OlehStay: An Online Hospitality Service Not Settling for Discrimination
Airbnb, the unicorn startup functioning as a home rental site, is currently active in 81,000 cities around the world. Trailing only Uber in being the most valuable startup, Forbes estimates the company to be valued at $38 million. At the end of 2018, after receiving pressure from Palestinian officials and anti-settlement advocates, Airbnb decided to remove nearly 200 listings, located in Israel’s West Bank, from the application. Many consider these settlements, captured in the war of 1967, to be a violation of international law, and have deemed the territories “occupied,” and unethical. Airbnb stated that they wrestled with this issue and struggled to find the right approach, but spent “considerable time” consulting experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that led them to this decision, leaving many Israeli and U.S. officials outraged.
Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, promoted suggested that all West Bank homeowners who list their properties on Airbnb to file lawsuits against the company under Israel’s anti-boycott law. He added that he would further discuss the issue with American officials to see whether the decision violated an anti-boycott legislation that exists in 25 states. Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Kohelet Policy Forum, suggested that Airbnb was singling Israel out, and their motive to remove these listings were was simply not due to the “occupation,” but rather was a discriminatory and anti-semitic act. He added that Airbnb has listings in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, Turkish-occupied Cyprus and other controversial territories. Vice President Mike Pence criticized the company’s decision, and said their actions had “no place” in the market.
In 2014, Airbnb removed approximately 4,000 listings in Crimea. Although many have argued that today’s issue is similar, it clearly is not. Their previous decision followed U.S. and international sanctions after Russia annexed the region from Ukraine; today, however, there are no U.S. sanctions against Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Airbnb now faces lawsuits in both the U.S. and Israel. The city of Beverly Hills passed a resolution that called for a global boycott against Airbnb. In Florida, governor-elect Ron DeSantis said he was going to reconsider state policy allowing employees to stay at Airbnb during business trips. Illinois governor Bruce Rauner also challenged Airbnb with his letter to the state’s investment policy board determining seeking to determine whether their actions break state law against aiding boycott against Israel.
It is in light of these events that OlehStay, an Airbnb alternative for Israel, was launched.
Noam Beltran, a current Yeshiva University student, and Joey Sokol, a U.S. native who immigrated to Israel, launched their website, www.OlehStay.com, ten days after Airbnb announced its decision to de-list properties in the disputed territories. OlehStay, similar to Airbnb, operates as an online marketplace and hospitality service. Members can use the website to arrange temporary lodging at rates far cheaper than a hotel. Hosts are often able to make more money offering their homes on rental services, like OlehStay, as opposed to renting their home to a full-time tenant. In an interview with The Times of Israel, Sokol mentioned that their motive was specifically in response to Airbnb’s decisions, hence the websites slogan: “Any listing, anywhere in Israel.” Sokol added, “We are on a mission to be the alternative to Airbnb in Israel and eventually around the world.”
Israeli homeowners, as well as U.S. and Israeli politicians, are not the only ones unhappy with Airbnb’s decision; Sokol added that renters around the world are unhappy with Airbnb’s new policy. He added that people in general are now looking for an alternative service, and to accommodate the changing landscape, he and Beltran are working hard to expand their platform as quickly as possible.
As of mid-December, Sokol stated that OlehStay had dozens of listings around Israel. Among those listings, two were located in Gush Etzion, as well as others in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Fifty people signed up after the site started off with an introductory post in a Facebook group called “Secret Jerusalem.” Still, Sokol was unsure as to whether the trend of Jews listing and renting would continue.
According to co-founder Beltran, OlehStay has 1,100 users to date, with dozens more signing up daily. “We have almost 40 listed properties on the website and are working with management companies in Israel and Europe to create a more robust network of properties.” If things go as planned, the OlehStay platform will host over 200 properties by the end of next month. The company is receiving tremendous amounts of support from both U.S. and Israeli communities, and is happy to be advocating for such a noble cause. Beltran also noted that they have received requests from individuals and companies in Europe, Canada and the United States to expand.