Opinion

Airbnb's Ban on Israeli Settlements Is Big Win for BDS, Not Necessarily for anti-Semites

It won't even scratch the Israeli economy, or even that of the settlements, but it did drive the government into hysterics

Road to the West Bank settlement of Dolev where rental properties had been listed on Airbnb
\ BAZ RATNER/ REUTERS

Without question, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement scored its biggest victory ever on Monday when Airbnb announced it would stop running lists in West Bank settlements.

Not that it’s a blow to the Israeli economy. It isn't even a blow tothe economy of the settlements. By Airbnb’s own count, there are just 200 listings involved, making the entire business the size of a single smallish hotel.

>>Why Airbnb will have a hard time enforcing its Israeli settlement ban

But Airbnb is a global brand name, and if it doesn’t have any moral authority, it certainly has buzz power. People will pay attention, at least for 15 minutes.

Like everything else about BDS, you learn very little about what is really going on by listening to activists on either side, to politicians, or even the company itself. Airbnb’s move is being framed as either a step forward in the good fight for human rights and national liberation, or a victory for anti-Semites. But it’s really neither. 

The weirdest Airbnbs in West Bank settlements

Business with Jews

Let’s start with the anti-Semitism accusations, which are absurd but trotted out so often in the context of BDS that you would think that it is really an issue.

Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the right-wing, Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum, makes the anti-Semitism case like this:  “It is only Jewish properties in the Jewish homeland that are banned. Airbnb’s approach of singling out Jews from all the disputes in the world will put it at odds with U.S. state BDS laws and principles of discrimination.”

Unlike many others are on the right, he is gentlemanly enough not to use the A-S word, but he employs the same logic: The BDS movement is out to get Jews and now Airbnb is complicit.

The truth is that the BDS movement does attract anti-Semites, but BDS itself doesn’t engage in anti-Semitic behavior by calling to boycott Israel any more than Donald Trump is anti-Persian for imposing sanctions on Iran.

In adhering to BDS’ call, Airbnb made a political/business decision, which is that (if you look at its waffly official statement) it won’t offer listings that have a “direct connection” to a political dispute or contribute “to existing human suffering.”

Airbnb didn’t say it wouldn't do business with Jews. In fact, it does a lively business in Israel and as of this writing, even in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (which Israel has formally annexed).

The distinction Airbnb is making is between occupier and occupied, not between Jew and gentile.

Renting a room in occupied Tibet

But isn’t Israel being singled out for it’s supposed bad behavior? If so, that could be seen as anti-Semitic.

On one level, that’s true. As settlement defenders frequently note, there are other occupied territories around the world that haven’t come into Airbnb’s crosshairs. In fact, if you want to rent a room in the Turkish-occupied bit of Syria or Northern Cyprus, Airbnb has some good deals. Likewise there are listings in Tibet, although China officially speaking doesn’t occupy it.

Israel’s problem is that the Palestinians have become a cause celebre to Western leftists all out of proportion to the size of the problem. The cause attracts anti-Semites, but it is animated by an existential disgust at the European legacy of colonialism and claims of white supremacy.

For many on the left, this disgust is embodied in the settlements and even the existence of Israel itself.

The underlying sin of colonialism and racism from the point of view of the left doesn’t apply to Turkey or China even when they are occupiers because they are part of the historic victim class of colonialism by Europeans. Israel on the other hand is considered to be a Western country: we are, goes the perception, Europeans who colonialized Palestine. The oppression of Jews in Europe, for centuries on end, is irrelevant to this point.

With that kind of historical baggage, it’s natural that a group like Human Rights Watch would see the settlements as so deeply tainted that it would tweet: “Every time somebody clicked to book, Airbnb got its commission. Airbnb contributed to, and benefitted from, human rights violations.”

Strictly speaking, it has a point, but how far should the moral stain spread? By those high standards, Airbnb and, for that matter no business, should be doing business in large parts of the world, but that would be an impossible demand.

The reality is that the world’s moral interests aren’t dictated by consistent or even logical standards, but by the power of one group to get its cause at the top of the world’s agenda. Cyprus doesn’t have the political resources and, even with a celebrity boost from the Dalai Lama, neither does Tibet.

In all events, the Airbnb boycott of the settlements isn’t likely to be first in any string of wins for BDS. Airbnb was in a particularly vulnerable position because its business dealt directly with settlements. Other travel sites like Booking.com may follow Airbnb’s example, but the list of businesses that answer the BDS call pretty much ends there.

Needless to say, the Israeli government’s reaction is all out of proportion. Threatening lawsuits and other, unspecified harm to Airbnb’s business elsewhere in Israel will hurt Israeli renters and the tourism industry more than it will punish the company. But it’s always been the case with this government, that it is ready to pursue the narrowest interests of the settlers, no matter the cost it imposes on the rest of Israel.