Sodastream CEO Daniel Birnbaum posing for a photograph at the SodaStream factory next to the Israeli city of Rahat. Photo by Dan Balilty/AP Images

SodaStream bringing 74 West Bank Palestinians back to work at Negev plant

Some 74 Palestinian employees of SodaStream, who lost their jobs when the company shut its West Bank plant in the face of international pressure, will return to work at its factory in southern Israel.

The employees’ work permits, which allowed them to enter Israel from the West Bank, expired in February 2016.

The Israeli government agreed to reinstate the permits after persistent requests from SodaStream and its CEO Daniel Birnbaum, The Jerusalem Post reported Sunday.

“We are delighted to welcome back our 74 devoted Palestinian employees, who are able to join their 1,500 friends at our Rahat facility in the Negev,” Birnbaum told the newspaper. “The Israeli government did the moral and honorable thing to grant work permits to our employees, who can now provide for their families and also prove that coexistence is possible.”

In October 2014, SodaStream announced it would close its factory in Maale Adumim and move to southern Israel in the face of pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, which seeks to hurt Israel’s economy over its policies toward the Palestinians. The movement claimed that SodaStream discriminated against Palestinian workers and paid some less than Israeli workers.

Some 500 Palestinian employees lost their jobs at that time. Israel gave the remaining 74 employees permission to enter the country and continue to work for SodaStream until February 2016.

The company now has more than 1,400 employees in the Idan Hanegev industrial park near Rahat, one-third of them Bedouin Arabs from the surrounding area.

The Palestinian employees will have to leave for work at 4:30 a.m. in order to make the long commute and be there on time, but at least one told the Post that he does not care.

“SodaStream is our second home,” Ali Jafar, 42, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. “When you have the opportunity to return home, you return.”

Celebrities giving a boost to Israeli tech startups

Celebrity endorsements are a big boon for brands. Just ask SodaStream, the Israeli company touted by Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson and “Game of Thrones” actor Thor Bjornsson. Ask HOT, the Israeli telecom for which Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo filmed a funny TV commercial. 

But other stars support Israeli startups with their dollars rather than their faces — or sometimes with both. Today’s celebs no longer look down on techies, explained Gil Eyal, founder of Tel Aviv- and New York-based influencer marketing platform HyPR Brands. 

“It’s kind of cool to be a nerd now, and Israeli founders are a unique type of nerd because they have chutzpah; they’ll walk up to Leonardo DiCaprio and ask, ‘Do you want to invest in my startup?’ ” Eyal said.

Furthermore, many stars feel sidelined as companies like Twitter and YouTube made big bucks on their backs. 

“Suddenly, they realized they can bring enormous value by virtue of giving their attention, and startups crave attention,” said Eyal, who is experienced in attracting celebrity endorsements and investments for his clients.

“It’s like a Cinderella story when suddenly someone super powerful comes in and says, ‘I recognize your potential.’ Nothing is more lonely than being a founder, and suddenly the coolest kid in school wants to hang out. And since Israeli tech is so hot, it makes sense that celebrities gravitate to where success has been.”

Here are some of the Israeli tech startups that have drawn celebrity attention:

Founded in 2013, Fundbox is the newest Israeli startup with star backing. Offering a cash-flow optimization system for small businesses, the company has raised $112.5 million from investors, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and actor Ashton Kutcher. Fundbox has offices in Tel Aviv and San Francisco.

Interactive piano-teaching app Tonara, online personal styling app Wishi, and mobile applications, artificial intelligence and online services company Shellanoo Group each got an investment from Black Eyed Peas musician, producer and serial tech entrepreneur (William Adams). He also tapped Israeli talent a couple of years ago to develop Puls, a beta prototype for his “smart cuff” wearable, Dial, introduced in early 2016.

Powermat got a jolt of juice from hip-hop legend Jay Z in 2012. He signed on as the face and voice of the venture, taking an equity stake in the company and embedding wireless Powermat Charging Spots in the tables at his 40/40 Club NYC. He announced that he believes in the future of wireless energy and in the company’s ability to “bring on the revolution.” Powermat is installed in more than 1,400 locations, mostly in North America, providing 150 million phone-charging minutes last year. The Israeli-founded company’s communication center is in Neve Ilan.

Moovit, the public transit app serving hundreds of cities worldwide, has been heavily supported by Sound Ventures, a VC firm founded by Kutcher with Israeli native Guy Oseary, manager for Madonna and U2. 

The most recent investment, in late 2015, helped Ness Ziona-based Moovit move into the Chinese and Indian markets. Kutcher told Business Insider, “Moovit’s mission to make public transport a first choice for people across the globe, cutting back on individual car usage and making cities smarter, sits well with our vision to invest in game-changers.”

PlaySight of Kfar Saba attracted funding from tennis greats Novak Djokovic and Billie Jean King for its SmartCourt analytics technology, designed to measure and record playing performance via HD cameras, cloud software and social media sharing capabilities. In use across North America and Europe, SmartCourt works with net sports as well as basketball, handball, squash, martial arts, soccer, hockey, wrestling, dancing and gymnastics.

MyCheck, a mobile app that enables hospitality merchants such as restaurateurs let patrons pay, order and manage rewards from their smartphones, got an early investment from Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli. She also appeared in a domestic ad for MyCheck, which now has offices in Tel Aviv, Sao Paulo, New York and London.

Mobli illustrates the stark truth that startups are risky and even star power cannot guarantee success. Moshe Hogeg’s 2010 venture garnered multimillions from the likes of DiCaprio, Serena Williams, Toby Maguire, Lance Armstrong and Carlos Slim. Yet the social mobile photo- and video-sharing platform, which counted some 20 million users, was eclipsed by Instagram and is struggling to stay afloat.

SodaStream hires hundreds of new employees in southern Israel

SodaStream has hired 300 new employees for its production plant in southern Israel.

