Jerusalem's iconic King David Hotel celebrates 90th anniversary

The oldest luxury hotel in Israel and one of the most veteran hotels in the country, the King David officially opened for business in early 1931.

The majestic King David Hotel in Jerusalem (photo credit: Courtesy)
The majestic King David Hotel in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The two flags in the lobby of Jerusalem’s iconic King David Hotel come as a surprise.  Like all hotels in Israel – other than those being used for quarantined guests – the hotel is officially closed, but in fact has been operating throughout the pandemic in cooperation with Health Ministry regulations.
The famed hotel has still been accommodating visiting heads of state, prime ministers, foreign ministers and various foreign delegations.  For several weeks, it also served as the unofficial office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while the Prime Minister’s Office was undergoing renovations.  It was a natural choice, considering Netanyahu’s frequent visits there over the years to meet with visiting dignitaries.
Whenever the hotel is hosting foreign dignitaries, the flags of their countries are placed in a prominent position in the lobby.  The two flags now were those of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
The oldest luxury hotel in Israel, construction of the King David was completed on December 30, 1930, and officially opened for business in early 1931.
When interviewed last July for The Jerusalem Post’s In Jerusalem supplement, the hotel’s general manager Tamir Kobrin – a native Jerusalemite who was then relatively new, having worked abroad for most of his professional life – was brimming with ideas for the hotel’s 90th anniversary celebrations.
The hotel was then fully closed, and Kobrin apologized to his interviewer for not even being able to offer her a cup of coffee.
But this week, things were different. There were two or three people in the lounge and some half dozen in the coffee shop, where all meals are currently being served.
Due to Health Ministry requirements, the sumptuous buffet breakfasts, for which the King David is famous, have been put on hold until further notice, and guests are served a la carte from a limited menu.
The gala event that the general manager had planned for the hotel’s 90th anniversary has likewise been put on hold indefinitely, although there will be a series of events throughout the year.
Kobrin is cautiously optimistic that change will gradually come during the summer, but during a period of great uncertainty, he is not sure whether tourism will be revived with a boom or a trickle.
Meanwhile, 2021 is starting well with the projected farewell visit by US Vice President Mike Pence, just ahead of the changing of the guard at the White House.
The Americans have ordered 400 rooms. The King David doesn’t have 400 rooms, and the surplus will be accommodated at Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria, which is a five-minute walk away.
The big challenge, said Kobrin, is staff – not just for the King David but for the hotel industry as a whole.
Two of the most important qualities of any hotel are service and food.
A good chef, even in bad times, remains a chef, even if he takes on other employment on a temporary basis. But regarding other hotel staff, if they find a good job elsewhere, they are unlikely to return to their old stomping grounds.  Good service takes a lot of training, and service is not a particularly strong Israeli trait.
“So much talent has left the industry,” said Tamir. Of the 450 people employed by the King David, 300 are sitting at home. He can’t even roster them, because if he does, they will lose their unemployment benefits.
As for the industry as a whole, Kobrin is worried that Israeli hotel staff will be unable to meet the standards of the Gulf states, where hotel service is absolutely superb.  With the anticipated flow of tourism from countries with which Israel is signing peace and normalization agreements, it becomes doubly important for Israel to raise its service standards.
 When it is suggested to Kobrin that he can import workers from the Gulf, he laughs and replies that he can’t do that while Israelis are out of work.  “I have to give first priority to local people.”
For the time being, he is happy that there are foreign dignitaries and delegations at the hotel every week, and that his assistant Sheldon Ritz – a 23-year veteran of the Dan chain, with 20 of those years spent at the King David – is in charge of the foreign guests and on excellent terms with all the embassies.
As for the 90th anniversary of the hotel, there will be various exhibitions to interest those guests that the hotel is permitted to accommodate, including a change of the signature line.
Anyone who comes to the hotel, whether to stay or for an event, is always fascinated by the long line of signatures of famous guests, some of whom have made history. Facsimiles of the signatures have been enlarged and can be inspected along the hotel’s main corridor.
The exhibition of photographs of famous guests will also be updated, and a new film about the hotel is in the offing.
Over the past three years, several new hotels have opened in Jerusalem, including luxury hotels – and yet another luxury hotel not far from the King David is in the process of completion.
Does the increase in competition pose a problem for the King David?
“There are 16 luxury hotels in London,” replied Kobrin. “Most people would not be able to name them, but nearly every international traveler has heard of the Savoy, which still draws them in.”
For Kobrin, the King David is Israel’s Savoy.