Ben-Gurion and Joshua Slept Here

Hotels excite the imagination and provide an illusion of home-like shelter. They are stations on routes of migrations and adventures, escapes and fantasies.

Chaim Weizmann once said that luxury hotels made him feel safe. Indeed, some of the most glorious chapters in the history of the Zionist movement were written in the lobbies and suites of the Dorchester in London and the Saint Regis in New York, Weizmann’s favorite hotels.

The heads of the Zionist movement would convene for important discussions at the baths in Baden-Baden and the banks of the Rhine in Basel. David Ben-Gurion developed a great passion for hotels in Israel, from the Dead Sea to the foot of Mount Hermon: the President in Jerusalem, the Sharon in Herzliya and the Galei Kinneret in Tiberias.

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In fact, it seems there isn’t a hotel in the country not entitled to boast that at one time or another Ben-Gurion was among its guests, notes Dr. Pedro Zuniga in one of the most splendid history books published here recently.

Zuniga, a 57-year-old hotelier who teaches hotel management at the Hebrew University business school, invested 11 years in researching the history of the khans, the hospices, the hostels, the inns, the pensions, the guesthouses, the boardinghouses, the bed-and-breakfasts and the hotels of the Land of Israel, starting with the Theodosius Hostel built next to the Kidron stream in 494 C.E. He could have begun with the house of Rahab the Prostitute in Jericho, where she hosted Joshua’s spies.

Hotels at one and the same time excite the imagination and provide an illusion of home-like shelter. Their magic also derives from the endless stream of people who come and go in them, who meet one another in noncommittal fleeting encounters, as well as from the innumerable fateful dramas played out in their rooms: from sex to crimes, from politics to business. They are stations on routes of migrations and adventures, escapes and fantasies.

It’s inevitable of course to think about the pampering pleasures of royal suites, but the beginnings in the Land of Israel apparently bore more of a resemblance to the experience described by a pilgrim who in 1598 spent a night at a Nablus khan: “This is a terrible hostelry, a refuge for thieves, the roof leaks and pig droppings are scattered all around. There are no doors or windows that can be closed at night. A horror.”

Zuniga knows about and mentions in his book more than 2,000 other hotels. Though many of them no longer exist, there is one hotel that has been operating on the same site since 1871, the Petra Hotel, near the Jaffa Gate, at the entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem. It has changed owners and names a number of times, but in the 19th century it was considered a respectable hotel.

That’s when the Thomas Cook travel agency sent its clients there and the British Consulate recommended the place to its guests. Today it is a hostel for young people, about which the popular Internet lodgings site TripAdvisor says succinctly: “Check other hotels.”

The hotels of yore had names that promised luxury and romance, like Palace, Majestic, Kings, Victoria, Savoy, San Remo and Grand. But more than anything else, they called themselves Eden. All of them offered their guests something more beautiful than the reality; in that sense the story of the hotel industry in the Land of Israel reflects the history of the land itself.

The book takes its Hebrew title from Jeremiah 9:1: “Oh that I were in the wilderness, in a lodging place of wayfaring men.” The two volumes ‏(in Hebrew, edited by Ehud Amir, Kavim Publishing‏) are splendidly printed and make use of Zuniga’s private collection: He has not only eye-catching photographs but also business cards, stamps, menus, bills and advertisements.

“I am certain my guests will be satisfied,” promised Sarah Hoz, who had a pension on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Hoz was one of the many women who developed the hotel industry in this country.

In all the cities of the land, small “pensions” managed by women flourished, such as the one in Tel Aviv run by Frieda Moskovitz and Kaete Dan, the latter of whose name now graces the large hotel chain. Miriam Hachnochi ran the Atlantic Hotel in Tel Aviv and Lotte Eisenberg ran the Galei Kinneret in Tiberias.

It is common today to debate the real role of women among the implementers of the Zionist project in Eretz Israel, including the laborers of the Second Aliyah wave of immigration and the inhabitants of the kibbutzim. Here and there individual women stood out in nearly every area of life, but the hotel industry emerges in Zuniga’s book as one in which women specially made their mark, as much as men did, and in many cases more.