The company, which had come under fire when it was based in the West Bank, now has 1,400 employees in the Idan Hanegev industrial park near Rahat, one-third of them Bedouin Arabs from the surrounding area, the Israeli business daily Globes reported.

One of the largest employers in the Negev Desert, Soda Stream will hire another 70 employees in the coming weeks, according to the report published Wednesday.

Demand for SodaStream products has risen sharply since May 2015, mainly in the Israeli market, but also in other markets, according to Globes.

In October 2014, SodaStream announced it would close its West Bank factory in Maale Adumim and move to southern Israel in the face of international pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, which seeks to hurt Israel’s economy over its policies toward the Palestinians. The movement claimed that SodaStream discriminated against Palestinian workers and paid some less than Israeli workers.

Some 500 Palestinian employees lost their jobs at that time. Israel gave the remaining 74 employees permission to enter the country and continue to work for SodaStream until the end of February.

SodaStream offers to take in Syrian refugees

The Israeli company SodaStream has offered to take in Syrian refugees and employ them in its new factory in the Negev Desert.

In an announcement over the weekend, SodaStream and the mayor of Rahat, which is near the home beverage maker’s factory, said they can absorb up to 200 families. Some 30 percent of the 1,100 workers at the factory live in the Bedouin city led by Mayor Talal Al-Krenawi.

“As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I refuse to stand by and observe this human tragedy unfold right across the border in Syria,” said SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum said in a statement. “Just as we have always done our best to help our Palestinian brothers and sisters in the West Bank, the time has come for local business and municipal leaders to address the Syrian humanitarian crisis and take the initiative to help those in need. We cannot expect our politicians to bear the entire burden of providing aid for the refugees.”

The Israeli government must approve the endeavor.

SodaStream announced a year ago that it would close its controversial West Bank factory and move its operations to southern Israel. The move was widely seen as due to international pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to hurt Israel’s economy over its policies toward the Palestinians.

SodaStream CEO: BDS movement should have supported West Bank factory, set to close

SodaStream’s chief executive called the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement anti-Semitic and maintained that his company gave West Bank Palestinian workers good pay and benefits.

In an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday, two weeks before the West Bank factory is set to close, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum said his company’s critics did not have a grasp on the situation on the ground at the factory.

“It’s propaganda. It’s politics. It’s hate. It’s anti-Semitism. It’s all the bad stuff we don’t want to be a part of,” Birnbaum said. “SodaStream should have been encouraged in the West Bank if [the BDS movement] truly cared about the Palestinian people.”

SodaStream, a company that produces domestic soda-making machines, announced last fall that it would close its West Bank factory in the face of international pressure from the BDS movement, which seeks to hurt Israel’s economy over its policies towards Palestinians. The movement claimed that SodaStream discriminated against Palestinian workers and paid some less than Israeli workers.

Hundreds of Palestinian workers from the factory could lose their jobs in the company’s transition to a new plant in the Negev region because Israel will not grant them all work permits for security reasons. Up to 600 Palestinians worked in the West Bank, and Birnbaum said only about 130 have so far been granted work permits.

“All the people who wanted to close [the West Bank factory] are mistaken,” Ali Jafar, a shift manager from a West Bank told the AP. “They didn’t take into consideration the families.”

The commute for West Bank workers will now be a two-hour bus ride to the Negev plant that involves an Israeli border security checkpoint.

SodaStream’s revenue took a big hit in 2014. Birnbaum blamed the U.S. market’s movement away from sugary drinks, not the influence of BDS pressure.

SodaStream reportedly changes some labeling to ‘Made in the West Bank’

SodaStream changed the labels on some of its products to note that they were manufactured in the West Bank, according to an international media group.

The labels were changed to read “Made in the West Bank” following a complaint filed nearly a year ago with the Oregon Department of Justice, the International Middle East Media Center, a collaboration between Palestinian and international journalists, reported.

Two groups that advocate for boycotting products made in the West Bank accused SodaStream of violating the state’s Fair Trade Practices Act by labeling its products as “Made in Israel” when its main production plant is in Maale Adumim, a West Bank settlement.

Oregon’s Fair Trade Practices Act is a consumer protection law that makes false advertising of a consumer product illegal.

The complaint was filed last May by the PDX Boycott Occupation Soda! Coalition and the Mid-Valley BDS coalition of Oregon’s Willamette River Valley. SodaStream is preparing to move from its West Bank headquarters.

“This appears to be the first time that an Israeli settlement manufacturer has corrected its labels for products sold in the United States,” Rod Such of the PDX Boycott Occupation Soda! Coalition told the media center. “Many people of conscience refuse to purchase products made in Israel’s illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank, but in the case of SodaStream they were deceived by false labeling that claimed the products were produced within Israel’s internationally recognized borders.”

SodaStream has long come under fire for producing its popular line of home carbonation machines in the West Bank. In October, the company announced it would close the Maale Adumim factory and move it to Lehavim, in southern Israel. The move is expected to be completed by the end of 2015.

Everything you need to know about SodaStream’s move

SodaStream, the Israeli at-home seltzer machine company, announced last week that it would be closing its West Bank factory and moving the facility’s operations to southern Israel next year. Here’s what you need to know about SodaStream, the controversy that has bubbled up in its midst and what the actress Scarlett Johansson has to do with it.

What is SodaStream?

SodaStream is an Israeli company that makes and sells seltzer machines for home use. Since it was founded in 1991, the company has sold more than 10 million machines in 39 countries. The foot-and-a-half-tall machines turn still water into seltzer in 30 seconds. The company also markets dozens of mix-in flavors, such as cola, ginger ale, lemon-lime and fruit punch.

Why is SodaStream controversial?

Until this week, SodaStream’s main factory was located in Mishor Adumim, an industrial park in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, east of Jerusalem. Because the settlement is likely to be included in Israel in any future peace deal with the Palestinians, many Israelis don’t view it as all that controversial.

