US Jews sue Airbnb for delisting rentals at West Bank settlements

Suit accuses the holiday rental giant of religious discrimination and says its new policy violates US laws

Inbal Zeev walks, on January 17, 2016, by her guest house advertised on Airbnb in the Nofei Prat settlement in the West Bank. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)
Inbal Zeev walks, on January 17, 2016, by her guest house advertised on Airbnb in the Nofei Prat settlement in the West Bank. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

A group of 18 US Jews sued Airbnb in a US Federal Court on Wednesday, accusing the holiday rental giant of religious discrimination after the company delisted accommodations in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

“Airbnb has made a religion- and nationality-based decision about who can list,” Robert Tolchin, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told Reuters. “It decided in the United States, ‘We will not list for Jews in the West Bank.’ It should be equal access for all.”

Airbnb’s statement on November 19 announcing the new policy noted that 200 Israeli-owned listings in the West Bank would be removed, after the company had concluded, “They are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.”

The plaintiffs, who said they owned or wished to rent the affected properties, filed the complaint in Delaware, where Airbnb is incorporated, alleging the decision violates US laws against housing discrimination.

The suit accused Airbnb of “redlining” Jewish-owned properties while letting Muslims and Christians rent their homes and said Airbnb was taking sides in the dispute over the West Bank.

“We don’t believe this lawsuit will succeed in court, but we know that people will disagree with our decision and appreciate their perspective,” Airbnb said in a statement.

A separate suit was filed in a Jerusalem court on November 22.

Ma’anit Rabinovich of the Kida outpost , who in the past advertised an apartment for rent on Airbnb, filed a request at the Jerusalem District Court for a class action lawsuit against Airbnb, saying the decision to ban listings located in West Bank settlements constitutes “severe, offensive and extremely outrageous discrimination on the basis of place of residence, country of origin and opinion.”

The Delaware case differed by claiming that “Airbnb is violating Americans’ rights, and this can’t be argued in an Israeli court under Israeli law,” Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, told Reuters.

Israel has also looked to mobilize support in the US against the decision. On Tuesday, Israel’s minister in charge of combating boycott efforts against the Jewish state urged US states to take steps against Airbnb.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on September 13, 2018. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

In a letter to the governors of Illinois, New York, Florida, Missouri, and California, where Airbnb is based, Gilad Erdan called the announcement an adoption of “the anti-Semitic practices and narrative of the boycott movement.”

He charged that the BDS movement “is not interested in peace or a better future for the Palestinians, but rather in demonizing and discriminating against Israel, the one true democracy, and America’s strongest ally in the Middle East.”

And he said the new company policy is “especially disturbing when one understands that it is a policy directed only toward Israel. Such a policy has not been applied by the company to any other country or region involved in a national dispute or conflict.

“This constitutes (one hopes unintentionally) the modern form of an anti-Semitic practice which applies a double standard to Israel in a way that is not expected or demanded of any other country.”

The home of Lewis Weinger, in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, who has been renting it out using Airbnb. (Meni Lavi)

He urged the governors to “consider speaking out against the company’s decision, and taking any other relevant steps, including in relation to commercial dealings” between Airbnb and their states.

Erdan’s outreach is likely falling on receptive ears. Laws against state investment in companies that boycott Israel exist in 25 US states.

Erdan’s letter is part of an effort in the Israeli government to develop a coordinated response to the Airbnb decision. An interministerial committee composed of officials from Erdan’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, as well as the ministries of foreign affairs, tourism, justice and economy and the Finance Ministry’s Tax Authority are reportedly working on developing a government-wide response.

An Airbnb official told The Times of Israel on November 21 that the company was evaluating whether to drop its listings in the disputed territory of Western Sahara as well, brushing off Israeli complaints that it was only taking a stand in the Jewish state’s dispute with the Palestinians while ignoring similar disputes in places like Tibet, Northern Cyprus and Western Sahara.

“In the statement we issued on Monday [November 19], we noted that we have developed a framework for evaluating how we should treat listings in occupied territories around the world. Western Sahara is one example of a place where we will use this framework,” the official said.

As of November 21, there were 24 Airbnb listings in Western Sahara.

The Airbnb official clarified that the delisting of Israeli-owned rentals would only be applied to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and not homes in East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, which Israel officially considers part of the country’s sovereign territory.

View of the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Hever, in the Har Hebron Regional Council on April 19, 2015.(Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The company said the decision to remove the listings came after “considerable time” was spent consulting experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Airbnb said that, as an industry leader, it “must consider the impact we have and act responsibly.”

The announcement came a day before Human Rights Watch was set to publish a report detailing the company’s operations in Israeli settlements.

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