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Airbnb is picking on our very genes

Let there be no mistake: those settlements 'at the core of the dispute' are the historic core of our identity as Jews
A view of Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean mountains, as photographed in the late 19th century, by French photographer Bonfils. (Wikimedia Commons)
A view of Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean mountains, as photographed in the late 19th century, by French photographer Bonfils. (Wikimedia Commons)

“What’s on your mind?”

It was dinner time, and I was preoccupied. I served our kids their portions, inserted a napkin here and a “Don’t place it so close to the edge!” there, but my heart wasn’t in it. And my husband could tell.

“I’m disturbed by Airbnb’s decision,” I answered him. “And I don’t know why it bothers me so much.”

One of the kids asked for something, my baby threw his food on the ground, and the conversation veered away from my preoccupation. But while I passed this and picked up that, my thoughts kept going back to Airbnb’s press release. How could they single out Judea and Samaria, declaring that they will no longer do business there, without applying the same policy to other disputed territories? DID they in fact single Israel out, or is their policy consistent? Where can I find the information? What can I do about it? Should I do something about the reservation we made for later this week?

And why does this particular announcement — far from the first I ever witnessed — unnerve me so much?

“Ima! IMA!”

I shook myself. “What? What is it?”

“I have a question. What if a woman makes her hair all curly when she is pregnant. Will the baby come out curly too? And if she becomes injured, like let’s say she loses an arm, will the baby come out without an arm, too?”

It took me a few moments to shift my focus away from international corporations and political biases and understand what my son had just asked.

“Oh, are we talking about genes? No, no, they don’t change if something changes about our appearances…” But I was still too preoccupied to give a truly coherent answer, so my husband stepped in. “There is information in a woman’s body that tells it how to shape the baby. This information is already there when the woman is born. Your sister’s body, for example, already has the information it will use, even though she herself will keep growing and changing.”

The conversation went on around me, moving from the reproductive system to genetic diseases and so forth. I even regained enough presence of mind to join in and offer my own kids-friendly take on genetics. But underneath the surface of the dinner back-and-forth something kept nagging at me. Something about the distinction between dynamic changes on one level and deeply-encoded constants on another seemed important, even crucial. But I couldn’t quite figure out why.

The answer only came to me later, when I went back to read — once again — Airbnb’s statement. “We concluded,” the vacation rental giant announced, “that we should remove listings in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank that are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.”

The words “at the core” arrested my attention. But instead of focusing on the phrase that followed them, I kept hearing a different sentence, one that came from deep within me. Instead of thinking of the settlements “that are at the core of the dispute,” I kept thinking about the territories that are “at the core” of our identity as Jews.

I don’t say “as Jews” lightly. I am well aware that many Jews would reject the idea that Israel — the land or the state — is central to their identity. My Jewish neighbors in Boston live a rich and powerful Jewish life right here in the New World, miles and miles away from the Jewish homeland. And generations upon generations of Jewish sages worked hard to make it possible for us to do so, by  rearranging and readjusting the Jewish modus vivendi into more than the Temple-centric religion it used to be — and which wouldn’t have been able to survive our millennia of exile.

But underneath all those changes and shifts, underneath all the new ideas we pursued and the reforms that we enacted, our distant era as a sovereign nation in the promised land continued to affect us. Like the genes within a woman’s eggs, like the “information” that remains intact within her as she curls her hair or — God forbid — loses an arm, our distant past in Israel remained within us. We changed ourselves in many ways and over many generations. But our Israelite DNA has shaped us even as we changed.

The fact that Judea and Samaria were at the core of the Israelite sovereign kingdoms is, to some extent, an accident of history. The Israelite tribes failed to conquer the flat areas of Canaan (the coastal plane and the valleys), where the Canaanite kings could use their chariots effectively. And so they originally settled mainly in the mountain ranges that came to be known as Judea and Samaria, not due to intent but due to failure.

But accident or not, the fact remains that our history as a united people under our own leadership was formed in those steep, rocky hills that Airbnb had singled out in their statement. And the stories that took place in those hills, and carry within them the topography that shaped them, continue, in their turn, to shape us.

If the ancient Israelites hadn’t needed to defend the mountain range by stopping the Philistines from working their way up the hills of the Shefelah (plains), David wouldn’t have needed to fight Goliath in Emek Haela.

If the ancient Israelite tribes hadn’t needed to find a way to protect themselves in the hills, where walled cities were difficult to build, they might have never developed the intensely interwoven and interdependent clan system, where neighboring families were allied and rose to each other’s defense.

If the ancient Israelites hadn’t been so clannish and dependent upon their immediate neighbors, while at the same time so removed from other Israelite tribes by mountains and wadis, it would not have been so hard to unite them into one nation, under one leadership. In that case, we wouldn’t have inherited the stories of Samuel and Saul and David, and the difficulties they faced in creating a united nation. We wouldn’t have inherited the stories about the tensions that eventually tore the kingdom in two in the days of David’s grandson. And, most crucially, we wouldn’t have inherited the stories about the kingdom of Judea and the kingdom of Samaria, and how they still saw each other as kin, and sometimes helped each other out.

These stories continue to shape us today.

For as long as we continue to cherish the image of the smaller man standing up to the giant, we will continue to be shaped by our Israelite past.

For as long as we continue to cherish Jewish solidarity, we will continue to be shaped by our Israelite past.

For a long as we continue to bemoan our inner disputes and care for each other even as we live apart and disagree, we will continue to be shaped by our Israelite past.

Furthermore: for as long as we pursue the ideal of Tikkun Olam, “redeeming the world,” we will continue to be shaped by our Israelite past.

Many Jews — both in Israel and in the Diaspora — see Tikkun Olam as one of the central differences between Israeli Judaism and Diaspora Judaism. Some would go as far as to call it either a flimsy or a superior substitute for the more particularistic land-based Jewish Identity in Israel.

But the truth is that the idea of Tikkun Olam isn’t alien to life in Israel: We inherited it from the Israelite prophets and their vision for Israel’s future. “Yea, He saith, ‘It is too light a thing for you to be My servant, to establish the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the scions of Israel,”wrote Isaiah. “And I shall submit you as a light unto the nations, to be My salvation until the end of the earth.” When Jewish life will be restored in Israel in all its glory, the prophet promised, it will enlighten — and thus redeem — the world.

And so, when Jews pursue social justice in Boston and Los Angeles and Toronto, they continue a made-in-ancient-Israel project. Sure, they pursue a different flavor of Judaism than their Israeli counterparts. But they drink from the very well that feeds the Zionist endeavor, too: the visions, and achievements which we inherited from our Israelite past.

And for as long as we will continue to be shaped by our Israelite past, it will be the very territories that are now “at the core” of our dispute with the Palestinians that will continue to shape us. Because they are at the core of our identity, as well.

And this is why Airbnb’s statement bothers me so much. Their selective policy, their betrayal of their mission — they all rankle. But what bothers me the most is that Airbnb chose to single out the very places that have shaped us, and still do.

I am well aware that a lasting peace will require compromises, and painful ones. I am well aware that the future might demand a parting from the places of our past. But it is not for strangers like Airbnb to make this call for us. It is not for them, who speak in such polite and clinical terms about “the core of the dispute,” to make decisions about what is at our own core, and our collective heart.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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