But groups that oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank have called for boycotts of SodaStream due to the factory’s location. The debate over SodaStream gained attention earlier this year when the actress Scarlett Johansson became the face of the company, appearing in a SodaStream ad during the Super Bowl. Johansson ended up resigning as a spokeswoman for Oxfam International, an anti-poverty group that opposes the West Bank factory, after it criticized the actress’ involvement with the company.

What is SodaStream’s position on its West Bank factory?

SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum has touted the Mishor Adumim factory, which has been in its current location since 1997, as a successful example of Arab-Jewish coexistence in the West Bank. Some 500 Palestinians work at the factory alongside Israeli Jews, and Birnbaum says he pays them well and treats them as equals with their Jewish co-workers, though pro-Palestinian groups allege that the Palestinian employees are treated poorly. The factory includes a mosque for Muslim employees. Closing the factory, Birnbaum says, could mean putting hundreds of Palestinians out of work.

Birnbaum is a proponent of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has noted that Mishor Adumim is defined as an area under Israeli control by the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords, and argues that Israeli industry there is thus not a violation of international law.

The company drew more criticism this summer after it fired 60 of its Muslim employees, claiming they refused to work. The employees countered that SodaStream did not provide them with sufficient meals following the Ramadan fast and therefore were unable to safely operate machinery.

So what caused the move?

SodaStream’s third-quarter revenue dropped 13 percent, and sales in the Americas dropped 41 percent — numbers the company says are unrelated to the boycotts.

Moving to Lehavim, a town in southern Israel, near Beersheba, will yield savings of 2 percent, according to a brief SodaStream statement about the move. The Israeli government gave SodaStream a $20 million grant for the new facility, part of a larger government effort to incentivize business growth in the country’s South.

The company claims the motive for the move is “purely commercial,” though Birnbaum told the Forward this year that the Mishor Adumim factory is a “pain in the ass.”

Birnbaum said in the statement that he’s working with the Israeli government to obtain work permits that would enable his Palestinian employees to work at the relocated plant. However, the new facility is 60 miles away from the Mishor Adumim workplace.

“While we are enthusiastic about our new Lehavim facility and the exciting promise it brings to our company, we are committed to doing everything in our power to enable continuity of employment to our family of employees,” Birnbaum said in the statement.

What are protest groups saying about the move?

They have praised the decision … but they’re still boycotting SodaStream. Activists say that the Mishor Adumim factory’s closure is evidence that the BDS movement, which aims to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, is working.

“Today’s news is just the latest sign that these global BDS campaigns are having an impact on changing the behavior of companies that profit from Israeli occupation and apartheid,” said Ramah Kudaimi, membership and outreach coordinator for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which represents 400 organizations.

But Kudaimi’s group, as well as the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, say they will continue to boycott SodaStream because they claim its new factory abets dispossession of Bedouin land in Israel, even though the factory will be in an existing industrial park.


SodaStream fires Palestinian employees in Ramadan fast dispute

The SodaStream company reportedly fired 60 Palestinian employees from its West Bank plant over a dispute on breaking the Ramadan fast.

The workers were fired earlier this month, the WAC-MAAN trade union representing the Palestinian workers told The Marker, a business newspaper associated with the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The evening shift workers reportedly received dismissal notices a day after complaining that the food they received to end the daily sun-up to sundown fast during the Ramadan holy month was not enough. They are prohibited from bringing their own food into the plant due to the observance of kosher laws there.

On the evening they complained, the workers were sent home with promises that the issue would be resolved, according to the Marker. They received the termination notices the following day.

SodaStream told the Marker in a statement that the workers were dismissed because they called a wildcat strike, which the company said was without cause.

“SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum proudly presents the plant as an oasis of coexistence between peoples, but the reality is very different,” WAC-Maan Jerusalem coordinator Erez Wagner told The Marker.

SodaStream has been in the news in recent months following the signing of actress Scarlett Johansson as a spokeswoman and the ensuing controversy over its West Bank factory. Johansson resigned as a global ambassador for Oxfam over her position with the company, which employs Jewish and Palestinian workers in Maale Adumim.

SodaStream store in Britain shuts after two years of weekly protests

An Israeli-owned store in England that sold replacement parts for SodaStream closed after two years of weekly boycott protests.

The EcoStream shop in the coastal town of Brighton shut down last week, the Jewish Chronicle reported.

The store sold the recyclable bottles for the SodaStream machines made in the factory in the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim.

Since September 2012, pro-Palestinian activists from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign have demonstrated in front of the store every Saturday as part of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. The Sussex Friends of Israel staged regular counter-protests, according to the Chronicle.

“Following a two-year test period, the company has decided to focus its business efforts on other channels,” a SodaStream spokesman told the Jewish Chronicle.

The British department store chain John Lewis recently removed SodaStream products from its shelves as well.

SodaStream had been in the news in recent months following the signing of actress Scarlett Johansson as a spokeswoman and the ensuing controversy over its West Bank factory. Johansson resigned as a global ambassador for Oxfam over her position with the company, which employs Jewish and Palestinian workers in Maale Adumim.

Report: Starbucks to buy 10% stake in SodaStream

Starbucks is in advanced talks to buy 10 percent of the Israeli home soda machine company SodaStream.

Shares of SodaStream jumped more than 10 percent following the report Wednesday in the Israeli business daily Globes, which said an announcement of the purchase is expected “soon.” The company value is $1.1 billion.

Neither company would comment in the media on the report.

Starbucks left the Israeli market about a decade ago after Israeli customers indicated their preference for purchasing their coffee from other companies.

SodaStream had been in the news in recent months following the signing of actress Scarlett Johansson as a spokeswoman and the ensuing controversy over its factory in the West Bank. Johansson resigned as a global ambassador for Oxfam over her position with the company, which employs Jewish and Palestinian workers at its West Bank facility.

