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Israeli response to Airbnb’s settlements decision strengthens case for complete boycott of Israel

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The big story is that Airbnb announced its decision yesterday to pull its listings out of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, as Yumna Patel reported on this site.

The decision was announced just before a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report titled “Bed and Breakfast on Stolen Land: Tourist Rental Listings in West Bank Settlements” came out (today), which I will be referring to below.

Israeli responses were, as to be expected, ferocious. Minister of Strategic Affairs (and Hasbara) Gilad Erdan called it a “racist political stance”. Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin called the decision “discriminatory” and further described it as no less than “the most wretched of wretched capitulations to the boycott efforts”. Levin said Israel would respond by backing lawsuits by settlement listers against Airbnb in US courts, and added that he had already instructed his office to draw up measures designed “to limit the company’s activity across the country.”

We need to pause with that last statement, because it is central. Levin seeks to punish Airbnb by limiting its activities in ALL of Israel, although its withdrawal of listings was very selective: in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, and it did not include East Jerusalem. We have not even spoken about listings in the occupied Syrian Jolan (known also as Golan).

In other words, while the company is responding to ‘selective’ pressure in certain areas (apparently due to concerted pressure concerning those areas), Israel responds with a potential punitive measure concerning its activities in the whole of the state, including all territories it controls. I will return to the greater meaning of this duality later.

Conflating Israel and occupied territories while fighting BDS

This conflation of Israel and territories it occupies has been central for Israel in its fight against Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS). Israel sought to catch two birds at one time: Demonizing BDS, while legitimizing its occupation. The first actual legislative measure by Israel on this head was its 2011 anti-BDS law, called “Law Preventing Harm to the State of Israel by Means of Boycott”.

The definition here was important:

1. In this bill, “a boycott against the State of Israel” is defined as: deliberately avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or body solely because of their affinity with the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control, in such a way that may cause economic, cultural or academic damage.

That formulation, “or an area under its control”, is central, and has persisted in US anti-BDS legislations in some 25 states. The point is that even a ‘selective boycott’ of illegal settlements is deemed part of a boycott of the whole of Israel.

Israel has been steadily trying to increase deterrence of BDS activism. Last year, a blacklist ban of 20 international organizations, including Jewish ones, was published and activists banned – even those who support that ‘selective boycott’. Last month, a bill entailing 7 years prison for BDS activists was being discussed in a Ministerial Committee for Legislation, yet apparently stopped there, for now.

‘Selective boycotts’

There has long been an argument over tactics between proponents of ‘selective boycotts’ and proponents of more comprehensive boycotts. The former has been mostly proposed by ‘liberal-Zionists’. In 2016, Todd Gitlin, Peter Beinart, Kai Bird, Peter Brooks, Michael Walzer, Edward Witten, et al, authored a letter in support of such ‘selective boycotts’, which opened with a negative qualification:

“We, the undersigned, oppose an economic, political, or cultural boycott of Israel itself as defined by its June 4, 1967, borders” –


“Israel is not the problem, it’s the occupation and settlements that are”.

In response, Angela Y. Davis, Chandler Davis, Richard A. Falk, Rashid Khalidi, Alice Rothchild, et al, wrote:

“We welcome the statement’s shattering of the taboo against boycotting Israeli entities that are complicit in—at least selective—violations of Palestinian human rights.”

Yet they wondered:

“Defying common sense, however, the statement calls for boycotting settlements while letting Israel, the state that has illegally built and maintained those settlements for decades, off the hook.”

When Israel’s Supreme Court ruled on the anti-boycott law in 2015, the judges were somewhat divided as to whether selective boycott should be punishable. But in the end they voted 5-4 that even selective boycotts of settlements could be prosecuted through lawsuits.

Airbnb’s selective boycott and HRW’s report

So, Airbnb’s statement that it would withdraw listings in West Bank territory is selective. It is even selectively-selective – it could have said that it will withdraw listings in all settlements in all occupied territories – but it chose to relate only to the West Bank excluding East Jerusalem.

This selectivity also corresponds with the focus of the HRW report released today. Let me emphasize, that I am not criticizing HRW here for not referring to other areas than those in focus, but it is interesting to note how selective scrutiny can lead to selective action.

