Opinion

Liberal Zionists Faced a Critical Test With Airbnb. We Flunked It

This should have been our moment to stand our ground: Reject conflating Israel with West Bank settlements, reject slurring Airbnb as anti-Semitic. Sadly, mainstream U.S. Jewish groups gave in to the right wing's dangerous campaign – and did so in our name

FILE PHOTO: The logos of Airbnb Inc. sit on banners displayed outside a media event in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 27, 2015
Bloomberg

The recent decision of Airbnb to stop listing Jewish homes in the West Bank has created an uproar across the Jewish world.

Palestinians and their supporters on the left, in Israel and especially the United States, have celebrated the decision as a victory against the occupation.

In contrast, the Israeli government – and its American supporters – immediately labelled it an act of anti-Semitism. Its attempt to punish the company throughout Israel with a new tax, and potential legal challenges, and even to tap allies in America to punish them here, reflects its doubling down on their insistence that there must be no distinction between Israel and the West Bank settlements.

Those settlements are, of course, nearly globally viewed as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel’s own authorities know that too, as was first formally noted in a secret memo written for the prime minister by the Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser in 1968. Even in today's Israel the settlements are deliberately considered to be outside the State of Israel,  territory where Israeli civil law does not apply, lest Israel formally lose its democratic status by formally annexing the territory without granting its Palestinian inhabitants full civil rights.

This insistence on erasing the Green Line, the 1967 borders, is hardly new.

>> I'm Not the 'Right Kind of Jew' for Israel's Current Government – and I'm Proud of It

Netanyahu’s government has long worked to conflate Israel with the West Bank settlements, insisting that support for the former must include support for the latter. For example, its anti-BDS law permitting Israel to deny entry to any advocate of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement includes vocal Zionists who support Israel but boycott the settlements. One vocal exponent of exactly this position, Peter Beinart, was detained and interrogated on entry into Israel this summer. 

Indeed, for those who reject the international consensus on the illegality of the settlements, this could only be an act of anti-Semitism – for, in their eyes, it discriminates against Jews "for the sole reason that they are Jewish," an ironic statement considering the homes often sit on stolen land in all-Jewish communities that local Palestinians cannot enter, let alone rent in.

File photo: Road sign pointing towards an Airbnb apartment in the Esh Kodesh outpost, West Bank, November 20, 2018.
AFP

The settlements are equated with Israel, and Israel with the Jewish people. Ergo, opposing the settlements is anti-Semitism. 

What about the Zionist center? For so-called liberal Zionists in the United States who support, or even demand, a two-state solution and oppose the settlements as illegal and/or self-defeating, this should have been a moment to push back against the right-wing argument. Israel still deserves our support despite their current government, such voices should argue, but the settlements are both wrong and self-destructive.

While a few progressive Zionist voices such as J Street and T'ruah rightly pushed back against this erasure, the majority of American Jewish liberal Zionists - or at least, its most prominent representatives - seem to be in full support of the rightwing position, conflating boycott of the Jewish settlements with boycott of Israel itself. It's a telling conflation, but a dangerous one.

For example, Jonathan Greenblatt at the Anti-Defamation League – which claims to strongly support a two-state solution and opposes the Jewish settlements – rushed to condemn the decision, claiming it would "isolate and delegitimize the State of Israel" and (like Netanyahu’s government) conflating it with BDS, thus labeling it an act of anti-Semitism. 

B’nai Brith took a similar stance, calling it a "blatantly discriminatory decision." The city council of Beverly Hills even passed a resolution calling on Airbnb "to correct this act of disrespect to the land of Israel...[and if not] we call upon all civilized people across the globe to boycott Airbnb until such time as they desist from these despicable anti-Semitic Actions."

In short, American Jews who describe themselves as centrist, liberal Zionists have accepted this right-wing narrative, despite their protestations to the contrary. This is both foolish and dangerous, for several reasons.

First, Airbnb actually does apply this ethos to other regions. For example, despite countless claims to the contrary, they have officially banned all listings in Russian-occupied Crimea for quite some time. And the company has announced that it is next considering banning occupied Western Sahara and will continue to consider banning other areas "in an ongoing manner." 

Their stated goal is not to shut down operations in every non-democratic country, or in every country that limits which nationalities may visit, but rather to avoid profiting from foreign occupation at the heart of larger regional disputes and so as not to "contribute to human suffering.

David Davidson, owner of Khan Eretz Ha'Mirdafim resort, walks through the camp, near the Alon settlement, in the occupied West Bank November 20, 2018
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

But setting aside the differences between the West Bank settlements from many of the cases being cited as parallels, must every single problem area on the globe be banned for it not to constitute anti-Semitism?

Was the Jackson-Vanik Amendment an example of anti-Russian bigotry and therefore Congress wrong to pass it, since so many other atrocities – far worse than Soviet treatment of its Jews – were overlooked at the time? Was the economic, diplomatic and sporting boycotts of South Africa wrong for the same reason?

Should the international community and private businesses freeze any action against a country's misbehavior on moral and legal grounds until it can be rolled out simultaneously everywhere?

Second, this whataboutism is not just logically problematic, it is dangerous. Do we really want to be making the argument, "How can you not allow these Jews to profit on your platform from their criminal enterprise when you allow other terrible people and regimes to make money in stolen or occupied land? This is (despicable!) anti-Semitic discrimination?" Can this be called "liberal Zionism"?

Finally, Airbnb – which two years ago waived its fees in Israel in order to alleviate the stress of those left homeless by devastating fires – has not boycotted Israel in retaliation for its government’s commitment to the settlements. It still operates in Israel, including East Jerusalem and the Golan!

Zionists are rightly sensitive to actions that evoke fears of BDS. But for liberal Zionists who oppose West Bank settlements on moral, legal or self-interest grounds, this could have been a moment to celebrate the company for not boycotting Israel on account of the behavior of its current government. This could have been a moment to push back against the narrative that obfuscates the distinction between the settlements and Israel.

If we accept that obfuscation, we erase the key to liberal Zionism. There needs to be a space for Zionists who reject BDS but also the attempt to conflate the settlements with Israel, not to mention world Jewry.

If Jews and others are forced to choose between Israel with its settlements, or else to walk away entirely, liberal Zionists may not be so happy with the choice many make.

Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. He has published widely on modern Jewish politics, culture and religion and is a frequent public speaker on these issues