At AIPAC, Scarlett fever

Scarlett Johansson, fresh out of her SodaStream battles, declined to attend this year’s annual American Israel Political Affairs Committee policy conference. She’s in Paris, picking up an honorary Celeste award and promoting her latest releases, the New York Times reported.

She kept appearing at the conference though, after a fashion.

Johansson featured prominently in AIPAC’s showcase of Israel’s high-tech sector on Monday.

Her image — 10 times over — was flashed during a demonstration of the ElMindA, a hairnet-like device that scans a brain’s electronic activity. The company’s managing director, Ronen Gadot, tested the device on Winton Stewart, a linebacker at Alabama State University who is also AIPAC’s deputy director of campus outreach. (Football players are especially susceptible to concussions, which the device could help diagnose more accurately.)

The idea was that the device, by tracking how one’s brain registers an image, could then track one when it appeared in quick succession among other images. It is a more accurate measure, Gadot contended, than subjective memories. In other words, while one may remember detecting Johansson’s face five or six times, the device would be able to more accurately register exactly how many times your brain made the right call.

Stewart said he remembered eight out of the 10 viewings, and Gadot said the device recorded that many.

The demonstration starts at about 21 minutes:

At the conference closing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought Johansson up again, although perhaps in a weirder, less apposite way. He applauded her role in the SodaStream matter, when she rejected calls for her to boycott the product. But then he likens her to … a plantation owner? His second paragraph alludes, after all, to Scarlett O’Hara the Southern belle of “Gone with the Wind.”

Everyone should know what the letters B-D-S really stand for: bigotry, dishonesty and shame. And those who — those who oppose BDS, like Scarlett Johansson, they should be applauded.

Scarlett, I have one thing to say to you: Frankly, my dear, I DO give a damn. And I know all of you give a damn, as do decent people everywhere who reject hypocrisy and lies and cherish integrity and truth.

Johansson in post-SodaStream interview: I am not a role model

Actress Scarlett Johansson said in her first interview since the SodaStream blowup that she is not “a role model.”

“I don’t see myself as being a role model,” she said in an interview published Thursday in Dazed and Confused magazine, adding that she “did not want to step into those shoes.”

Johansson did not directly address the conflict over her job as spokeswoman for the SodaStream company, which has a factory in the West Bank and led to her resignation as a global ambassador for the humanitarian organization Oxfam.

“How could I wake up every day and be a normal person if I was completely aware that my image was being manipulated on a global platform. How could I sleep?” she also said, adding, “you have to have peace of mind.”

SodaStream signed Johansson in December to be its first global brand ambassador. The company, which manufactures home soda makers, employs Israeli and Palestinian workers at its West Bank factory in the Maale Adumim settlement. Pro-Palestinian groups had called on Oxfam to sever its ties with the actress before she resigned in late January.

“I don’t profess to know more or less than anybody else,” Johansson told the magazine. “If that’s a by-product of whatever image is projected on to me, I don’t feel responsible as an artist to give anyone that message. It’s not my jam.”

Johansson defended SodaStream and her involvement with the company in a statement released Jan. 24 on The Huffington Post.

A victory against anti-Israel BDS

Israelis and supporters of Israel are increasingly concerned about international pressure — and with good reason. There was last year’s directive from the European Union, which threatened important Israel-EU cooperation; the recent uproar about SodaStream, which brought Israel unflattering media attention; and the almost daily news of some European country singling out an Israeli company for negative treatment.

Are these victories for the global BDS movement — the movement calling on people and nations to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel? Absolutely not. 

The BDS movement treats Israel and the occupied territories as a single entity, seeing everything Israeli as a legitimate target for activism and thus, in effect, ignoring the Green Line — the 1949 Armistice line between Israel and the occupied territories.  Supporters of this kind of BDS can find their mirror image in settlers and Greater Israel ideologues who want to erase the Green Line, in order to promote permanent Israeli control of the occupied territories.

In contrast, the current wave of pressure on Israel is a resounding rejection of efforts to ignore or erase the Green Line. This pressure, which has so shaken up Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he recently attacked U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for merely pointing out the danger of isolation facing Israel, is at its core a powerful affirmation of Israel’s legitimacy as a state, coupled with an equally powerful condemnation of Israel’s actions and policies beyond the Green Line. 

Let’s look at what this pressure is really about. The EU directive targeted Israeli support for settlements, not Israel itself. The SodaStream uproar was solely about its policy of manufacturing its products in a settlement, not its Israeli ownership. These and other recent developments are a clear challenge both to those who support BDS against Israel and to those who support settlements. These developments are, on the other hand, a victory for Israel — an affirmation of support for Israel as a legitimate, sovereign nation that can only survive and thrive if the occupation ends. 

Israel’s Shalom Achshav movement and its U.S. sister organization, Americans for Peace Now (APN), have long worked to shine a bright light on the Green Line, delineating our strong support for Israel within its recognized, sovereign territory but our rejection of occupation. We do this precisely because we are committed to Israel and its survival as a healthy democracy and a Jewish state. 

When APN and Shalom Achshav first came out endorsing boycotting settlements and settlement products, many in Israel and the American-Jewish world were critical and dismissive. Some said such a policy was meaningless, as settlement-related economic activity is limited. Today, it is indisputable that highlighting the Green Line and targeting settlements is having real impact. 

Some said such a policy would only encourage BDS against Israel. In truth, decades of international indifference and impotence in the face of deepening Israeli occupation has led many people of conscience, including people who care deeply about Israel, to despair of finding a way to change Israel’s pro-settlement policies — and neither hasbara nor anti-boycott legislation will counteract this phenomenon. Given this reality, the only convincing answer to calls for BDS against Israel is supporting Israel by boycotting the settlements and challenging the occupation. 

Make no mistake: Getting the world to adopt policies that distinguish between Israel and the occupied territories is a victory against those whose goal is to challenge the legitimacy not simply of settlements, but of Israel’s very existence. If we can’t succeed in doing so, others will succeed in isolating and delegitimizing Israel.