The HRW report also includes scrutiny of another company: – which has not announced any policy changes as Airbnb did. From the HRW report:

“The business activity that Airbnb and conduct helps make West Bank settlements more profitable and therefore sustainable, thus facilitating Israel’s unlawful transfer of its citizens to the settlements. In many cases, the companies list the properties as being located inside Israel, thereby misleading guests about where they will be staying and obscuring the fact that their payments are benefitting the settlement enterprise. Guests using Airbnb and to book accommodations in “Israel,” thus may find themselves vacationing in an unlawful Israeli settlement in the West Bank.”

The report does not refer to East Jerusalem, although East Jerusalem is actually a part of the West Bank.

“This report provides information about 139 properties that Airbnb listed in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, at various times between March 22, 2018 and July 6, 2018, and 26 properties listed by as of July 2018, with five properties cross-listed. It analyzes the status of the land on which those properties are located, including 17 properties built on land that the Israeli authorities acknowledge is privately owned by Palestinians but has been taken over for the exclusive use of Israeli settlers. An additional 65 properties are located on land that Israel declared to be public land through a mechanism that often includes what is actually private Palestinian land.”

In referring to the “unlawful transfer of its citizens”, HRW are referring to the 4th Geneva Convention of 1949, article 49. This is a war crime. This is customary International Humanitarian Law, which features in later central statutes, as HRW note earlier:

“Settlements are unlawful under international humanitarian law; the transfer of civilians of the occupying power into the occupied territory is a war crime under the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC), and Palestinian residents of the West Bank enjoy legal protections against forced displacement.”

Airbnb’s statement was tepid and hedged when it came to these issues:

“There are conflicting views regarding whether companies should be doing business in the occupied territories that are the subject of historical disputes between Israelis and Palestinians… Many in the global community have stated that companies should not do business here because they believe companies should not profit on lands where people have been displaced… We are most certainly not the experts when it comes to the historical disputes in this region… [we] evaluate whether the existence of listings is contributing to existing human suffering.”

Let’s not beat around the bush here: Doing business in Israel’s settlements is complicity in war-crimes. HRW has stated that clearly, and Airbnb knew that it would.

The Israeli response and the case for a complete boycott of Israel

The Israeli response to this limited move– which in our time and reality could be considered bold– shows that Israel will not have any ‘selective’ moves which challenge its occupation. It will have all or nothing. That is the policy.

And this should lead everyone else further. Israel is not differentiating between ‘Israel proper’ and its occupied territories in relation to how it views boycotts. Israel sees compliance with international law by Airbnb as a challenge to its criminality, and it will roundly punish those who seek to pull out of the more ‘contentious’ areas, even if they are ‘selective’.

For many, it is high time to go all the way: a full boycott of the State of Israel. It may be that there are companies who would view this as too extreme. That is not the point, though. The point is, that corporations are beginning to get that, with Israel, it’s an all-or-nothing game. That is, when you enter the Israeli market, you are forced to be non-selective, and effectively become complicit in war-crimes, no matter what you do. If you try to be ‘selective’ about that, the state will punish you. Hence, business people will start calculating whether this is worth it, and they will increasingly view Israel as a liability – as a whole.

That is how BDS works. And the Israeli Minister of Tourism has now unwittingly become one of its most prominent promoters.

H/t Danielle Ravitzki

Postscript: After the drafting of this piece, it came to my attention that the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which calls itself a “leading Jewish Human Rights NGO”, has called for a boycott of Airbnb for its actions. They call it “anti-Semitism, pure and simple”, because this is ostensibly forcing Israel back to its “Auschwitz borders”: “To be clear, no Israeli leader, left, right, or center, would ever return to the indefensible ‘Auschwitz borders,’ a term coined by the founder of Israel’s peace movement, the late Israeli Foreign Minister, Abba Eban.” Apparently, “Jewish human rights” are very different to universal human rights. They are exclusively Jewish, and any challenging of them is anti-Semitic and Nazi.

Jonathan Ofir

Israeli musician, conductor and blogger / writer based in Denmark.

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17 Responses

  1. CigarGod on November 20, 2018, 11:10 am

    Too bad airbnb requires you to create an account before they give you contact info/allow you to give them an attaboy for their move.

  2. Kay24 on November 20, 2018, 1:37 pm

    Israel is like a cornered rat. It tries to attack and slash, anyone and anything, that goes against it.
    This is yet another attempt to show their vindictiveness, and make an example of any company that stands up to them. They want all others to take notice, and not dare to do the same.
    The wrath of the zionists.

  3. annie on November 20, 2018, 2:21 pm

    i really do hope israel tries suing airbnb in a US court. because airbnb can afford a long drawn out procedure if it comes to that. i relish the day this comes up before the supreme court pitting those supporting apartheid up against the first amendment.

