a man walks on a rocky dirt road next to a small red-roofed house
Nati Rom, the founder of an Israeli anti-boycott organization walks next to an Airbnb apartment located in the Esh Kodesh outpost near the Jewish settlement of Shilo in the West Bank, Nov. 20, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Menahem Kahana-AFP-Getty Images)

Airbnb case could set BDS precedent — one way or the other

A longtime critic of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement says Airbnb’s decision to remove about 200 rental property listings in West Bank settlements could mark a turning point for the BDS movement — in either direction.

“It could set a trend,” said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of politics at Israel’s Bar Ilan University. “The concern is that Airbnb is the tip of the iceberg.”

Steinberg said he was caught by surprise when Airbnb announced the delistings in November, and he fears it could lead human rights groups to exert similar pressure on high-tech giants such as Google and Facebook.

On the other hand, Steinberg told about a dozen audience members on March 6 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, if anti-BDS campaigners can get Airbnb to reverse its policy, that would be a major blow for the BDS movement.

“If this costs Airbnb too much [in terms of bad publicity and legal costs], I think they will back off,” he said. “And if Airbnb suffers, others will be scared to follow.”

Airbnb has insisted in a series of public statements since November that “Airbnb is not boycotting Israel. Airbnb does not support the BDS movement, any boycott of Israel, or any boycott of Israeli companies.”

Vacation listings in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been the focus of a battle between Amnesty International and Israeli settlers. That fight reached a San Francisco federal courthouse in January, when Airbnb was sued by a group of American Jews over its November delisting decision.

Airbnb still lists short-term rentals in East Jerusalem, although Amnesty International is calling on the San Francisco-based company to remove those property listings, as well. The rights group also is pushing other online travel companies to stop promoting rentals and attractions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, calling out Booking.com, Expedia and TripAdvisor by name.

If Airbnb suffers, others will be scared to follow.

Airbnb also faces a civil rights suit filed in November by 18 Jewish Americans in federal court in Delaware, where Airbnb is incorporated. Another lawsuit challenging the delistings was filed days earlier in a Jerusalem court.

Airbnb is also facing backlash from at least two states for its policy. Earlier this month, Texas lawmakers added Airbnb to a list of companies that boycott Israel, banning it from doing business with the state. In mid-January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned that Airbnb faces sanctions.

Airbnb pointed out in its November statement on the delistings that it has more than 20,000 hosts in Israel, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to the Golan Heights. The company also says its policy has been applied in Crimea, which is territory disputed by Russia and Ukraine, and in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, contested areas in the Republic of Georgia.

“If Airbnb was consistent with its policies, it would delist properties in about 16 places around the world,” Steinberg said. “If it’s applied unevenly, if Israel is singled out, that’s no good.”

Steinberg is the founder of NGO Monitor, which keeps tabs on nongovernmental organizations, and is a longtime critic of Amnesty International and other humanitarian groups such as Human Rights Watch and Oxfam that he accuses of unfair treatment of Israel.

Though he doesn’t expect Airbnb to suddenly reverse its decision, he said he hopes it will spark a fuller discussion about the company’s West Bank policies.

“I’d love to see Airbnb say they made a big mistake. But I’m a realist. I don’t see that happening, they’re digging in,” he said. “More realistically, I would like to see them come to the table and say let’s take another look at this.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.