Steven Kaplan is a Los Angeles labor lawyer and Americans for Peace Now regional co-chair. He is one of the founders of Progressive Jewish Alliance. Sanford Weiner is a regional co-chair and national board member of Americans for Peace Now. He is co-founder of Social Studies School Service and active in the Jewish community and political activities.

Lena Dunham on photos of boyfriend with ScarJo: ‘My mind is going to explode’

Lena Dunham was trolling the Internet when she stumbled upon a shot of her boyfriend with his ex-girlfriend. Relatable, right? Well, yeah, except for that her boyfriend, rock guitarist Jack Antonoff, used to date Scarlett Johansson.

It seems Dunham was perusing a little obsession of hers, a Tumblr blog called “Old Loves,” when she came across a photo of her beau (a Solomon Schechter alumnus) with the Sexiest Woman Alive and SodaStream spokesperson.

“The craziest thing that ever happen to me, was like, Old Loves is my passion, I check it, like, once a week. It’s how I kick back on a Friday night is to see what Old Loves has done,” “Girls” creator told Grantland Channel, according to The Daily Mail.  “I saw my boyfriend and his girlfriend from high school. Scarlett Johansson.”

The two, it turns out, were together for a year when they were both 17 and attending the Professional Children’s School in New York City.

“She’s beautiful, he’s beautiful, but it was just so surreal to be looking through this blog that gives me so much pleasure and then there’s my boyfriend,” Dunham said. “And I was like, “My mind is going to explode.”

Good thing she’s not the jealous type, but even if she were, Dunham has nothing to worry about. Johansson is engaged to French journalist Romain Dauriac.

BDS and Oxfam — major Super Bowl fail

The political war against Israel, waged through a highly aggressive campaign of “boycotts, divestment and sanctions” (BDS), received its biggest defeat at the Super Bowl in New York and on hundreds of millions of screens around the world. The commercials, including one for the Israeli firm SodaStream, featuring the actress Scarlett Johansson, were more interesting than the game.

In the weeks before the game, Johansson came under intense pressure from the BDS bully squad, which demanded that she pull out and disassociate herself from the Israeli connection. The actress was also a “global ambassador” for the international humanitarian aid group Oxfam, whose leaders repeated these BDS-based demands, in sync with radical anti-Israel groups such as Electronic Intifada. To her immense credit, Johansson rejected the bullying and the accompanying personal attacks, and instead told Oxfam to find another “ambassador.”

By standing firm, Johansson and the owners of SodaStream demonstrated that even the most full-blown BDS attacks can be defeated. In its counterattack, SodaStream exposed the myths that underlie the boycotts and the broader delegitimization campaigns targeting Israel, including the fact that the 500 Palestinian-Arab employees at the Ma’ale Adumim plant (a “settlement” located on the outskirts of Jerusalem) enjoyed the same pay and health benefits as their Israeli counterparts.  

In contrast to previous battles, in this case, it was the proponents and enablers of BDS that were put on the defensive, and they did not do well in this role. Oxfam denied that it was involved in BDS, but the facts proved the contrary. Between 2011 and 2013, the Dutch branch, known as Oxfam Novib, provided almost $500,000 (largely from government funds provided ostensibly for humanitarian aid) to one of the most radical BDS leaders — the Coalition of Women for Peace (CWP). This group also received funds from Oxfam GB (Great Britain). The discrepancy between Oxfam’s claims and the documentation of its role in BDS was highlighted by SodaStream executives and in a number of media articles.

[Related: A tale of two universities]

Although CWP is technically an Israel-based NGO, almost all of its activities are focused externally in promoting boycott campaigns, particularly in Europe. (For political purposes, the Arab and European leaders of BDS, as the NGO Forum of the infamous 2001 U.N. Durban conference showed, often use fringe Israeli and Jewish groups as facades, and this is the case with CWP.) In addition to Oxfam, other funders for CWP’s radical and immoral agenda include government-funded German NGOs, as well as the United Church of Canada, and anti-Israel church groups in Ireland and Holland.

Another myth exposed in the Soda-Stream/Johansson showdown is the claim that BDS is “limited” to opposing the post-1967 Six-Day War occupation and settlements. This myth was quoted by many journalists who did not go beyond the press statements. However, at the 2001 Durban NGO Forum, thousands of boycott advocates clearly stated their goal as the elimination of Jewish sovereign equality regardless of borders — in their words, “the complete international isolation of Israel as an apartheid state.” This objective has not changed.

Omar Barghouti, among the radical leaders and ideologues of the BDS bully squad, has said that “the only ethical solution is a [single] democratic, secular and civic state in historic Palestine,” which means “by definition, Jews will be a minority.” In refuting the myth of limited goals, the fundamentally immoral objectives of BDS have been put out into the open.

In order to move beyond this battle, a wider confrontation is necessary with the BDS industry, which is supported by tens of millions of dollars annually. These massive budgets, manipulated via hidden European government sources, are funneled to radical NGOs, as well as to anti-Israel church groups that often include classical anti-Semitic replacement theology (meaning that Christians have “replaced” the Jews). Beyond Oxfam, other “moral” superpowers taking an active part in the immoral war against Israel include Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, whose leaders repeatedly demonstrate their personal and highly destructive anti-Israel obsessions.

The most important lesson is that, notwithstanding their financial backing and political support, BDS anti-Israel bullying and intimidation can be defeated, as demonstrated by SodaStream and Scarlett Johansson.

Gerald M. Steinberg is a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute.

SodaStream vs. Oxfam, head to head

If you’re primed to watch a duel in the love triangle of public relations that is the Scarlett Johannson SodaStream controversy, here’s your chance. Last night, British interviewer Jeremy Paxman brought ScarJo’s two metaphorical lovers — SodaStream and Oxfam — face to face on the BBC’s Newsnight program.

