All the lonely people

Changes in ownership at Arnona’s former Diplomat Hotel throw elderly Russian immigrants into jeopardy.

The US Consulate, on Jerusalem’s Agron Street (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The US Consulate, on Jerusalem’s Agron Street
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On a cold morning a few days ago, two old women shlepping their shabby carts full of vegetables from the shuk reached the stop for the No. 7 bus at the corner of Agrippas Street, facing the entrance to Mahaneh Yehuda. The contrast between their out-of-fashion outfits and their well-groomed general appearance (complete with lipstick, manicured nails and blonde hair) easily revealed their origins, even before one could hear them speaking in Russian.
The pair are tenants of the former Diplomat Hotel in the Arnona neighborhood, an Absorption Ministry facility for elderly immigrants, mostly from the former Soviet Union. They seemed relieved to find out that they hadn’t missed the bus, and decided they had enough time to take a short rest on the bench nearby.
Yelena and her friend (who didn’t give her name) are two of the senior residents who arrived here during the great wave of immigration from the FSU in the 1990s.
Many came without families, or, for various reasons, remained in Jerusalem while their children went to live elsewhere in the country.
Since they have been here for more than 10 years, they are not considered olim anymore, and therefore are not entitled to special newcomer rights. Elderly and without any pension income, their status, which has remained a bit unclear, puts them under the shared responsibility of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry and the municipality.
But there is more.
The former luxury hotel overlooking the Judean Desert has been acquired as an estate by the US Consulate in Jerusalem. According to the contract, the whole building should be handed over to the Americans by June 2016, free of any tenants or furniture. For the majority of elderly former olim living there, this is perceived as no less than a death sentence, as they don’t have anywhere else to go.
They cannot afford even the lowest rent in the city.
Most of them barely speak Hebrew and have no relatives in the country. The municipality, through its absorption administration, is the only body thus far that has cared for them, providing some social activities and following up on their situation.
Asked how she is dealing with the imminent evacuation from what has become her home for the past two decades, Yelena at first waves her hand in a gesture of questioning, and then says, in shaky Hebrew with a heavy Russian accent, “Perhaps it’s better that we all die.”
Her friend nods in agreement with the harsh utterance.
Elderly Russian olim moved from one place to another with very little attention to their real and personal needs are not a novelty in the city. Some 10 years ago, a very similar situation occurred in the Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood, when a group of elderly former olim from Russia were required to leave a building – a kind of home for the elderly – that they had been living in for years. The request came from the owner of the building, who simply wanted to raise the rent he received from the ministry.
Then-minister Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beytenu) came to meet the tenants, accompanied by party head Avigdor Liberman. The two promised that none of the tenants would have to leave, and reached a new agreement with the owners. Life went back to normal within a few days.
What makes this case in Arnona so different from the story in Pisgat Ze’ev? Many things. First, in Arnona there is no landlord seeking more money. Rather, we have the American Consulate, which doesn’t understand how an estate lawfully acquired could not be delivered on time because nobody has found a solution for some 500 residents still living there.
Second, the number of persons concerned is much larger than was the case in Pisgat Ze’ev. Even if a solution could be found to move the tenants to some other facility, there is no such place vacant in the city for so many people.
For the moment, the municipality, through the absorption administration and the neighborhood community center, continues to provide a few social and cultural activities for the Diplomat’s tenants, through the community coordinator. But as a source at the municipality involved with the situation explained, “This is not a solution for the growing anxiety of these people, who live in such uncertainty and insecurity regarding their near future.
“Also, you can’t move old people like furniture – transferring them to another facility should be done with a professional approach, with the participation of social workers specializing in elderly persons’ needs, in their language. None of these things are being done, nor are they even planned.”
Inside the Diplomat building, the tenants live two to a room – roommates or a couple – on the modest stipend provided by the National Insurance Institute.
None of them have any capacity to fund a privately rented apartment.
Without the full support of the government – whether through the Immigration and Absorption Ministry or any other office – these people will not survive, says the source at Safra Square.
THE MATTER could become a diplomatic issue with the American representatives here.
“The building has to be delivered by June 20,” notes the source.
“The city or the government should have organized a solution months ago, yet nothing of substance has been done on the ground. What will happen on June 20? Will the prime minister have to deal with a firm and direct request from the Americans to see that a building lawfully acquired by them is evacuated by its Israeli citizens? “Do we want to reach that point?” Meanwhile, anxiety and rumors among the tenants are reaching a fever pitch.
“We don’t know what will happen to us. Nobody talks to us. We are totally abandoned,” Yelena told me.
Now 79, she was an English teacher in Russia. She feels her daily life is miserable – and was so even before this new crisis. She manages to get some books in Russian and English at a used-book shop in the city center.
Despite the fear of terrorism, she travels by bus at least three times a week to Mahaneh Yehuda, where “the fruits are so beautiful, just like we were told in Russia before we came here.”
Asked if she regrets her decision to come to Israel, considering her present situation, Yelena hesitates a few seconds.
“That’s life. It’s not good to be an old Russian woman,” she says simply.