At SodaStream Ramadan break fast, hopes that peace will bubble up from Rahat

Interfaith iftar dinner for 2,000 Jewish and Arab employees highlights company’s expansion to serve more marginalized populations at its ‘Island of Peace’

SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum dances with employees during a Ramadan iftar breakfast at the Rahat factory on May 27, 2019. (courtesy SodaStream)
SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum dances with employees during a Ramadan iftar breakfast at the Rahat factory on May 27, 2019. (courtesy SodaStream)

More than 2,000 Jewish and Arab employees of SodaStream celebrated the traditional Ramadan break fast meal on Monday night at the sprawling Rahat factory, a boisterous meal that highlighted the company’s core commitment to fostering peace with mixed Jewish-Arab workplaces.

“We learned that when you do things that are good, it’s good for business as well,” SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum said before taking the stage with his wife and the SodaStream employee chorus to perform the new multilingual anthem of SodaStream, called “Bubbles of Hope.”

“It takes a lot of resources, a lot of time and money for building these bridges, and doing what we think is right for people, for the nation of Israel, and for the environment,” said Birnbaum. “But here we are, we just sold this company for almost $3.5 billion, so I guess it’s pretty good for business, it makes more economic sense after all.”

PepsiCo completed the acquisition for the home carbonation machine company on December 5, 2018, for $3.2 billion. According to the agreement, SodaStream will remain an independent unit within PepsiCo, with its headquarters remaining in Israel and its own brand.

Employees on an assembly line in SodaStream’s Rahat factory on May 27, 2019. (courtesy SodaStream)

An essential part of that SodaStream brand is the company’s commitment to hiring both Jewish and Arab workers, and providing employment opportunities for marginalized sectors of the population. “You make good soda, but you also make peace,” said Talal Alkarnawi, the departing mayor of Rahat. “You are an example of coexistence in Israel, and I’m proud of you.”

“If I could package what you have here, or more appropriately, put it in a bottle, the peace and compassion that you have here, my job would be very easy,” US Ambassador David Friedman told the crowd. “This is the real peace, not what you put on a piece of paper.”

Previously, SodaStream employed both Palestinian and Israeli workers at its plant in the West Bank. But a rapid growth in sales required the company to move to a larger plant, which it built on 123 dunams (30 acres) near the Bedouin city of Rahat.

In past years, SodaStream became a target for Pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions activists, who urged an international boycott of the company, which exports to 46 different countries.

Birnbaum, and many Palestinian workers, pointed out that the company was one of the few places Palestinians could make a reasonable salary in the West Bank. BDS activists claimed victory when the factory moved to Rahat in Israel, causing hundreds of Palestinians to use their jobs. Birnbaum said that the move to Rahat had been in the works since 2010, long before BDS activists started making noise, because the company was desperate to expand.

Women working at SodaStream’s factory in Rahat on May 27, 2019. (courtesy SodaStream)

Birnbaum fought for years with the Prime Minister’s Office to obtain permits for as many Palestinian workers as possible to continue working at the factory in Rahat, which opened in 2014. Although the PMO originally refused to let even a single Palestinian worker obtain a permit for his factory, SodaStream now employs about 130 Palestinians with special work permits.

That number is slowly increasing, as demand is high because the salary they receive at SodaStream is about six times the average salary in the West Bank, Birnbaum said.

About half of the Palestinian workers sleep in company-provided housing in Beersheba to avoid the 4-hour round trip commute through the checkpoints each day.

The theme of the interfaith iftar meal was “Make soda, not war.” Birnbaum and other factory employees who addressed the gathering stressing that each member of the company was not just an employee, but also an ambassador for peace. The company refers to its factory as an “Island of Peace,” and touts its interfaith workforce as a model for building an economic peace between Jews and Arabs.

Birnbaum said he can’t understand why other companies are slow to adapt this approach.

“If I had to guess, I think most folks are afraid, they’re afraid to change the status quo,” he said. “They’re afraid to put the Israeli flag on their products. They’re afraid to speak about coexistence, especially between enemies. Palestinians and Israelis are trained to hate each other. We are supposed to be afraid of each other. We’re living after 70 years of war, hate, terrorism, so to try to change that takes a great degree of courage. We’ve learned it pays out, it’s the right thing to do.”

Children of workers at SodaStream gathered to send a message of peace and release white doves during the company’s annual Ramadan iftar break fast celebration on May 27, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Birnbaum said PepsiCo’s acquisition enabled the company to grow a number of its socially conscious employment opportunities for populations in need of employment. SodaStream recently expanded its assembly line located inside the nearby Elah prison, where the work gives prisoners the opportunity to start reintegrating into society by holding down a job and earning extra money for their families outside of the prison. The acquisition is also allowing SodaStream to open a new factory employing only Bedouin women in the village of Kuseife, where unemployment among women hovers around 50 percent. Bedouin women from more conservative families struggle to find work because of strict cultural traditions that frown upon women working in mixed environments with men.

Additionally, the acquisition has allowed the company to begin the process of identifying subcontractors in Gaza, though the firm is progressing cautiously and there is no timeline for a Gaza packing plant, Birnbaum said.

SodaStream’s employee chorus performed at the company’s annual interfaith Ramadan iftar break fast meal on May 27, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“This place is like a family, we laugh together, we cry together, and when we’re together here, there is a feeling of peace,” said Pesach Babayev, a Jewish plant manager who was incarcerated for four years and acknowledged that released prisoners have a lot of difficulty finding jobs. “This place helped me to understand how to accept ‘the other,’ and love so many different types of people,” he told the 2,000 attendees.

The Rahat workforce includes 130 Palestinians, 500 Bedouins (including 200 Bedouin women), and over 1,000 new immigrants.

Talal Abu Ajaj, a relatively new Bedouin kitchen worker who joined his cousins and countless neighbors at SodaStream, said the sensitivity to honoring both cultures has been especially prevalent during Ramadan, when observant Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset. “They respect that, they don’t eat next to you, and if you tell them you need to sit down and have a break you can take a rest,” he said.

More than 2,000 Jewish and Arab employees gathered for SodaStream’s 5th annual Ramadan iftar break fast celebration on May 27, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

One Bedouin employee, who declined to give his full name, said that while he was grateful for the employment opportunities, it is important to remember that SodaStream still exists within Israeli society, where racism is common and widespread. “You can definitely see parts where coexistence really exists, but in other parts it is more challenging,” said F. “There are some positions of administration that you know will never belong to Arabs, and that’s pretty clear. But in general, there is coexistence here, even though there will never be equality in Israel, and we have to accept that.”

As dozens of languages floated around the round tables, the children of workers who had come for a special field trip to the factory took the stage where they released dozens of white doves in a symbol of peace.

“We are actually making peace, here, it’s not just something that they say,” said Shoroq Alkrenawi, a Bedouin product manager from Rahat, sitting next to her friend Adira Cohen, a Jewish product engineer from Moshav Ranen. “We’re friends, and we want to push this message forward,” Cohen said. “These friendships are not something that I had before.”

“It can be weird, because it’s not something natural in Israel,” Cohen said. “But when people get here, they understand,” Alkrenawi added. “We want everyone to see this, that we’re not just making soda.”

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