In the corner to Paxman’s right, via video feed, was Daniel Birnbaum, CEO of Israeli seltzer-machine company SodaStream, which just hired ScarJo as its spokesperson and featured her in a Superbowl ad.

Oh, by the way, SodaStream operates a factory in an Israeli West Bank settlement.

In the corner to Paxman’s left was Ben Phillips, director of policy for human rights organization Oxfam, aka. ScarJo’s spurned lover. Oxfam objects to SodaStream’s West Bank factory. So ScarJo dumped Oxfam.

The eight-minute segment was a great rehash of the debates that have been occupying (no pun intended) my Facebook news feed for the past two weeks. Phillips objects to the factory because it’s located in a settlement, which Oxfam considers illegal. Birnbaum said the factory aids the cause of peace because it employs Palestinians alongside Israelis, and gives them Israeli wages and working conditions.

A couple of interesting points: Birnbaum, early on, declared his support for the two-state solution. He also made sure to note that the factory was built in the West Bank 17 years ago, before he took SodaStream’s helm. This tracks with his statement to the Forward that the factory is “a pain in the ass.”

And Phillips said repeatedly that Oxfam opposes boycotts of Israel. So maybe there’s some common ground after all.

Here’s the full segment:

Delivery system for a lot of gas

Boycotting settlements is not anti-Israel

On her way out the door to defend the SodaStream company, the suddenly political Scarlett Johannson threw a grenade at her erstwhile cause, the international aid organization Oxfam.

According to her spokesperson, “she and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.”

Full stop. The global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which harbors more than a few people who want to put the entire project of a Jewish homeland out of business, is not the issue between Ms. Johannson and Oxfam. SodaStream has its main factory in the occupied territories. The company is contributing to the health and prosperity of the occupation while providing income for the settlement enterprise — an enterprise that is corroding Israeli democracy, deemed “illegitimate” by the American government and considered illegal under international law.

Boycotting goods and services coming from the settlements, although sometimes difficult to implement in practice, means putting one’s money where one’s mouth is, if one has been saying that the settlements are an impediment to the two-state solution and to peace.

What’s so hard to understand about that?

My organization, the New Israel Fund, which supports more than 100 progressive civil society organizations in Israel at any given time, made a clear distinction some years ago in our funding guidelines. We don’t fund organizations with global BDS programs. We will not disqualify organizations for funding if they support the boycott of settlement goods because we see it as entirely consistent with our opposition to the occupation, our defense of Israeli democracy and our support for a two-state solution.

So let’s take a look at those who are profiting from blurring the lines — the Green Line, to be precise. The current Israeli government and its well-funded organizational allies have popularized the word “delegitimization” to describe opposition to Israel. But in making no distinction between calls to boycott Israel itself and calls to boycott the settlement enterprise, they are deliberately conflating two very different things while erasing the distinction between Israel inside the Green Line  — the pre-1967 border with the West Bank — and military control of settlements in the territories. Defunding the settlements equals delegitimization equals anti-Semitism equals destruction of Israel as a Jewish state, or so goes their formula. Those for whom any progress toward ending the occupation is their worst nightmare have been somewhat successful at making this false equivalence stick.

The truth is, Israel has real adversaries who equate Zionism with racism. But it is also true that criticizing Israeli government policy, especially support for the settlement enterprise, is not delegitimizing Israel. According to last year’s Pew study, only 17 percent of American Jews believe the settlements help Israeli security. Do the other 83 percent not think that Israel is legitimate?

By some accounts, the Palestinians who work at SodaStream are well treated by the standards of occupation enterprises. But suggesting that those Palestinians don’t have much choice about their employment because the West Bank is entirely aid dependent, and because it’s hard to have a vibrant economy under foreign military control — that’s not delegitimizing Israel either. That’s the truth as pro-Israel progressives worldwide see it.

[Related: Pro Israel means anti-BDS]

But let’s leave the Palestinians aside for a moment. What blurring the lines between Israel and its military occupation accomplishes is not just the perpetuation of the occupation. Israel’s existence as a democratic state is grounded in the values and institutions it shares with other democracies, including freedom of speech and conscience, an independent judiciary and an untrammeled civil society. It is no accident that in the past five years, those values and institutions have come under attack from those whose defend the settlement enterprise at virtually any cost. The harassment and punitive legislation aimed at human rights groups, which inconveniently document the abuses inherent in occupation, is a deliberate strategy as well.

Anyone who has spent 10 minutes watching Palestinians queue up at a checkpoint to get to work or a hospital in Israel knows that Israeli democracy comes to a halt at that checkpoint. Anyone who drives on a road forbidden to Palestinians and guarded by barbed wire and watchtowers, or reads the graffiti left at the scene by settler vigilantes during their “price-tag” attacks, cannot help but understand why the occupation is compared to other historical examples of oppression and injustice.

Abraham Lincoln said of our own country that “this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.” Although the occupation is not slavery, he would have recognized that a pernicious institution poisons the entire body politic, and that there can be no such thing as freedom for one group and subjugation for another in a functioning democracy.

The blurring of lines between Israel and the territory it occupies and administers militarily serves the short-term purposes of the settlers and their apologists. In the long term, however, if and when those lines really disappear, when Israel becomes identical to the occupation and its democracy is sacrificed to those with a messianic vision of the Jewish state, then the Zionist enterprise will have failed. And those of us who love Israel, and believe in the promise that a state founded by Jews would reflect the love of freedom and equality that is part of the Jewish heritage — we will have failed, as well.


Naomi Paiss is vice president of public affairs for the New Israel Fund.

SodaStream slumps amid West Bank factory furor

SodaStream, under fire for operating a factory in the West Bank, has seen its stock drop to the lowest level in more than a year.

The Israeli company’s stock price on the New York Stock Exchange fell 3.3 percent on Monday to $35.34.

