Florida governor punishes Airbnb for “discrimination” against Israeli settlers

Apartments inside an Israeli settlement near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

US lawmakers are punishing Airbnb for delisting rental units in illegal Israeli settlements. 

Shadi Hatem APA images

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.

Accusations

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.

In December, Israeli media reported that after meeting with Israel’s tourism ministers, Airbnb had reversed its decision to pull listings from Israeli settlements.

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.

A former lawmaker in Maryland has filed a lawsuit against the state’s governor and attorney general over that state’s 2017 anti-boycott law.

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.

While anti-boycott measures have been blocked by federal courts in Arizona and Kansas, others have been recently challenged in Texas and Arkansas.

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.”

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Airbnb has reluctantly pledged to abstain from participating in war crimes, ie. the colonization of Palestinian territory taken and occupied by military force. For this adherence to international law, the company is targeted by Florida's governor- who is himself dependent on Israel-related donations and media support. In taking this action, the governor has effectively committed his state to economic involvement in the very crimes the company now eschews. This has to go to court for a ruling. Can a company be legally barred from state contracts for refusing to commit a crime? And is the governor complicit in an action which violates the Fourth Geneva Convention?

In addition, the DeSantis administration now demands that the state university system also boycott Airbnb accommodations, and that this prohibition be enforced throughout Florida's public sector. Further to which, a new Florida bill would make it illegal to criticise the state of Israel at all- including calls for that state's adherence to international law. That's how extreme and how worried the pro-Israel crowd is becoming. They're taking these chances not because they're confident in their power, but because they see that power slipping away. Desperation is beginning to set in. As in Palestine, they have no arguments, only force at their disposal.

We have to be clear. There's a world of difference between a citizen-led boycott dedicated to ending violations of international law (BDS) and those emanating from the state and aimed at protecting violators of international law (DeSantis, Cuomo, Rubio, et al). This distinction has to be explained and emphasised again and again. The crime here is to criminalize or otherwise punish those who organize on behalf of the legal rights of Palestinians and the legal obligations of American businesses. And until these political hacks are hauled into court, they will continue to defy the Constitution.

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But Airbnb has not pledged, reluctantly or not, to abstain from participating in war crimes. It has clearly stated that it is not supportive of BDS against Israel. The extent to which its decision to de-list settler homes in the W/B was influenced by BDS activism is open to speculation - its probable that BDS has influenced Airbnb in this regard - but Airbnb has presented its decision to de-list in good corporate governance terms only. It takes pains not to 'take sides' or apportion blame or to even take a general stance that it will not operate in territories that are under occupation. It will take a case by case approach. Airbnb public statement make it clear that its decision to de-list in the W/B was based on an evaluation of whether there is a 'direct' connection between its activities and the larger dispute and if its activities contribute to 'existing human suffering'. That is, the fact of occupation or dispute is not sufficient for Airbnb to cease operations; it imposes a more stringent test - that its corporate activity is directly connected to the core of the dispute and they have come to the conclusion that to continue operating will contribute to human suffering. No boycott as such - just a corporation adhering to its values. Of course, it has the same effect as a boycott but the language/reasoning they use will hopefully over some protection against USA anti-boycott laws. As I understand it, there has only been a statement of intent to de-list and I hope that Airbnb sticks by its decision. This is a denial of service case rather than a refusal to consume/invest and other actors can fill the void. If the US Supreme Court can uphold a refusal to bake a cake for a gay wedding (on sincerely held religious views) is protected by free speech, then surely Airbnb is on strong ground that it chooses not 'contribute to existing human suffering'. Airbnb seem to have done their homework.

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Thoughtful comment...it seems to me (I have two properties listed on Airbnb: in Austria and in Greece) that Airbnb has recognized the harm done to Palestinians by the occupation...I wonder whether they considered Article 49 of the fourth Geneva convention. If this was part of their decision, the disregarding of international law by the government of Israel in sending civilians to do business in the occupied territories, then it should carry over to other cases. Also, it implies they are recognizing that the territories are occupied, not disputed as the Israeli charade narrates.

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These people are so ignorant of human rights and international law, while at the same time being so self-righteous about what they believe they 'know' is right...it is incredibly frustrating to be forced to deal with them.

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So please explain something because I know very little of Israel and Palestinian issues. So Israel can settle in any part they want in West Bank ? Bit Palestinians are not allow to go to Israel? Also, Israel controls the internet, and even how much water Palestine gets per week? I head they shit off water for 2 days and then turn back on? So are they trying to settle in West Bank? Is it bacause Israel is too expensive? Or because they want to take over Palestine? Or both? This is all very confusing. But sad that these issues will never be resolved.

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Alex...Israel definitely wants to, eventually, take over all of Palestine and have the world give its (grudging) recognition of its sovereignty there. Some say this is only a new development, since the '67 war when Israel conquered the 22% of Palestine that was left to Palestinians (under Jordanian control) after the wars from '47-'49. However, if you read Nur Masalha's "Expulsion of the Palestinians", which analyzes the diaries of key Zionist players going back to Herzl at the end of the 19th century (including Josef Weitz and David Ben-Gurion) you get a good picture that Zionism ALWAYS had an endgame plan of moving Palestinians off their land and taking over. At the end of the 19th century the Jewish population of Palestine was in the range of 3-5% of the total. Even in 1947, at the time of the Truman backed UN vote to partition Palestine 55-45% in favor of Zionists, the Jewish population was only 33% of the total, and that increase was due to immigration enabled by British gunpoint from 1920 to 1948. So the entire scheme has wreaked of a colonial takeover, and a breach of human rights, although human rights was hardly an issue in the late 19th century and earlier 20th. But importantly, there IS human rights law post WW2 with the charter of the UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights attached to the UN charter. Specifically, the Fourth Geneva convention, Article 49, forbids any country which is militarily occupying another, against sending its CITIZENS into that occupied territory, to live or to do business. Occupations are supposed to, legally, be short-term endeavors, not permanent like Israel has been doing in the occupied West Bank since 1967. So, ALL settlements, as the world technically recognizes, are illegal, and thus it is illegal for Airbnb, etc., to profit on illegal Israeli housing inside occupied Palestine. Read John Judis' "Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict".

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).