The dilemma was whether to lie and give my official address in Jerusalem, or to trust to the common sense of the “coronavirus team” that receives Israelis returning to the country and tell them the truth: I have an excellent place for two-week isolation, in an apartment in the city of El Bireh, near Ramallah. I will return alone in the car that awaits me at the terminal exit, and the refrigerator is filled with stuffed vine leaves prepared by my girlfriends, along with an abundance of fruit and vegetables they bought for me.
I chose the truth, which is how I ended up in a hotel – “and in a settlement of all places,” as a Jewish friend in Jerusalem and a Palestinian friend in Ramallah commented mockingly, without coordination.
Spoiler: Ahead of serving the full isolation term in the Dan Jerusalem Hotel, I can reveal that the experience is far from terrible. On the contrary. The mountainous landscape and Jerusalem breeze work their magic, and the large communal balcony on each floor also helps banish any comparison to a detention facility.
The flexibility and judiciousness of the responsible personnel from the Home Front Command also play an important part. The formal orders obligate everyone to stay in their room at all times, as someone announced on the public address system several times (in Hebrew, English and Russian). However, parents with small children get a special dispensation to visit the lobby and esplanades for 20 minutes, though no one stands there with a stopwatch.
Every morning and evening, a group of men gathers on the fourth-floor communal balcony to pray together and listen to a dvar Torah, an hour and a half each time. No one regiments the place or prevents the prayer and study from developing into casual conversation.
There are also some who smoke outside, as it’s prohibited in the hotel rooms. And if the worshippers and smokers are allowed to go out, what’s to stop the joggers from jogging, or the walkers from walking, on the esplanades of the various floors? Or the readers from reading between the palm tree and eucalyptus? Or someone from doing Qigong as the sun sets?
There was only one time – when a few young women sat too close to each other around a table and chatted without face masks – that the Home Front Command personnel came down from the floor above, broke up the gathering and reminded the young women that violators of the isolation orders were liable to a fine of 5,000 shekels ($1,450).
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Living the miracle
Around 350 of the hotel’s approximately 500 rooms were occupied this past week by people in isolation. The maximum in each room is three guests, and a family of nine – the largest till now – just left a couple of weeks ago. I estimate that fewer than 10 percent of the guests wander around between the esplanades. The particularly sociable folks engage in face-to-face conversations (usually with face masks). This is how we learn about the young man from Jerusalem who donated a kidney to his brother and as a present went on vacation with a friend to Brooklyn at this very moment – and enjoyed himself very much. And about the emissary, Brazilian-born of Moroccan origin, who works among the descendants of the Marranos in Portugal; and an emissary couple who returned from Belarus, where they drew Jews closer to Judaism; and another person who is doing likewise in Mexico.
In this way, too, we learn about the woman who plans to have gum surgery here, because in the United States – where she has lived for the past 20 years – it’s 10 times as expensive. And we hear about the widow who is not a citizen and is not Jewish, but received a special entry permit in order to fulfill the last wish of her Israeli husband: to be buried in Israel.
There’s this Russian-Israeli-Canadian, accompanied by his son – a 15-year-old Israeli citizen who is to see the country for the first time in his life. And there’s also the Israeli-American fellow who lived here as a boy for only eight years, but remembers Hebrew well and is even careful to pronounce the guttural letters chet and ayin correctly. His father was born in Jerusalem’s Old City, the descendant of a family who came here from Baghdad around 500 years ago. He spoke Arabic, hobnobbed with Arabs, took his son to Gaza and Nablus.
One guest, Belarus-born, sought to reassure me on my second or third day here. He told me that miracles that occur only in Israel will save us from the looming catastrophe, which will annihilate about two-thirds of humanity. Accordingly, he’s also sorry that only Jews who are Israeli citizens are allowed to come to the country in this period. He calculates that the third stage of Gog and Magog will take place in the next two to three years, on the basis of the prophecy of the Chofetz Chaim (aka Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) – meaning that all the Jews who are not citizens of Israel will remain outside the pale of miracles.
I dispensed with the question of whether the miracles also apply to non-Jews who were born in the country and are also its residents. Like my friend from a refugee camp in Nablus, whose family comes from a village near Lydda and was stuck in the United States for a month. He’s one of a few thousand Palestinians who, when the coronavirus spread, were unable to return to their homes in the West Bank because Jordan had closed all its borders, and they’re not permitted to go via Ben Gurion Airport, near Lydda (other than in special cases and with special coordination, which ended when the Palestinian Authority declared it was stopping civil coordination with Israel). It was not until this month that the glad tidings arrived: Jordan is now allowing Palestinians who were trapped abroad to return to the West Bank, little by little.
