by James J. Zogby
U.S. supporters of Israel are in a bind: public opinion is changing; there are more actors publicly challenging Israel; and the crude, heavy-handed tactics they have successfully used in the past to silence criticism now only aggravate the situation. A few examples:
A few weeks back, Airbnb announced that they would no longer list rental properties located in the occupied West Bank. The reaction in Israel and among its supporters in the United States was predictably hysterical. They termed the action taken by Airbnb as “anti-Semitic.” Israel announced that it would enforce its anti-boycott law by banning Airbnb from operating anywhere within the country. And some American political leaders said that they would press US states that have passed their own anti-boycott legislation to also take action against Airbnb.
This Airbnb decision and the reaction to it are instructive in that they bring together a number of issues that define exactly where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is today.
Sometimes, in order to see an issue clearly, it is important to reduce it to its essence. In this instance, the omnipresent, ever-comical Rabbi Shmuley Boteach provided us with just such an example of the core Israeli argument against Airbnb in a costly full page newspaper ad this past week. More than just reducing Israel’s case to its essence, Boteach has revealed its absurdity.
The ad features an opening headline calling “Airbnb: Anti-Semitic,” falsely claiming that the company has “singled out Jews for discrimination…deliberately punishing Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria based solely on their nationality, ethnicity, and religion.” He then accuses Airbnb of a double-standard because they haven’t de-listed rental properties in other occupied territories, giving these examples: Turkish-occupied Cyprus, Russian-occupied Crimea, or Chinese-occupied Tibet (an interesting implicit recognition of Israel as an occupier in the great company of other occupiers!). The ad concludes with the stark black banner stating that “Boycotting Israel Is Anti-Semitic.”
The entire ad is a deliberate distortion of reality. Airbnb isn’t boycotting Israel or Jews. They still list rentals in Tel Aviv and a host of other Israeli cities, and they continue to list rentals owned by Jews everywhere in the world. What Airbnb has decided not to list are Jewish settler-owned properties in occupied Palestinian lands. And as for Israel’s argument that Airbnb is guilty of a double-standard since the company continues to list properties in other occupied territories, there are two things to point out: (1) Airbnb has already said that they were “evaluating how we should treat listings in occupied territories around the world,” and (2) in none of the cases cited by Boteach is there comparable evidence that the rentals in question are owned by settlers living in illegal developments built on confiscated lands.
In the end, however, it’s not about the lies contained in this ad or any of the other efforts to combat Airbnb. What is important is that in the face of declining public support and diminishing capacity to dominate the narrative about the nature of their conflict with the Palestinians, Israeli supporters are flailing about, striking blindly at opponents in their effort to pummel into submission anyone who would dare to challenge them.
The campaign against Airbnb is but one recent example. Here is another: Just last week, significant pressure was brought to bear on CNN, forcing them to fire one of their on-air political commentators, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill. Hill’s “crime” was that upon his return from a visit to occupied Palestinian lands he spoke at the annual UN-sponsored “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.” After detailing the abuses of Palestinian rights he had witnessed, Hill concluded his speech with a call for a “free Palestine, from the river to the sea.”
While it was clear from the entirety of his remarks that Hill was calling for justice and equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians, supporters of Israel immediately assumed the role of victim and leapt to attack. Hill was denounced for “inciting violence,” “calling for genocide,” “promoting anti-Semitism” and more. Instead of refuting these outrageous charges and standing by their commentator, CNN cowered and fired Hill. Shortly after that, the chairman of the Board of Trustees of Temple University, where Hill is a professor, accused Hill of “hate-speech” and floated the possibility of firing him.
These two cases – the decision of a major company to respect international law and a mainstream commentator speaking out for justice – are but two examples of the changing political landscape in the US. Polls show that Israel is losing ground in U.S. public opinion – most especially among the demographic groups that form the Democratic coalition (young people, “minority” communities, and educated women).
In reaction, pro-Israel lobby groups, after realizing that they are unable to silence critics by striking out against them individually as they speak out, are now trying to pass bills in Congress to penalize and/or criminalize criticisms or actions against Israel. The bills in question are: the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act (AAA) and the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (IABA). Should they pass Congress and be signed into law, a company like Airbnb could be penalized and a person like Marc Lamont Hill could be fired.
The problem being encountered by supporters of Israel is that the very changes in public opinion toward Israeli policies and awareness of the plight of Palestinians that have led socially aware companies like Airbnb to act and progressive African Americans like Marc Lamont Hill to speak out are also making it difficult for them to pass their repressive legislation. And even their campaigns against Airbnb and Dr. Hill have shown signs of backfiring.
Students on college campuses are passing BDS resolutions and civil liberties groups are winning legal challenges to anti-BDS laws passed on the state level. Because supporters of the controversial AAA and IABA bills are finding too much resistance to pass them in regular order, their only recourse may be to add them to an omnibus bill in the dark of night. And finally, it’s important to note that individuals and companies like Marc Lamont Hill and Airbnb are getting more praise than criticism for standing up to bullies.
The struggle for justice continues. Challenges remain, but a corner has been turned.
James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute.