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)

Why SF-based Airbnb’s policy on Israeli settlements is boiling over

One offers a “cozy room with view” of the Jordan River Valley. Another advertises “the tranquility of the desert and a taste of warm Israeli hospitality.” Both are available right now on Airbnb.

But some human rights groups say one very important detail has been left out of the listings — that the properties these Israeli families have offered up for rent are in Kfar Adumim, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, about 10 miles northeast of Jerusalem, on land that Palestinians claim is theirs.

Such vacation listings — in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem — have been at the center of a battle pitting Amnesty International against Israeli settlers.

The battle spilled over into a San Francisco federal courthouse in January, when Airbnb was sued by a group of American Jews for its decision last November to delist some 200 rental properties in the West Bank. And that wasn’t the first legal challenge to that decision.

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

In its Jan. 30 campaign report “Destination: Occupation,” which has a title page featuring a large photo of a bulldozer moving a mound of dirt near a boy sitting beneath a Palestinian flag, Amnesty International said that “all four companies are contributing to, and profiting from, the maintenance, development and expansion of illegal settlements, which amount to war crimes under international criminal law.”

The 96-page paper continued: “Their promotion of Israeli settlements in the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories] as a tourist destination also has the effect of ‘normalizing,’ and legitimizing to the public what is recognized under international law as an illegal situation.”

That paper was released a week after five Jewish Americans, two of whom live in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, filed suit on Jan. 22 in San Francisco against Airbnb claiming its “decision to remove listings of dwellings and accommodations owned by Jews in Judea and Samaria constitutes an ‘anti-Jewish discriminatory policy’” that violates federal and California law. The lawsuit’s other plaintiffs live in Los Angeles and Scottsdale, Arizona.

The lawsuit alleges that Airbnb’s policy applies only to Jewish residents of the West Bank “and not to listings from any Arab or Palestinian towns in the region.”

It is the latest legal salvo against Airbnb over the delisting policy, following a civil rights suit filed in November by 18 Jewish Americans in federal court in Delaware, where Airbnb is incorporated. Another lawsuit challenging the policy was filed days earlier in a Jerusalem court.

The World Population Review, citing the most recent census taken in 2007, said 2.3 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, along with nearly 390,000 Israelis. Another 375,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem. The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory on Dec. 28 saying Americans should reconsider travel to the West Bank “due to terrorism, potentially violent civil unrest and the potential for armed conflict.”

Airbnb is also facing backlash from Florida for its delisting policy. In mid-January, Gov. Ron DeSantis warned that Airbnb faces sanctions because it may have violated a state law prohibiting Florida from doing business with companies that boycott Israel.

The State Board of Administration of Florida is determining whether Airbnb should be placed on a state list of companies that boycott Israel. Meanwhile, DeSantis banned state employees from using Airbnb for work-related travel and lodging.

Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas said the company had no comment on the suit filed in San Francisco, and referred to the firm’s Nov. 19 statement explaining its policy on “Listing in Disputed Regions.” In that statement, Airbnb points out it has more than 20,000 hosts in Israel, from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to the Golan Heights, and that “Airbnb does not support the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement, any boycott of Israel or any boycott of Israeli companies.”

Airbnb points out that its decision on the 200 West Bank listings followed its global framework that also led it to remove sites in Crimea, which is territory disputed by Russia and Ukraine. In January, Airbnb also applied the policy to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, contested areas in the Republic of Georgia.

“There are many strong views as it relates to lands that have been the subject of historic and intense disputes between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank,” the statement said. “Airbnb has deep respect for those views. Our hope is that someday sooner rather than later, a framework is put in place where the entire global community is aligned so there will be a resolution to this historic conflict and a clear path forward for everybody to follow.”

Rob Gloster

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