WHEN Airbnb announced its decision to remove listings in Israeli settlements in what they called “the occupied West Bank that are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians,” the Israeli government responded strongly. Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan called on supporters of Israel to engage in a reverse boycott and “cease using Airbnb and turn to other services,” adding that “Booking.com is a great service.” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said that Israel would slap high taxes on Airbnb, arguing that “If you have a policy of discrimination against Israelis, you cannot earn money in Israel.”
In an attempt to make amends and to show that they are making what they consider a nuanced attempt to support Israel but oppose Israeli settlements, Airbnb’s head of communications, Chris Lehane, commented: “Israel is a special place and our over 22,000 hosts are special people who have welcomed hundreds of thousands of guests to Israel.” His attempt at empathy ended with, “We understand that this is a hard and complicated issue, and we appreciate everyone’s perspective.”
Israelis, Jews and supporters of Israel around the world began to feel a Pavlovian kick in the gut, and that pervasive sense of a double standard, questioning why this $3.8 billion company would target the 200 Jewishly owned Airbnb’s in the West Bank when there are many other regions in the world with questionable behavior the company could focus on. Subsequently, Airbnb noted that the company is evaluating whether to drop its listings in other disputed areas like Western Sahara.
YET it was not only the Israeli government who refused to be silent about Airbnb’s decision but Jewish organizations throughout the world. The reactions have been strong, swift and diverse.
Supporters of Israel around the world have suggested the following ideas:
- We should all boycott Airbnb, and if we do not choose to boycott Airbnb, it means we are supporting them, and if we are supporting them, we are implicitly supporting anti-semitism because of Airbnb’s double standard.
- We should publicize our deletion of the Airbnb app.
- Despite the fact that Airbnb made a despicable decision, many Jewish people would suffer if Airbnb were boycotted because many of its merchants are Jewish owners who would lose income. Instead, we should spread awareness of the topic and expose its nefarious nature, which will propel it to change course eventually.
- Similarly, we should speak to state representatives about the discriminatory nature of this policy and, considering that many states have laws against BDS measures, this would hurt AirBnb’s pocket.
While good people can disagree on the correct response, so long as there is a response, I leave it to the many incredible Israel advocacy organizations to determine those approaches and to encourage everyone as they see fit.
PUTTING my educator’s hat on and sitting from Jerusalem U’s perch as an organization focused on education, I am much more interested in the educational implications.
- How do we teach this to our students?
- How do we speak to our youth about Airbnb’s boycott and contextualize it within anti-Israel decisions, like Pharell and Lana Del Ray choosing to cancel their concerts after receiving pressure?
- What can we do to help students think through this painful challenge, and how can we show the significance of it all for them?
Here are four educational consequences to consider and discuss.
- Significance of the moment. Boycotting Israel is not new, with the BDS movement starting in 2005, but it could be significant here and could potentially be the beginning of a successful campaign by BDS. Until now, BDS’s bark has been much louder than its bite, and it has been mostly ineffective, notwithstanding the oversized fanfare it sometimes receives. Yet if a major company like Airbnb takes its cues from BDS, then we need to mark this as a potentially significant indicator of what other companies might do. The BDS movement comes from a structured and well funded campaign. We should pay close to attention to the trends here and ensure this is an isolated decision.
- Criticism vs. disproportionate criticism. Every student knows when a teacher is unfairly picking on one student over the others. If the criticism is spread out, it does not offend the child, but when one child is reprimanded obsessively, and the other students are rarely mentioned, all the students in the class know that it’s not the student who is to blame, but the teacher. Criticism of Israel is legitimate, but unhinged criticism and the international community treating Israel with a double standard is not. An example could prove helpful. We ought to allow students to express different opinions on Israeli history and Israeli politics, with some supporting the recent nation-state law and others disagreeing with it. Allowing for that dispute is the hallmark of a healthy educational and democratic experience within a Zionist framework. Yet an example of disproportionate criticism would be suggesting that Zionism is racism, which the United Nations did in 1975 (it retracted it in 1991). When China murders its own citizens or when countries segregate its own people, as the United States did until 60 years ago, the delegitimization of these countries or the threat to its right to exist is not mentioned. From Saudi Arabia to Venezuela—sometimes the list of egregious behavior just seems endless. Former senior adviser to President Obama, Susan Rice, said it best in 2014: “When countries single out Israel for unfair treatment at the UN, it isn’t just a problem for Israel, it is a problem for all of us… No country is immune from criticism, nor should it be. But when that criticism takes the form of singling out just one country, unfairly, bitterly and relentlessly, over and over and over, that is just wrong—and we all know it.”
- Misrepresentation of nuance. Nuance has become such a buzzword to the point that it has lost much of its meaning. Seemingly, everyone wants to show they own the grey space. Airbnb felt proud about what it perceived as taking the middle road, choosing not to boycott Israel entirely despite its West Bank policies, but also ensuring it punished the specific people in the specific territory they thought were particularly problematic. I’m a big proponent of nuance, but nuance should be articulated thoughtfully and meted out responsibly, and this decision by Airbnb feels like it’s less about nuance and more about capriciousness, like “something written by an agonized teenager who has decided to break up with his girlfriend because his friends convinced him that he should but who might change his mind after a few lonely Saturday nights,” in the words of columnist Michael Koplow. Nuance requires consistency, and the choice to single out Israel among all the nations of the world, and punish Israel for policies Airbnb disagrees with, seems like it is more about caving into a certain zeitgeist right now, in which Israel plays the favorite scapegoat.
- Misguided self-righteousness. The pursuit of moral and just behavior should be the Jewish community’s north star, but we know that the pursuit of righteousness can take a dangerous detour into sanctimony. And sanctimony is the subtle opposite of humility. There is no better example than Airbnb’s decision here. Businesses are becoming more entangled with politics than ever before, and in an era of intersectionality, where people attack ideologies rather than debate ideas, and when Israel is often demonized as the “big bad guy,” then automatically people will come to the conclusion that the settlements in the West Bank are oppressive and anachronistic without taking the time to consider Israel’s security needs and the national-religious aspirations of being there. If Airbnb applied this extreme ethical concern against the 200 Jews they just punished across the board, it would not feel so isolated, targeted and painful.
Let’s hope Airbnb reverses its decision, but even if they choose not to, let’s remind the youth that we cannot control the actions of others; we can only impact what is within our locus of control. Let’s use this as an opportunity to teach our students about the uniqueness of the Jewish experience, to be willing to stand up for ourselves, and to not make the same self-righteous, non-nuanced mistake Airbnb just made.