Magnanimous Zionists should save the New Imperial Hotel and Jaffa Gate

Beware. Jerusalem’s history is under attack. Venerable, family-run institutions are threatened. Our holy city’s charming yet delicate urban and spiritual ecosystem risks being disrupted.

By
August 1, 2019 23:44
4 minute read.
Magnanimous Zionists should save the New Imperial Hotel and Jaffa Gate

Magnanimous Zionists should save the New Imperial Hotel and Jaffa Gate. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Dear Ateret Cohanim leaders, Israeli politicians with power in this matter and fellow Zionists,

Beware. Jerusalem’s history is under attack. Venerable, family-run institutions are threatened. Our holy city’s charming yet delicate urban and spiritual ecosystem risks being disrupted. Ateret Cohanim should drop its battle to destroy the New Imperial Hotel. Israeli leaders and Jerusalem municipal officials should step in if they can, while the rest of us should stand up, because we must.

Jerusalem is a patchwork of layers, corners, stories, villages, families. We’re all responsible for its historical preservation. We need stronger city leadership to protect key sites and neighborhoods representing every phase of Jerusalem’s storied past.

In an old-new city that’s forever growing – and excavating – it gets confusing. But we resented Islam’s tradition of imposing mosques on Jewish and Christian holy sites. We mourned Jordan’s violent attempts to eliminate the Jewish presence, when it illegally occupied east Jerusalem starting in 1949. Israel has chosen the opposite path of mutual respect and creative preservation to nurture Jerusalem as an international ecumenical treasure.

It must continue.

I want a strong Jewish presence in the Old City, without squeezing others out. With Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian Quarters, Jerusalem exemplifies the City of Peace, which Israel safeguards gloriously.

One Jerusalem gem dominates the Jaffa Gate area. When the Grand New Hotel was built in 1884, excavations uncovered traces of the Roman conquest, of Herod’s “second wall,” of a cistern which locals declared the pool Batsheva bathed in when she caught King David’s eye.

This Grand New Hotel hosted notable pilgrims, including Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1898, and Gen. Edmund Allenby in 1918. Mohammad Dajani began running the hotel in 1949, renting what he renamed the Citadel Hotel from its owner, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

Now the New Imperial Hotel, it still throbs with history. A Dajani grandson recently restored the lovely stone walls: historic bric-a-brac leaps off them in the hotel’s expansive halls and sitting areas. Dajani’s office, occupied by his son Abu el-Walid Dajani, is majestically cluttered with historic photos.

“Dajani” is a legendary Jerusalem family, keepers of the keys to King David’s Tomb for 800 years. In 2014, Walid’s nephew Dr. Mohammed S. Dajani, an activist for Muslim moderation – Wasatia – accompanied 27 Palestinian students to Auschwitz. Furious, the university union he never belonged to fired him. Hooligans burned his car.

The family hotel and the neighboring Petra Hotel are Palestinian landmarks, Jerusalem landmarks – making them precious to me as a Jerusalemite, an Israeli, a Zionist. The same Ateret Cohanim real estate grab threatens both hotels.

I leave the sordid story of disgraced church officials now on the lam, shell corporations, and tapes suggesting bribery, to the Patriarchate, which is suing to invalidate the 2005 deal offering a 99-year-lease for a preposterously low price, $1.25 million. I leave the second legal question regarding the Dajanis’ tenancy rights to continue operating the hotel, as they have since 1949, to lawyers. I leave the diplomatic questions to experts like Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, the former National Security Council director, who warned that ruining the Jaffa Gate vibe “might create a crisis for relations between Israel and the Christian world” while alienating Vladimir Putin, too.

I’m making the ethical and Zionist case for the government to overrule this smelly sweetheart deal, or for Ateret Cohanim to act priestly, generously, Zionistically, and allow the hotels to continue operating with reasonable rent for the next 99 years.


I SHARE the outrage of the Ateret Cohanim activists at the world’s double standards which tolerate Palestinians killing anyone who sells land to Jews. I share their undoubted fury at the young woman who recently desecrated the Little Western Wall with Jew-hating graffiti and at Palestinian thugs who attacked Mohammed Saud, a Saudi Arabian blogger Israel hosted.

I will match the Ateret Cohanim activists goose bump for goose bump, when celebrating the beauty of returning to our land, restoring Jerusalem, reclaiming properties our ancestors once owned. But within limits.

Arabs built these properties. Keeping them doesn’t ruin our story – it enhances it. Neighbors cannot just demand that their neighbors act neighborly; good neighbors act neighborly, too.

How can I delight in Jerusalem’s openness to all three religions, if we muscle non-Jews out whenever we can? How can I delight in Jerusalem’s historic, layered heritage, if we bulldoze precious sites like the Jaffa Gate entrance area for another yeshiva – or the heart of the German Colony for an unnecessary rail line? How can I delight in our refusal to bully others, if fellow Jews do so?

Why must Walid Dajani lose money hiring lawyers, lose sleep and possibly lose his family’s prized possession? That’s not what I came to Israel to do; that’s not why most Jews moved home.

Having the right to do something doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Even if the courts rule for Ateret Cohanim – why not be generous and let the hotels survive?

Zionism wasn’t just about redeeming the land. It was about building a Jewish democracy that, as Israel’s Proclamation of Independence promises, treats all the land’s inhabitants equally.
Zionism seeks to redeem the Jewish soul, too. Losers press every advantage. Traumatized people demand every inch of land. A mature people, a healing people, a democratic majority – not a desperate minority – acts expansively, wisely. That’s the move Ateret Cohanim should make voluntarily. That’s the compromise Israel’s politicians should impose, if necessary. That’s the mellow magnanimous Zionism we should embrace.

The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.


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