Florida’s governor has directed that his state should cease doing business with Airbnb after the firm announced it would stop listing accommodations in Israel’s illegal settlements.
Ron DeSantis alleges that the company has engaged in “commercial discrimination” against Israel and is in violation of Florida’s laws that punish supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights.
In a 15 January directive to state contractors, in which he declares that Florida “is a pro-Israel state,” the Florida governor says that his mandate “is in response to policies undertaken by Airbnb against the Israeli people.”
According to a memo, the University of Florida has capitulated to DeSantis’ mandate and has urged its staff to cancel any upcoming reservations with Airbnb that would be used during official college business.
Airbnb announced in November it was delisting its units from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank following years-long campaigns by Palestinian and international human rights activists.
Last week, despite months of intense pressure by Israeli and US lawmakers to rescind its decision, Airbnb seems to have reiterated its November announcement and said it would be pulling the rental properties.
The company stated on 17 January that it has “developed a framework for evaluating how we should treat listings in disputed territories, including territories some consider occupied where homes – the core of our business – are central to ongoing tensions.”
Though the company has not indicated exactly when the rental units will be delisted in the West Bank colonies, it asserts that it is continuing to “move forward.”
Palestinians who live under occupation and confinement in the West Bank – or elsewhere in exile – cannot rent Airbnb properties in nearby Israeli settlements. Israel bars Palestinians from accessing the areas simply because they are not Jewish.
But DeSantis and other US lawmakers are denouncing Airbnb for “discrimination” against Israeli settlers who wish to make money off of their properties on stolen Palestinian land.
In his directive, DeSantis “goes above and beyond” the laws already on the books in Florida “that seek to unconstitutionally coerce its residents not to engage in boycotts for Palestinian rights,” Zoha Khalili, staff attorney with the organization Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada.
“While his target today is a global company, if his actions go unchecked, he could easily use the same tactics to blacklist mom-and-pop shops and everyday Floridians who support Palestinian rights,” Khalili warned.
A professor at the University of Florida, who wished not to be named in fear of losing their employment, told The Electronic Intifada that they were dismayed by the university’s capitulation to the governor.
Palestinian rights advocates, said the professor, are scared to speak out against the state’s anti-BDS laws and the governor’s aggressive enforcement of them on behalf of Israel.
“It’s not only the governor,” the professor said, “but a foreign entity is directing how you can carry out your normal life.”
The memo from the university administration mandates that staff “cancel all official university business travel reservations that utilize Airbnb services and make other arrangements.”
The memo was seen by The Electronic Intifada.
Airbnb continues to carry listings for properties in Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights, Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967. All Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal under international law.
Immediately following the November announcement, Airbnb came under intense pressure by Israeli officials who accused the company of “submitting” to the “anti-Semitic” boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights as well as “discrimination” against Israeli landlords in illegal settlements.
US lawmakers joined their Israeli counterparts in indignation over Airbnb’s announcement, with hundreds of state officials condemning the company and vowing to punish it using anti-BDS measures that have been passed in 26 states.
But the company itself said that the reports of reversing its policy were “inaccurate,” adding that it was “continuing our dialogue” with the Israeli government “and other stakeholders.”
Airbnb’s recent memo reiterating its intent to pull settlement listings indicates a rebuke to Israel’s efforts to bully it into keeping the listings on its website.
Florida protects Israel from criticism
While DeSantis works to shield Israel from international legal responsibility, a local Florida lawmaker is seeking to buttress the state’s anti-BDS legislation, taking aim against the rights of students and educators to criticize Israeli policies.
Introduced into the state government last week, the bill seeks to prevent anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jewish people in all public institutions in the state, even though federal laws against such discrimination already exist.
However, “under the law, Florida residents could sue or otherwise file complaints against teachers or administrators who criticize the Israeli state,” reports The Miami New Times.
According to the bill, acts of anti-Semitism would include “the work of a multilateral organization investigating Israel for peace or human rights violations” – a clear admission that even questioning Israel’s policies and human rights records would be conflated with anti-Jewish bigotry in Florida.
Meanwhile, Marco Rubio, a member of the US Senate for Florida, has been attempting to pass a new version of his anti-BDS law in Congress that would protect states against legal challenge to their own anti-boycott measures.
Rubio’s bill has been defeated three times this month as Democratic lawmakers refused to pass any legislation that wouldn’t re-open the federal government, which President Donald Trump closed in order to extort $5 billion from taxpayers for a wall at the US-Mexico border.
Such anti-boycott legislation violates First Amendment rights. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and human rights advocates have reminded Rubio that his responsibility is to protect the free speech rights of his constituents, not Israel’s interest in violating those rights.
Challenging Maryland anti-BDS law
Rubio’s bill is separate from Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin’s legislation, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which has been stalled during the government shutdown but will most likely be re-introduced this legislative term.
Cardin’s bill, which could be passed via a stealth appropriations bill without debate, aims to criminalize the BDS campaign and inflict heavy fines and prison sentences on boycott supporters.
But activists, educators and state contractors are taking action against these bills which violate their right to engage in political boycotts.
Syed Saqib Ali, a software engineer and supporter of the BDS campaign, would like to seek bids for government contracts but is barred from doing so under the current law which demands that contractors sign a pledge to not boycott Israel, the suit states.
State lawmakers have violated his constitutional rights, according to Ali and his legal team.
However, a federal judge in Arkansas this week dismissed a lawsuit filed by a local newspaper over the state’s law requiring contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel.
Disagreeing with the court’s decision, the legal director for the Arkansas ACLU said it “contradicts two recent federal court decisions” and warned that upholding the state’s anti-BDS law “would radically limit the First Amendment right to boycott.”