November 17, 2018

Navigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through Airbnb

The first decision an adventurous traveler faces when seeking an Airbnb property in the West Bank is what to type in the search box: “West Bank”? “Judea and Samaria”? “Israel”? “Palestine”? The blinking cursor symbolizes the confusion and controversy surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

On Airbnb’s website, when you zoom in on the map of Israel, you’ll find more than a dozen properties on these contentious lands: in the Jewish settlements of Ma’aleh Adumim, Kfar Adumim, Mitzpe Yericho and Ariel, and also in the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jericho. By this algorithm, Airbnb would seem to subscribe to the “one-state solution.” Then again, “Palestine” also appears in a search — in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Alex and Olga Slobodov rent out a room in their home in Kfar Adumim, a mixed religious-secular settlement east of Jerusalem whose prominent residents include Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel and former MK Aryeh Eldad. Through Airbnb, I arranged to stay with them for one night. 

During my stay, I learned that the couple had no idea that Airbnb efforts like theirs, in Jewish settlements, were making international headlines. But if it were up to some organizations, Israeli properties located beyond the Green Line wouldn’t appear at all on Airbnb. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, is leading a coalition to petition Airbnb to ban properties like the Slobodovs’, accusing settlements of being built on illegal, stolen land. (Its petition has garnered about 140,000 signatories.)

“In my view,” Alex said in Hebrew at his spacious kitchen table over a dinner of Russian chicken patties, “we’re in Israel. I’m not something outside. I’m in the borders of Israel. I feel no difference. Actually, there is no difference except that Palestinians also drive these roads.” 

The widow and widower started a new life together five years ago and sought a practical solution for the bedroom that once housed Alex’s now-deceased in-laws. Alex is a Russian Israeli who recently retired as an auditor for the Department of Housing, and Olga is a non-Jewish Ukrainian Israeli who works as a housekeeper. They are only a few months into their Airbnb operation and have already hosted a handful of people from the United States, Belgium, Australia and Argentina.

For $34 (U.S.) per night, the Slobodovs offer what they describe as a “cozy” room, accessed via a private entrance, equipped with a bed, sofa and a newly refurbished bathroom. Their multilevel country home overlooking the Jordan Valley is similar to those seen in many Jewish settlements and rural towns. A drive with Alex to observation points overlooking Wadi Qelt and the Dead Sea on a clear day reveals why the settlement is an appealing option for travelers and Israeli residents alike: the Judean desert air, expansive views and village vibe. 

A 10-minute drive away is Mitzpe Yericho (loosely translated as Jericho Point), a religious settlement where Judith (last name withheld upon request), an olah (a female who makes aliyah) who emigrated from Germany 28 years ago, decided to try her hand at Airbnb after her children left home. Since June 2015, she’s accommodated about two dozen reservations, largely of German speakers. She, too, was unaware that organizations were lobbying against her mini-business. The only guest who was upset about her location was someone she believes should have known better. 

“One came specifically from Tel Aviv, a new olah from the U.S., in Israel for three to four years, and she told me after that it’s too bad that I don’t write that it’s in West Bank,” Judith said in a phone interview.

Judith was dismayed when a group of European tourists recently canceled its reservation, alleging that the group’s car rental company, TUI Cars, didn’t cover travel into the Palestinian territories. She argued that her village falls within Area C, which is under full Israeli control, but to no avail. She said that once in a while, per request, she’ll discuss Israeli politics, but she doesn’t consider herself “right wing.” She chose Mitzpe Yericho decades ago for its quality of life.

Alex Slobodov

In +972, an online magazine that generally hews to the political views of JVP, a reporter going by “John Brown” posed as “Haled,” an American of Palestinian descent, to determine how his requests would be received by Airbnb hosts in Jewish settlements. He was met with mixed reactions. Hosts in Tekoa in the Gush Etzion Bloc accepted his booking, provided he was willing to go through the procedural security check; others declined because of the tense political situation. 

I decided to see how requests to book a room in Ramallah — as an American Jew living in Tel Aviv — would be received. I also inquired of potential hosts whether they believed I would be safe. One person I contacted declined my request, citing unavailability. A potential host in Bethlehem wrote: “It’s safe as long as you don’t say where you’re from.”

But a different potential host in Ramallah was, eventually, more direct: 

“I doubt there will be any security issues, but unfortunately I can’t host you in my house if you are an Israeli citizen.” I revealed my Israeli citizenship and reasoned, naively perhaps, that the issue was legal. “Is the problem from the Israeli or PA side?” I asked, since Israeli law forbids Israeli citizens from entering Palestinian Area A (although during my past forays into Ramallah and Nablus, no one checked my ID).

“Well, you won’t have any problem from any side,” this person replied. “It’s actually a personal issue. I don’t know if anyone else will host you; as for me, I can’t.” 

When asked for JVP’s opinion on Palestinian Airbnb hosts rejecting Jewish or Israeli guests, JVP Deputy Director Stefanie Fox wrote: “Palestinians living under occupation have the right to use nonviolent tools, such as boycott and non-cooperation, to resist the policies and practices that threaten their lives and their rights.” 

But then I found a host from Bethlehem who immediately accepted my request to book as an “American currently living in Tel Aviv.”

When I told the Slobodovs about my interest in visiting Bethlehem via Airbnb, Olga shook her head, fearing for my safety. She also said she would be wary of hosting an Arab-Muslim Israeli, given the threat in Israel — and elsewhere around the world — of Islamic terror. 

Judith told me that an Arab Israeli from Jerusalem once requested to book her Mitzpe Yericho room for four guests under a reservation for one. 

“I thought: What’s wrong with him?” Judith said, figuring they’d feel more comfortable in Jericho proper. She, too, declined out of safety concerns, but told the potential guest that the room was “unavailable.”

In response to questions from me, Airbnb spokesperson Nick Papas sent the company’s standard reply: “We believe in the transformative power of allowing people to share experiences that can come from sharing a home. … We follow laws on where we can do business and we investigate specific concerns raised about listings and/or discrimination.” 

So, when people browse the listings of Airbnb properties, such as “Cozy room in Jordan Valley” or “Guest house in Bethlehem,” they can imagine either conflict or how life could be: a mosaic of coexistence. Ironically, it’s the people who live closest to one another and are most in need of sitting down for a living-room chat — Israelis and Palestinians — who it appears can’t take advantage of Airbnb’s “transformative power” in Israel, Palestine, the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, or … whatever you choose to call these lands.