Well, maybe this is already one of the miracles: Since the beginning of May, there have been only two confirmed cases of the coronavirus among people who were sent to isolation sites in Israel. It may well be that a third case was just recorded in my hotel. As this was being written, they were waiting for a final answer.
From the beginning of April until last week, approximately 6,800 people have been placed in isolation in hotels and motels, the vast majority of them Israelis returning from abroad. The army source who spoke to me doesn’t have data about the number of confirmed cases in the isolation hotels in April. Nor about their number in the first months of the epidemic in Israel (February and March). “In those two months, 75 percent of those who were here in isolation [many of whom returned from yeshivas in Brooklyn] turned out to be sick,” a person from the Dan hotel’s management team said.
Two hotels are presently in use to accommodate people in isolation: one in Tel Aviv, which is earmarked for new immigrants; and the one in Jerusalem for returning Israeli citizens (at one stage it housed recovering patients).
At the height of the first wave, 12 hotels were allocated for isolation (in addition to 12 hotels for those recovering, which is still the number). At first, everyone who came back from abroad was sent to an isolation hotel; now it’s only those who can’t prove that their conditions of isolation meet the requirements. For example, a young mother and her son, who arrived with me on a flight from the United States, were not allowed to proceed from the airport to the home of the toddler’s father. It turned out that there is no mobile phone reception in the room that was earmarked for isolation. The home of the sister of another Israeli-American woman, in the Petah Tikva area, doesn’t have a separate shower for the person in isolation. Which is how I met her as she viewed the gilded Dome of the Rock in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
And your correspondent? I got stuck at the stage of providing my address.
As required, immediately after alighting from the plane I entered the Health Ministry site and started to fill out the online form for self-reporting about home isolation. In the location slot I typed “El Bireh,” but a red-letter message appeared on the screen: “You must choose an entry from the list.” I chose to speak with a flesh-and-blood person from the coronavirus team, whose personnel roamed the passport control hall and helped those who were confused or were having trouble filling out the online form.
I found out afterward that the team consists of representatives from the Health Ministry, Magen David Adom (Israel’s counterpart to the Red Cross) and the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority. But I don’t know who was who.
The young woman I turned to said she would have to consult with her superior. The superior listened with half an ear and said he would have to consult with his superior. The superior arrived, and I explained to her that my apartment in Jerusalem does not have proper conditions for isolation and that I have a letter from the editor of Haaretz confirming that, for purposes of work, I rent an apartment in El Bireh.
She listened patiently and replied, “Just this morning I checked [with a senior official whose name I have forgotten] and was told that traveling to the Palestinian Authority areas for isolation is not allowed. I didn’t allow an Arab citizen to travel to his apartment there. And obviously I can’t treat you differently. I must behave with equality. Right? In addition, we don’t want to harm the PA. Right? There’s a rise in rates of infection there. So speak to the soldiers in the hamal and they’ll slot you into a hotel.”
The hamal – a Hebrew abbreviation for “war room,” the first of two in my journey into isolation – is a roped-off table in the same passport control hall. My impression is that it was the only place in the hall where 2-meter social distancing was practiced. A soldier from the Home Front Command told me they were waiting until they collected people on three flights: from New York, Istanbul and Kiev. Another soldier told me to type on the online form the address of the Dan Hotel (formerly the Hyatt) at 32 Lehi St., French Hill, Jerusalem. “In the meantime, help yourself to sandwiches and water,” she said, pointing to a table heaped with those items, and I dispensed with the history lesson.
I didn’t tell her that the hotel was built on Palestinian land that was expropriated in January 1968. And it follows that I didn’t go on to relate that the land belongs to residents of Lifta: their handsome stone homes stand empty in the village of that name at the western entrance to Jerusalem, while their land stretches to Mount Scopus. Some of them built homes here, north of the Old City, before 1948; others built them in this area that became part of the Kingdom of Jordan, when Israel did not allow them to return to the village after the 1948 war. Less than half a year after the 1967 war and its conquests, Israel also expropriated the lands that remained to them, for public purposes.
