Last week, Airbnb announced that it would remove listings in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The company explained the decision in a statement on its website: “We concluded that we should remove listings in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank that are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.” While some Palestinian groups have welcomed the decision, Israel’s Tourism Minister Yariv Levin called it “the most wretched of wretched capitulations to the boycott efforts.” This is the same argument made in a recent article in the Jewish News Syndicate, which describes the new policy as “a clear result of a coordinated and well-financed campaign targeting the company by NGOs involved in BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaigns against Israel, led by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), in concert with the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC), at least three Israeli groups, and the Palestinian Authority.” The article, further claims that the sources of funding for the campaign, “include a number of European governments as well as the U.S.-based Rockefeller Brothers Fund.”
The 10-year-old company is clearly not opposed to allowing homeowners to rent in disputed lands, as its own press release on “Listings in Disputed Regions” inadvertently made clear. In Northern Cyprus, which has been occupied by the Turkish military since the 1970s, the company has no issue providing its services. The same goes for Tibet which has been struggling for independence from the Chinese government for more than half a century and where Tibetans are routinely harassed by Chinese military forces. And in China itself there are no restrictions on Airbnb listings despite the government’s exhaustively documented repressive measures and the fact that it has forcibly interned some one million Muslims from the ethnic minority Uighur group in “reeducation” camps.
Travelers can also rent in countries with horrendous human rights records like Myanmar, where the government continues to commit ethnic cleansings on the Karen, Rohinga, Shan, and other ethnic minorities.
Increased international scrutiny on the Israeli government is not new, but here, where its citizens are being punished, it feels more personal. The decision also goes against the company’s own ethos. Its goal, found in its site, is “creating a door to an open world—where everyone’s at home and can belong.”
Airbnb brought together visiting Israelis into Arab homes and vice versa, which has the potential to build bridges and foster mutual goals. There’s real value in the kind of cultural exchange that comes from sharing a home; of learning to be a guest and acting as a host, which is something I experienced myself, as a couch-surfing wanderer.
My initial experience was on my first solo trip abroad, as a college student. I flew to South Africa on Martin Luther King Jr. day because an airline glitch allowed for cheap flights. After arriving, I opened a couchsurfing.org account with the less than lofty goal of saving money. In a Cape Town suburb, I met a man who told me all about Apartheid South Africa and the measures the country had taken since it ended to repair the relationship between black and white citizens and the ongoing struggles in that effort. He told me about how, to grapple with its past, the South African government had established a truth and reconciliation commission, and the change it caused on the ground. I knew about the commissions from a college class but he offered an on the ground analysis the professor didn’t cover. I thought about America’s own history with slavery and what lessons and difference a similar kind of truth and reconciliation commission might have made in U.S. history. My host and I were up till 2 a.m. talking about the country’s evolution, an on the ground perspective that I would never see in the news.
On another occasion, I stayed as a guest in the house of a non-Jewish German host. As a Brooklyn-born Jew and grandson of Holocaust survivors, it was not an experience I would have likely arranged on my own, but it was valuable. A few weeks ago, I slept in a Munich stranger’s library. I listened as Sofia talked about her guilty feelings about the Shoah and experiences of seeing post-WWII Germany evolve and grow more tolerant. It went counter to everything I’d been raised to believe about Germans.
If not for couch surfing, I never would have met a gay indigenous Maori man in the south island of New Zealand, near Milford Sound. He shared stories of growing up in a gang and the violence he caused before ultimately exiting the group to enter university in his 40s. Without Airbnb, I never would have met Amira, a Bosnian woman who lived seven minutes from sniper alley, the dangerous road in Sarajevo where men, women, and children were shot at by the Serbian army.
In the summer of 2016, as I drove from L.A. to Seattle, I stayed in tiny towns of 500 people or less. In the heated election season, I learned from Americans whose experiences were as far as you could get from mine—a tweed jacket owning Jew from New York. I learned about them and they about me and while we didn’t come away agreeing on everything the experience did give us all a sense shared belonging in the same big national project we were both a part of. That kind of experience may not be enough to heal all the hyperpartisan divides in this country, but it helps remind us that we are joined together in something larger even if we’re not always united.