October 17, 2019

Calm amidst the violence in Israel

On the day the world was parsing Bibi Netanyahu’s suggestion that the notoriously anti-Semitic Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin Al-Husseini, was responsible for Hitler’s Holocaust, I was among a group of journalists touring Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, which had just been named the top luxury hotel in the Middle East by Condé Nast’s Readers’ Choice Awards. 

This hotel, in fact, was once the mufti’s own prize hotel.

It reopened last year following a seven-year, $50 million expansion and renovation, but to Israelis it’s known as having been built by the mufti as his crowning achievement in luxury, his Palace Hotel. Al-Husseini opened the hotel in 1929 with great fanfare — it had an elevator! — but the business was crushed five years later when the King David Hotel opened just around the corner. 

The Palace Hotel, opened in 1929 by the Mufti of Jerusalem, was renovated and expanded into the Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria. Photo is public domain

The British took over the building for a while, then after Israel’s independence in 1948, it served as Israeli government offices. It even housed a tax museum for many years, and you can imagine what an attraction that was. 

Today, the crystal-chandelier-clad Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem that beat out Qatar for glam is owned by the Orthodox Canadian Reichman family and is glatt kosher throughout, so many of its guests are Orthodox. I witnessed several shidduchs-in-progress in the grand courtyard.

Take that, mufti. 

I was in Israel at the height of the knifing terror, a guest of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism and the Hilton Hotels of Israel, of which the Waldorf Astoria is a showpiece. It was a trip full of juxtapositions: The news screamed of conflict. Life in Israel continued apace.

I saw great luxury on this trip — including on a tour of the “presidential suite” at the Waldorf, which has not yet housed a U.S. president but does lay claim to former House Speaker John Boehner having slept there. (Still less presidential, but perhaps more glitzy, the hotel has also hosted Hollywood celebs Sarah Silverman and John Turturro.) I also witnessed the insistence of Israelis to proceed with life, even when life threats are rupturing any sense of equanimity.

Israel is a place where your most helpful waiter will wear a nametag identifying him as Mohammed; where business partners sometimes live on opposite sides of partition barriers; where trust is a necessity, even when at every turn your bag is examined to check for weapons. Caution is a bylaw, but so is the insistence on normality. I took my cue from the Israelis and walked the streets, went to bars at night, visited the museums and shuks and ate in the restaurants. 

During this time of “the situation” — long the Israeli equivalent of the Irish term “the troubles” — there was great sadness but also a deliberate decision to move on. Some people stayed home — restaurants that might have been packed were, in many cases, only partially full — but others went out. Jerusalem’s Old City was not shy of tourists, especially the Christian pilgrims visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was filled to the brim. The Western Wall, normally a major attraction, was especially quiet, however, and the Mamilla mall, a beloved attraction of Arab and Jew alike, looked like half its clientele was staying home — the Arab half.

In Tel Aviv, however, crowds were far closer to normal. I attended a gala event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Hilton Tel Aviv that served as a benefit for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of conductor and pianist Yaron Gottfried. Every seat was filled in the cavernous ballroom. And a visit to bars and clubs late one night showed no signs of revelers tapering off. Just try to tell Tel Aviv to stay home, and see what happens.

In Israel, as in the U.S., people blame a lot of any situation on “the media.” Too much talk of violent protests here? Blame the media. Too much talk of knifings there? The same. And what blew that story out of the headlines? Rain. (Sound like home?) A giant storm hit just as we were leaving Tel Aviv for a visit to Eilat, with brief stops planned at Masada and the Dead Sea. (Who says you can’t see all of Israel’s highlights in an afternoon?) Given the downpour, our veteran guide, Nathan Shapiro, had to decide how to navigate soaked roads to get us to a shuttered Masada mountain — not even the cable car was running — and to the Dead Sea, which was beautifully framed by a rainbow, and then on to Eilat. 

If there was a moment of exponential tension on the trip, it came as Shapiro decided whether we would be able to take an alternate route from the one everyone normally takes from the healing waters of the Dead Sea to the southernmost Israeli resort of Eilat, normally about a two-hour drive. The direct highway was closed by flooding, and the alternate route involved cutting over to the southwestern border and traveling alongside the Sinai. The road that night was dark, entirely unlit, and for most of it, we were completely alone. If you looked over to the right, you could see only border fence, and an occasional Egyptian guard post. This was before the Russian plane was downed, likely by a bomb, but even then I was very aware that ISIS might not be too far off.

And yet, carrying his merry band of journalists, Shapiro proceeded in good humor, and we approached Eilat watching a lightshow of lightning outside our windshield. The next day bloomed bright. Business as usual. Witnessing the Israeli resolve to move forward through “the situation” — and the rain — shows how chutzpah can override worry, and Israeli life will never be undone.

Susan Freudenheim is executive editor of the Jewish Journal.