or even a $0.50 blouse, were acquitted in their trial, and the Tammany bosses resisted any change that might have adversely affected their coffers. But change did come, and transformed the lives of countless American workers.

That was then. We are all enfranchised now, and yet one doesn’t have to look far to find greed, corruption and the perversion of the democratic process. What will it take to galvanize us?

Hot Dog!

Vegetarianism may be trendy and maybe even healthy, but when Jeff Rohatiner was looking for a product on which he could base a restaurant, he knew that most of us are carnivores at heart. So he figured there’d be a market for the wares at Jeff’s Gourmet Kosher Sausage Factory, opened in late 1998 in the heart of Pico-Robertson.

There he and his staff grill up and serve succulent sausages that combine beef, chicken, turkey, lamb or veal with spices and, in a few varieties, ingredients like apple or cilantro. That’s it: no fillers, all flavor.Rohatiner, 42, grew up in a “Conservadox” Los Angeles household. As a teen, he attended yeshiva and got involved in the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the Orthodox Union’s youth organization. “I rebelled against my parents by becoming more Ortho-dox than they wanted me to be,” Rohatiner told The Journal.

He studied in Jerusalem after high school but returned to the States to enroll at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, earning a degree in hotel management. In Vegas, he fell away from strict observance – “I’d say ‘Kiddush’ on Friday night and then go to the disco,”he said – but after a stint in the hotel business, he returned to Orthodoxy, spent more time in Israel, and cast about for a satisfying career.

Sausage-making, Rohatiner said, was a hobby, and his decision to turn that hobby into a full-time business was born of “a certain amount of frustration”; it isn’t easy for an observant Jew to find specialty links. On the theory that he couldn’t be the only Orthodox Jew in Los Angeles who likes to sink his teeth into something other than a plain beef dog, Jeff’s was born.

The storefront is tiny, with most of the eating outdoors at tables scattered along the sidewalk. Inside, cool jazz and the aroma of grilled meat fill the air.

I took along my husband, Spencer, who spent a year in Europe as a college student and knows what’s best in wurst. Together, we chomped our way through a couple of sausage sandwiches and samples of almost everything in the rotating assortment Rohatiner offers each day.

Turkey Italian, Polish, mergez (a combination of beef and lamb) and chicken cilantro sausages are always on the menu, along with plain beef hot dogs. Jeff’s also serves burgers and deli meats in hot sandwiches. The cold cuts – turkey breast, pastrami, corned beef, roast beef and turkey pastrami – and all the sausages are made in the back of the store.

The short time from animal to grill was obvious in everything we sampled. Every mouthful of sausage, every sliver of deli was unbelievably fresh. The flavors of the meat were distinctive, the spices and other ingredients subtle grace notes. “Nothing’s here longer than a week,” Rohatiner said.

Spencer thought the sausages compared well to what he’d eaten in Germany. “He doesn’t overload it with nitrates, so you get more of a feeling for the meat,” he said, adding praise for the sauerkraut on his Russian sausage: “Not too crunchy, not too limp.”

While the fresh taste of the Polish sausage I sampled made it unlike any kielbasa you can imagine, my favorites were the poultry-based sausages: the turkey Italian, the chicken cilantro, and, best of all, the smoked chicken apple. Other varieties offered include jalapeano, cajun chicken, hot sweet Italian, Moroccan chicken, and veal bratwurst.

Sandwiches come on terrific crusty rolls topped with veggies that vary with the sausage, such as peppers and onions with the Italian varieties or sauerkraut on the Polish and Russian dogs. Side salads include excellent cole slaw and a Mediterranean salad made with tahini.

The sausages are amazingly nongreasy, even the beef links that contain 20-30 percent fat. Sausages made with chicken or turkey run just 8-9 percent fat. Rohatiner said he’s been getting requests for a meatless sausage and is working on lowering the fat content in the beef dogs to create “a line of guilt-free sausage.”But don’t wait. Jeff’s is worth a detour for lunch or a stop on the way from work to take home his vacuum-packed sausages and sliced cold cuts. If you’re a carnivore, you won’t feel guilty – just happy.

Jeff’s Gourmet Kosher Sausage, 8930 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 858-8590. Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Fri. 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Catering available.