December 10, 2018

Airbnb’s Decision Is a Teachable Moment

Photo from Flickr.

When Airbnb announced its decision to remove listings in Israeli settlements, supporters of Israel immediately expressed deep concern. While we can disagree about the specific responses, ranging from boycotting Airbnb entirely to reaching out to state representatives to fight this decision, I leave that to the Israel advocacy organizations to figure out. 

As an educator, I’m more interested in the educational implications of this moment, with one guiding question — how should we discuss this decision with our children and students?

Here are four educational issues to consider:

1. Significance of the moment. The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is not new, but when a major company like Airbnb takes its cues from BDS, this is a troubling development that could signal a new level of targeted hostility toward the Jewish state.  This must be noted.

2. Criticism vs. disproportionate criticism. Every student knows that when one child is singled out repeatedly for reprimand, while other students are rarely mentioned, it’s usually the teacher who is to blame. Criticism of Israel is legitimate, but singling out Israel for disproportionate criticism is not. For example, students should be encouraged to express different opinions on Israeli history and Israeli politics, with some supporting the recent nation-state law and others disagreeing with it. Allowing for that dispute is the hallmark of a healthy educational and democratic experience within a Zionist framework. Yet an example of disproportionate criticism would be suggesting that Zionism is racism, which the United Nations did in 1975 (and retracted in 1991). When China murders its own citizens or when countries segregate its own people, as the United States did until 60 years ago, the delegitimization of these countries or the threat to their right to exist is not mentioned. As for those who cry that bringing up the misdeeds of other countries is mere “Whataboutism,” I think that misses the mark in this case and shows a lack of empathy towards the feeling many Israelis have when they are the target of obsessive criticism.

“Criticism of Israel is legitimate, but singling out Israel for disproportionate criticism is not.”

3. Misrepresentation of nuance. Nuance has become such a buzzword to the point that it has lost much of its meaning. Seemingly, everyone wants to show they own the gray space. Airbnb’s self-congratulatory sense of pride centered around what it perceived as taking the middle road — choosing not to boycott Israel entirely despite its West Bank policies but also ensuring it punished the specific people in the specific territory it believes are particularly problematic. 

I’m a big proponent of nuance, but nuance should be articulated thoughtfully and meted out responsibly, and this decision by Airbnb feels like it’s less about nuance and more about idiosyncratic capriciousness dressed up in sophistication. Nuance requires consistency, and the choice to single out Israel among all the nations of the world, and punish Israel for policies Airbnb disagrees with, seems like it is more about caving into a certain zeitgeist right now, in which Israel plays the favorite scapegoat.

4. Misguided self-righteousness. The pursuit of moral and just behavior should be the Jewish community’s North Star, but we know that the pursuit of righteousness can sometimes take a dangerous detour into sanctimony. And sanctimony is the subtle opposite of humility. 

There is no better example than Airbnb’s decision here. Businesses are becoming more entangled with politics than ever before, and when Israel is often demonized as the “big, bad guy,” then automatically people will come to the conclusion that the settlements in the West Bank are oppressive and anachronistic without taking the time to consider Israel’s security needs and the national-religious aspirations of being there.

Let’s hope Airbnb reverses its decision, but even if it chooses not to, let’s remind the youth that we cannot control the actions of others; we can only impact what is within our locus of control. Let’s use this as an opportunity to teach our students about the uniqueness of the Jewish experience, to be willing to stand up for ourselves, and to not make the same self-righteous, non-nuanced mistake Airbnb just made.


Noam Weissman is the senior vice president of education of Jerusalem U, a digital media company focused on Israel education and Jewish identity.

READ MORE: Israeli Band’s Viral Video Slams Airbnb Over Anti-Israel Move
Florida, Illinois Might Use Anti-BDS Laws Against Airbnb
Beverly Hills City Council Advocates for Boycott of Airbnb