It could never be confused with a Trump property: It lacks the glitz and the gold plating, not to mention the height. But there was never any doubt that when he pulled into Jerusalem on Monday, Donald Trump would be lodging at the King David Hotel. Even as the competition for the dollars of luxury travelers increases – with the addition just during the past decade of both the Mamilla Hotel and the Waldorf Astoria, both within walking distance of the 87-year-old King David – it’s still clear that the latter is the capital’s premier hostelry.
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Trump, whose entourage will take over the entire hotel, will be the sixth American chief executive to visit Israel after Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. All of them visited Jerusalem and all stayed at the King David, although Clinton also spent the night at two other hotels in the neighborhood – the Laromme (today the Inbal) in 1996 and the Jerusalem Hilton (today the David Citadel) in 1998 – during his four presidential visits to Israel.
The King David predates the state, having first opened its doors for a trial run on December 20, 1930, when Palestine was ruled by the British mandatory government. The driving force behind the hotel’s creation was Elie Nissim Mosseri, an Egyptian Jew who was a director of the National Bank of Egypt and who assembled a group called Palestine Hotels Ltd. to assist him in buying a 4.5-acre lot from the Greek Orthodox Church and building a luxury hotel on the site.
At the time, what is now called King David Street was known as Julian’s Way, the thoroughfare paved by the British to the west of the Old City after they conquered Jerusalem in 1917. (The street was named for the Roman emperor Julian, who allowed the Jews to return to the city during his brief rule in the fourth century C.E.)
Mosseri’s large family, which had emigrated to Egypt from Italy early in the 19th century, had a large role in the Egyptian economy, with assets in agriculture, cement production, the film industry and, most significantly, banking. Banque Mosseri, one of the country’s larger financial institutions, also managed, through its subsidiary the Egyptian Hotels Company, some of Egypt’s most storied guest lodgings including the Mena House near the pyramids.
The designer of the King David was the Swiss architect Emil Vogt, with the interior design overseen by his compatriot J.P. Hoffschmid, who devised an ancient Semitic-style motif that was supposed to evoke the reign of King David.
Both Jews and Arabs participated in the construction of the hotel but, according to a 2007 article in Eretz magazine, five days after its official opening in early January 1931, several of Jerusalem’s leading Arab families placed an ad in a local newspaper calling on their fellow Arabs not to patronize the hotel, which they charged was part of a Zionist plot to ruin the city’s Arab-owned hotels. For their part, officials at the Jewish Agency complained that the hotel’s service staff favored the employment of Arabs over Jews.
Local boycott aside, from its very first years, the King David was the hotel of choice for visitors to Jerusalem, who included many travelers from Egypt. Additionally, after the start of World War II in late 1939, the British government appropriated more than half the hotel’s rooms to serve as offices, half of them for its military headquarters in the country and half for the civilian secretariat in Mandatory Palestine.
The King David, and Jerusalem in general, were kept busy during the war, with a number of heads of state including King George II of Greece taking up residence in the hotel after being sent into exile, in his case by German occupiers of his country.
Only in the year following World War II, however, did the King David come under attack. That was on July 22, 1946, of course, when the hotel’s southern wing, which housed the British offices, was blown up by a bomb set by the Irgun, the Zionist militia led by Menachem Begin.
The idea of bombing the hotel was originally a joint plan of the right-wing Irgun and its establishment counterpart the Haganah, and a warning was sent to the British that, had it been received in time, would have let the staff vacate the hotel before the blast.
As it turned out, 91 people were killed and 45 wounded, including hotel staff members and innocent bystanders. World opinion was outraged and even David Ben-Gurion, whose Haganah in the end was not a party to the plot, dubbed the Irgun the “enemy of the Jewish people.” But there’s little doubt that the bombing accelerated the British decision to withdraw from Palestine, which it did less than two years later in May 1948.
The lockdown that Jerusalem now anticipates in the coming days as the presidential entourage of 1,000 swoops in may cause some local people to briefly see the Americans as an enemy of the Jewish people. But one can be certain that the security measures to be invoked around the King David Hotel are likely to make it, as least briefly, one of the safest venues on earth.
NBC News reported on Sunday, for example, that the hotel’s operations manager, Sheldon Ritz, described the $5,700-per-night presidential suite as bomb-proof, bulletproof and gas-proof.
“If the whole hotel blows up, the suite will come down in one piece, so maybe a few broken bones, but they will be alive,” Ritz cheerfully predicted.
Hopefully it won’t come to that. And if President Trump is really lucky, maybe some of the hotel’s quiet elegance will rub off on him.