    • genesto on November 21, 2018, 1:20 pm

      I’m totally with you there, Annie. Let’s just hope that Airbnb doesn’t cave under pressure first. Put simply, our squeaky wheel has to be louder than that of the Zionists for this to ultimately succeed.

      • annie on November 21, 2018, 1:50 pm

        not so sure about that genesto. airbnb is a 40 billion dollar company (give or take a billion). i doubt they just caved to protestors. they can afford the best of the best and as a result probably put a whole team of professionals investigating every aspect of this inside and out before taking this huge step.

        one immediate side effects is pro israel patrons canceling their memberships (this is already happening w/tweets of people showing photos of their canceled accounts on their cell phones). the israel government is asking for jews to boycott airbnb. but my hunch is airbnb can take the hit financially because the demand for their services is very high.

        i think they are not only prepared for the controversy and pushback, i think they’ve likely determined over the long haul, it will benefit their business and branding. and i don’t mean to imply they are doing this because it’s profitable i think they are doing it because it’s the moral thing to do and the benefits far outweigh the risks.

      • catalan on November 23, 2018, 9:59 am

        “the israel government is asking for jews to boycott airbnb. “ Annie
        Well surely Jews, the all powerful managers of the empire, the masters of the US Congress with their sweet networks to obtain all the high paying gigs, the same Jews don’t need to sleep at the makeshift, semi legal abodes offered by Airbnb. I mean, how can we boycott such a lowly service that hardly any Jew would need to use in the first place?
        Incidentally, how does the US government ask “Jews” anything? Am I in some kind of weird registry? I don’t get emails from them to my knowledge so how does that communication work?

    • Jonathan Ofir on November 23, 2018, 6:27 am

      Annie, you write below that “the israel government is asking for jews to boycott Airbnb”. I have not seen evidence of that as such. I mean, its not just calling upon Jews.

      Strategic Affairs (and Hasbara) Minister Gilad Erdan did say “I call today on all those who support Israel and oppose discriminatory boycotts: they should cease using Airbnb and turn to other services” –
      – but I don’t see a call upon Jews as such – you are very welcome to provide such if you have found it (also mail me). Arguably, he’s calling upon Zionists to boycott Airbnb. But we know there are many millions of those who are not Jewish.

  4. Maghlawatan on November 20, 2018, 2:37 pm

    Israel is too far away from the international consensus at this stage. Companies like Air BnB exist to make money and are very keen on reputation management. The settlements are just not worth it.

  5. guyn on November 20, 2018, 6:29 pm

    “For many, it is high time to go all the way: a full boycott of the State of Israel.”

    It would be huge, and so well deserved. The french company Orange was one of the first to pull out of Israel three year ago. This time the next one could be forthcoming sooner.

  6. Danaa on November 21, 2018, 2:04 am

    I agree that it is high time to boycott everything that can be boycotted in Israel, including products, companies, scientific exchanges, joint programs, sporting and cultural events and companies that do business there. Now, this may be a tall order as israel has done quite well for itself in getting integrated with run of the mill companies in the US and elsewhere. However, I’d say the approach should be one of practicality. As in boycott whatever is possible.

    I see no reason that collaborations with israeli scientists and institutions or companies for example cannot be curbed, on a case by case basis. No need to stop it all. Same with the arts. One need not go to extremes to have an effect. After all, we all like some people better than others. And we value certain contributions over others. WE make those choices all the time in our lives anyways. For some, it may be enough to not buy products labeled as coming from israel whenever there is an alternative. Cosmetic products are a good example – there are quadzillion products out on the market and there’s absolutely no reason the israeli ones cannot be avoided. Same with food products, and pharmaceuticals.

    I believe the one kind of boycott likely to be most effective is the personal one. While BDS as an organized entity goes after specific organizations and companies, individuals can just do little things. Like “forget” to invite speakers when choices are many, or a dance group or choose another collaboration when there are alternative options.

    I admit to being extremely conflicted about music, however. Classical musicians have hard enough time making a living and boycotting ones who hail from israel may be truly counterproductive, as Israel is one of the countries trying to keep up the spirit and practice of classical music.

    So perhaps, in this case, I will make an exception, because music trumps everything in my book. And other individuals can each make their own exceptions too. After all, we all know people in israel that we admire for their principled stand against the occupation, and we mustn’t pull the rug from under their feet.