“Now I am the public,” I apologized to an acquaintance – one of the owners of the land that was plundered. Because it was plundered, and because Israel forbade even the expansion of the existing houses by adding more stories, he is renting in East Jerusalem and pays $1,500 a month. And he still hopes to return to his home in the village of Lifta where he was born and lived until the age of 8, in 1948.
When I arrived in my room as a member of “the public,” I got a call from war room No. 2 – the one in the hotel. There are currently 177 reservists serving across Israel performing coronavirus tasks, in addition to about a hundred from the Medical Corps. Each hotel has around 12 reservists. Each hotel also has a war room with a commander and, above them, the commander of the hotel. He/she serves three weeks and then is replaced by another reservist, who learns the ropes from the outgoing officer.
The war room is responsible for the routine handling of the guests. For example, getting medications from drugstores and liaising with physicians. The hotel commander is responsible for communication and coordination with Home Front Command headquarters. But at least “our” commander today, Sharon Abargil, 45, from Netivot, is very much involved with the day-to-day life of the hotel guests and knows them.
“When we first arrived, something was amiss with our credit card,” related an Israeli-American couple who came for a summer visit. “We needed diapers and milk for our son. Sharon immediately bought the things for us, even though we didn’t have the full amount in cash to give him.”
This is his second tour of reserve duty since the start of the epidemic. A few days ago, he went to help with the opening of a new place for recovering patients. He says he adopted the flexible spirit introduced by his predecessor. He speaks twice a day with a blind person who’s in isolation, and twice a day to a guest with epilepsy. He issued an exit permit to someone who needed urgent dental care, and to an Israeli American whose sister is dying in a hospital. He knows about the panic attacks suffered by one of the young men in isolation, and as we were speaking (at the hotel entrance, with masks, 3 meters apart), he was summoned urgently to that young man “because there’s a crisis situation.”
The female reservist who called me from the war room on the first day I arrived took an interest in how I was faring, wished me good health, said I should turn to her with every request and every problem, and asked where I live.
“In El Bireh,” I replied, explaining why. She summed up: “Ah, so you don’t live in the country.” Once more I dispensed with the lesson, this time in political geography. I didn’t say that this land is one geographical unit from the sea to the river, irrespective of origin and demography. I overcame my desire to say that if I had replied that I live in the settlement of Beit El, which is 2 kilometers from my apartment as the crow flies, that would be considered “in the country.” Nor did I brief her about the fact that Beit El is built on lands that were plundered from El Bireh (and from the surrounding villages).
I did tell one of my neighbors that the hotel is on expropriated Palestinian land. “That’s already politics,” he said. He came to Israel at age 19 from Morocco, and noted how good the relations with the Arabs were there. “Not like here.” He was discharged from the career army just a few months ago, and is one of the very few hotel guests who didn’t return from abroad. His daughter is ill with the coronavirus, along with a few dozen more pupils from her school. The conditions at home weren’t suitable for isolation for him and his son, so they’re here. They look more like brothers, and they can teach everyone how to take advantage of this time and enjoy yourself. “My schedule is full,” he told me: prayer and religious study twice a day; running twice a day; and training in the room once daily. There is also Gemara study with his son (“He teaches me”) and learning how to play the guitar.
The first time I heard his voice was when he explained to those bringing the food that he couldn’t eat the hotel’s meat because it’s not halak (referring to a specific Sephardi kosher requirement). Three times a day they make the rounds with a cart, distributing plastic-wrapped meals to all of the guests. (Nothing can be done about it, I was told by the hotel, which prepares the meals itself: it’s by order of the Health Ministry.) At lunchtime they knock on the door to announce that the hot portion is waiting on the doorsill. I get vegan food, and the lunch meal is filling and even tasty. I asked not to get breakfast or supper: the industrial hummus is inedible and full of preservatives, the white rolls unnecessary and I don’t like the soy-based delicacies.
Another neighbor, a young lawyer who works all the time from her room, receives vegetarian meals – but not for ideological or religious reasons: she is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and is not used to the taste of the meat served here.
A crew of six men and women – half of them speak Russian, the other half Arabic – clean the rooms once the occupants have vacated them after two weeks, collect the garbage, once a week place the towels and sheets in two plastic bags outside the rooms, and then collect the bags with the used sheets.
The hotel currently employs between 50 and 70 people, about 20 percent of its staff in normal times. Many chose to go on furlough by themselves, I was told, for fear of becoming infected. A few came back to work, “because there is no choice.” And at least one of the workers is from a Lifta family whose land here was expropriated for public purposes.