The chief executive of the Israeli drinks company SodaStream paid sardonic tribute this week to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activists who had targeted it.
“They helped build awareness of the brand — and did not damage our business one bit,” said Daniel Birnbaum.
He was in the UK on a round of media interviews linked to Soda-Stream’s environmental message, was bullish in his attitude and promotion of his company. The Israeli company was “coming home”, Birnbaum said, because it began in Britain in 1903.
Now SodaStream, long known as “the fizzy drinks” firm, has had a change in strategy and has altered its business model so that it sells a syphon and the opportunity to render tap water into sparkling water. And every one of SodaStream’s products bears a proud logo saying “Made in Israel: This product is produced by Jews and Arabs working side-by-side in peace and harmony.”
And therein lies the heart of SodaStream’s controversy. For when — as a “global experiment” — Soda-Stream opened a shop in Brighton, it was assailed by BDS activists because the company’s headquarters were in the West Bank, no matter how its Palestinian employees praised its working conditions.
Birnbaum says there is an irony in that SodaStream chose Brighton because it was home to Britain’s only Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas. “We were expecting to get her endorsement, instead we got her boycott”, he says. The shop closed in 2014.
He says the company will never open any other shops, either in the UK or in any of the 45 countries where SodaStream is available. Instead, it is flourishing as an online product and in outlets such as Argos or Currys; he hopes, eventually, it will do away with dependency on plastic water bottles and wean the consumer on to a repeat-use container.
If Birnbaum, a former commander in the Israeli Navy, has fights, it is not with the BDS crowd. In fact, though an outspoken “righty”, he has had endless fights with the Prime Minister’s office in Israel over the granting of work permits to his Palestinian employees.
SodaStream is now based in the Negev and employs huge numbers of Palestinians and Bedouin workers. Birnbaum is exasperated at the reluctance of Israel to employ more Palestinians, instead giving work permits to Chinese, Thai and Filipino workers.
“Employing Palestinians creates stability”, he says. “We call SodaStream an island of peace. Why not
employ more Palestinians? It could change the whole economic climate on the West Bank. And everyone knows it.”
Sodastream said this week it is looking for a partner to help it shake up the home brewing market. It was in talks with potential partners that would help to roll out beer concentrates to pair with its machines in the next 12 months.