On Jan. 13, the share price dropped 26 percent after the manufacturer of home soda-makers failed to meet projected earnings for 2013, according to Bloomberg. It was also the first day of trading after the company signed actress Scarlett Johannson as its first global ambassador.

Johansson late last month resigned from the humanitarian organization Oxfam following a protracted debate over her employment with SodaStream.

Company CEO Daniel Birnbaum said earlier this week that the Israeli government had reneged on a deal to provide millions of dollars in aid to the company in order to expand its factory in the Negev, within the 1967 borders. He said the company would scale back its planned expansion.

Birnbaum has said the company will not abandon its West Bank factory in Maale Adumim, which employs Israelis and Palestinians.

Paris court fines pro-Palestinian group for SodaStream boycott camp

A Paris court fined a pro-Palestinian group for its campaign to boycott the products of the Israeli SodaStream company.

Last week, the Tribunal for Grand Instances fined the France Palestine Solidarity Association about $9,000. The court, which was ruling on a lawsuit brought by SodaStream’s representative in France, also ordered the group to remove boycott calls from its website against the home soda maker and its agents.

The campaign violated French law, the court ruled, because it falsely claimed the company was deceiving customers and was guilty of fraud, read the 10-page ruling, which was obtained by JTA.

S.A.S OPM France sued the association last year in connection with the boycott campaign launched in 2010 on its website and in local papers in the Nantes region. Consumers were encouraged to boycott SodaStream, which has a factory in Maale Adumim in the West Bank, and its French distributor, the Nantes-based OPM firm.

The judge ordered the association to pay OPM about $5,500 and another $3,400 to cover legal costs.

“While this action is legal when it is done in defense of clients, it is illegal when it becomes abusive, notably when it is pursued for ends other than the protection of consumers or disproportionately,” the ruling said.

The campaign included videos on YouTube and ads in local papers accusing OPM of defrauding clients. The court rejected arguments by the association that its actions were protected under France’s 1881 law on freedom of the press.

Watch: Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream Super Bowl ad

Scarlett Johansson’s decision to act as spokesperson for the Israeli firm SodaStream has been controversial from the get-go. Forget the debate over whether or not it’s okay to represent a company with a factory in the West Bank, or whether or not Oxfam should ditch her, though. That’s all just fluff. The real controversy, it turns out, stems from four words the Jewish actress utters in the home soda maker’s upcoming Super Bowl ad.

“Sorry, Coke and Pepsi,” Johansson says at the end of the spot.

Fox, the network airing the big game on Feb. 2, was apparently worried this wouldn’t sit well with Big Soda and asked SodaStream to drop the line. The company grudgingly cooperated, but the uncensored version lives, of course, on YouTube.

More dramatic than the soda slam, in our opinion, is the line Johansson delivers prior to  shedding her lab coat, revealing a sexy dress. ”If only I could make this message go viral,” she says suggestively. That one will air on game day.

Scarlett Johansson to star in SodaStream’s Super Bowl ad

Scarlett Johansson, faceless in the movie “Her,” has just landed a gig as the face of an Israeli company. According to The New York Times, the Jewish actress has been chosen as SodaStream’s “Global Spokesperson” and will star in its upcoming Super Bowl ad.

In the commercial, airing during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl XLVIII  on Fox on Feb. 2, Johansson will show us how the home soda maker works. The point is to ”demonstrate how easy it is, how sexy it is, to make your own soda,” said Daniel Birnbaum, chief executive at SodaStream International.

Who better to do that than the woman who was named Esquire’s “Sexiest Woman Alive” for 2013? It also doesn’t hurt that she’s had some practice.

Johansson has been a proud SodaStream user for a few years new, and has even gifted the machine to friends.

“I love carbonated water but hate the waste of bottles,” Johansson says in a behind-the-scenes clip for the upcoming commercial.

Sounds like it’ll be far less controversial than the company’s last Super Bowl ad (their first), which showed a regular soda bottle exploding every time someone used SodaStream. It was seen as an assault on certain behemoth soda brands, and CBS ultimately refused to air it. Check it out here.

Top toys for baby boomers

The kids have finally moved out, and retirement is on the horizon — it’s time you spoiled yourself with a few must-have toys. Whether your idea of luxury is never having to mow the lawn again or being able to pursue your favorite hobby, technology has ushered in a new era of gadgets and goodies just for you.

1. Although a self-mowing lawn has yet to be invented, there is a robot that can do all the work for you. The ROBOMOW RM400 ROBOTIC LAWN MOWER ($1,699.99) is fully programmable: You can schedule your mows at regular intervals, set the height of the lawn, and then let the robot roam. It even comes back to its base when the task is finished. Did we mention it senses rain and waits until the weather is fair to do its job?

2. With the KINDLE DX ($299) by Amazon, your search for a book that adjusts to your eyes is over. The nearly 10-inch tall, glare-free display on this e-reader has eight adjustable text sizes. It also holds up to 3,500 e-books at once, so your entire library can go wherever life takes you.

3. If you fondly remember the flickering family films of your childhood, why not try to recreate them with the STOP MOTION CAMERA KIT ($135) from Uncommon Goods? The camera uses 35mm film and a hand crank to speed up or slow down the film as you shoot. And yes, you can always digitize your creations with the accompanying smartphone adapter.

4. Sometimes, nothing will quench your thirst quite like an ice-cold soft drink. Impress your family and guests with homemade pop thanks to the GENESIS SELTZER STARTER KIT ($99.95) by Israeli company SodaStream. Turn regular tap water into your favorite sodas while keeping excess waste out of landfills. This kit comes with a soda maker and 12 different soda mixes.

5. Getting older is not an excuse to stop playing. The MICROSOFT XBOX 360 KINECT STARTER BUNDLE ($419.96) is a motion-sensing videogame system that adapts to your movements in a variety of games. From dancing to table tennis, you’ll have everything you need to satisfy your sports streak. The bundle comes with an Xbox 360 game console with Kinect, games “Kinect Sports” and “Dance Central,” and an HDMI audio/video cable to attach to your TV.