    But the point remains, that many individuals, each making their own decisions on what and where to boycott, will have an effect. Indeed, this may be the most effective way to go about it, in a way no different from the way society started frowning on smoking and/or littering the parks long before the actual laws were enacted. Let your friends, family and acquaintancies know where you stand, even if gently and without making a big to do. I think that many small acts of omission can go long ways towards making a dent, even as Israel’s lawfare will find it difficult to prove anything concrete.

    Personally, this is what I have been doing for a long time now. It is not always easy, especially because one of the things I have chosen to boycott is the Hebrew language and Hebrew literature. I have done that with the greatest of sadness as Iosing a language – deliberately or otherwise – is never fun.

    • annie on November 21, 2018, 2:00 pm

      Classical musicians have hard enough time making a living and boycotting ones who hail from israel may be truly counterproductive

      bds doesn’t target individuals. i would go to a concert of an israeli musician unless their tour was sponsored by the israel government or one of their ministries, like brand israel.

      • Danaa on November 24, 2018, 3:39 pm

        bds doesn’t target individuals.

        But I do. I don’t see why I should support individuals who are OK with genocidal tactics. I don’t always know what individuals believe or think, but when I do and it is abominable to me, I find that time and effort can be spent in many ways other than supporting or just interacting them. That includes art, culture, science and technical figures who may not be associated directly with the Israel government.

        I boycott the language, as I said, because to me it’s become the language of persecution and war crimes. Kind of like German became for many who escaped Europe when nazis came to power.

        The language is the most important tool and carrier of culture. When one chooses to toss a language, tsuch culture that became associated with it is pretty much gone as well, except in translation, which is always weak tea.

        needless to say, that’s not what I offer as an excuse for not caring to speak hebrew to other speakers of the language, Though what I do offer is not untrue either. Absence of practice in a language can lead to it acquiring that stultifying wooden feel. Mine feels too calcified to feel truly fluent any longer, which makes listening to the excuses offered by israelis and ex-Israelis for supporting whatever version of the ongoing abominations they support a chore that’s best avoided. It’s better for them – and tolerable for me – to offer their excuses for going along with whatever part of criminal policies and perfidous world views they share in English, where at least they can’t hide their moral bankruptcy under “charming” colloquialisms.

        Still, when it comes to individuals, I often make the effort to find out where they are on what. Sometimes I am very pleasantly surprised. That’s the best I can say.

  7. eljay on November 21, 2018, 2:14 pm

    Poor Zionists. All they want is:
    – Jewish supremacism in/and a religion-supremacist “Jewish State” in as much as possible of Palestine; and
    – the right to do whatever “necessary evil” is required.

    But those mean ol’ anti-Semites and “Jew haters” insist on horrible, nasty things like justice, equality and respect for human rights.

    No-one ever warned Zionists that aggressor-victimhood would be such a tough gig…  :-(

  8. punterweger on November 21, 2018, 9:15 pm

    Obviously, as a supporter of BDS, I’m overjoyed to see Airbnb stops listing settlement locations, and fully support adding all of Israel to Airbnb’s boycott list. BUT looking beyond the Palestine struggle, we should note that Airbnb has some very bad social consequences. By removing living spaces from local real estate markets to reserve them for tourists, it drives up rents and real estate prices, and promotes gentrification.

    • Maghlawatan on November 21, 2018, 10:10 pm

      AirBnB has a tech disrupter model. Lower prices, kill competitors., asymmetric profits for a small cohort. From a macro view it kills the demand produced by the hotels and guesthouses it drives out of business. What may be logical for one night is insane for the whole economy. I think air BnB is odious.

    • Danaa on November 23, 2018, 3:58 am

      I think the real negative consequences of Airbnb for many cities and other locations will start showing up in a year or so. While I have personally benefited from there being an Airbnb in many of the places I pass through, I can see what the model does to long term B&Bs and the small hotel businesses (which I would have otherwise frequented) as well as the local rental and home ownership market. Cities are trying to graple with the abuses by speculators, but it’s probably a losing battle.

      Eventually it’ll end up in similar place to what we see already happening to Uber and Lyft. A business model that starts with a bang, offering all kind of opportunities to earn a little extra cash, but end up with a whimper, once Airbnb starts cutting the compensation to homeowners, while increasing the price to tourists.

      Truth is, we have no idea right now what the long term consequences of these disruptive business models are going to be. But in the meantime, we might as well revel in small victories, like Airbnb pulling out of the West Bank.

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