6. Don’t let your boxes of vinyl continue to gather dust. THE LP AND CASSETTE TO CD/DIGITAL CONVERTER ($449.95) from Hammacher Schlemmer not only plays your favorite 33s, 45s and 78s, but it also allows you to digitize your records and cassettes. The player comes with built-in speakers and an AM/FM radio, as well as two RCA inputs to attach to your home sound-system.

Israel’s SodaStream inks deal with KitchenAid

The Israeli company SodaStream agreed to develop a home system for making carbonated drinks for KitchenAid appliances.

No financial details of the deal have been disclosed, according to the Israeli business daily Globes. The product is expected to be launched at the end of the year.

SodaStream is headquartered in the West Bank city of Maale Adumim and has been a frequent target of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement.

Its products are available in 45 countries, including in 15,000 retail stores in the United States.

Oberlin College Student Senate endorses divestment resolution

The Oberlin College Student Senate endorsed a resolution that calls for the college to divest from six companies that do business in the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem and Gaza.

Following a three-hour discussion, the resolution was approved “by majority” on Monday, the Oberlin College Students for a Free Palestine said in a news release.

The six companies are Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, Group 4 Securicor, SodaStream, Elbit Systems and Veolia.

Similar resolutions have been passed this school year at the University of California campuses in Irvine, Berkeley and San Diego.

The Students for a Free Palestine group at Oberlin said it would bring the resolution to the Oberlin College Board of Trustees’ Finance Committee, which sets the college's financial policies.

“My concern about BDS is that it furthers the polarization between students who might consider themselves pro-Israel and students who might consider themselves pro-Palestinian,” Oberlin sophomore Noa Fleischacker, co-chair of J Street U’s Oberlin chapter, told the Oberlin Review student newspaper before the vote.

“What we really need to be doing is creating conversation and dialogue between those students, and also on the ground of creating negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.”

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.

SodaStream Super Bowl ad buy has BDS movement’s eye

SodaStream's purchase of a Super Bowl commercial has the BDS movement in the U.S. saying it will step up its campaign against the Israeli firm.

Soda Stream, the maker of home soda machines, will pay about $3.5 million for a 30-second spot for the game. The company reportedly had net earnings of $27.5 million in 2011, according to The Associated Press.

The U.S. boycott, divestment and sanctions movement said it will step up its opposition to SodaStream in light of the Super Bowl ad buy.

The company’s main plant is in Mishor Adumim, an Israeli industrial zone next to Maale Adumim in the West Bank, which has recently been in the news over the planned construction of 3,000 housing units in the E1 corridor connecting Maale Adumim to Jerusalem.

SodaStream has been in the United States for four years, but in that time has only penetrated the market to 1 percent of households. By contrast, the company has had great success in Europe, according to AP.

“The new SodaStream publicity blitz has given the U.S. boycott, divestment, sanctions movement a marvelous opportunity to bring our campaigns targeting settlement products to a new, unprecedented level of visibility and success,” Anna Baltzer, an organizer of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, told AP. “It’s time to burst SodaStream’s bubble. There’s nothing environmentally friendly about military occupation.”

Last month, a SodaStream television commercial was banned in the United Kingdom for “disparaging” other soda manufacturers. The ad shows soft drink bottles exploding as people use the machine at home to carbonate their drinks.

Putting the ‘Pop’ back into soda pop

At the dawn of the 20th century, the British royals were privy to a spiffy new system for infusing drinking water with carbon dioxide bubbles. It would take 53 years for SodaStream to reach commoners, and another 42 until it was acquired by an Israeli distributor and transformed into an international DIY product called Soda Club.

The brand really started to sparkle when it was taken over in 2007 by an Israeli entrepreneur with a Harvard Business School degree, and today the home carbonation system is sold by 40,000 stores in 41 countries. CEO Daniel Birnbaum says that about 4 million households now have a SodaStream machine on the kitchen counter.

“We still have a long runway ahead of us,” Birnbaum said. “There are a lot more households out there.”

Jazzing up a blah brand

Birnbaum was perfectly happy at the helm of Nike Israel when fellow Harvard alum Yuval Cohen, managing director of Fortissimo Capital, asked him to check out a possible acquisition.

“When he told me it was Soda Club, I almost fell off my chair, because I thought the company was gone,” recalled Birnbaum, who had previously established Pillsbury Israel.

But after visiting the firm’s Airport City headquarters, he predicted that Soda Club was a sure investment. It had an existing sales base of close to $100 million in a product category that accounts for $230 billion in sales globally.

Making what he calls the quickest career decision of his life, Birnbaum left Nike and took on Soda Club, determined to push its envelope of potential. Because for all its modest success, the brand was as flat as week-old pop.

“It was losing money on operating expenses. The management had little passion or optimism, no growth strategy, no new product pipeline, no new market development. I asked about their plans for markets like Russia and the U.S., and they had no answers.”

Just four years later, having rebranded the system with its old name and a new logo, Birnbaum has added 24 countries to the marketing mix and even relaunched it in the United Kingdom with its original commercial jingle, “Get busy with the fizzy.”

In the United States, where Soda Club was strictly Web-based, SodaStream is now available in mega-retailers including Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Sears, Kohl’s and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

A native New Yorker living in Israel since he was 7, Birnbaum understands the American market well thanks to his education and a stint at Procter & Gamble.

In November last year, SodaStream’s initial public offering on NASDAQ turned out to be the eighth-largest Israeli IPO ever in the United States and Israel’s biggest IPO in 2010.

“When we rang the closing bell on our first day as a public company, the vice chairman of NASDAQ announced that we are an Israeli company, and I just glowed,” said Birnbaum, who lives in Tel Mond with his family.