In March of 2020, COVID-19 was tearing through Jerusalem. Case numbers were growing exponentially, hospitals were overwhelmed, and people were terrified. By mid-March, the Israeli government had opened hotels to host people who had either been exposed to the virus or had been diagnosed with COVID-19 but did not require hospitalization. These quarantine hotels were intended to provide space for individuals from large households to self-isolate or recover from COVID-19 without infecting their families and communities. Most of the 22 quarantine hotels managed by the Israeli military were reserved solely for ultra-Orthodox Jews, but there was one unique exception.
The Dan Jerusalem Hotel was selected as a quarantine hotel for patients across the city. Baruch Shpitzer served as the reception manager at the Dan Jerusalem Hotel, and although most quarantine hotels were staffed only by military personnel, Shpitzer insisted on staying to welcome his guests. His hospitality was immediately put to the test. As Shpitzer noted, the hotel guests came from many walks of life—Israeli Jews, Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, religious, secular—but everyone had a shared experience: a COVID-19 diagnosis. From mid-March to early May of 2020, the Dan Jerusalem Hotel hosted around 180 individuals.
Patients began to refer to the Dan Jerusalem Hotel as "Hotel Corona."
In Israel, Jews and Arabs, ultra-Orthodox and secular, overwhelmingly live separate lives in separate cities, separate schools, and separate institutions. This segregation is facilitated by government design with institutionalized inequality and discrimination against Palestinian Arabs deeply embedded in the fabric of the Israeli state. Hotel Corona became a social experiment of sorts—a space of integration and close cohabitation.
19-year-old Aysha Abu Shhab and her 21-year-old brother Mohammed were the very first guests to check into Hotel Corona. They both worked as janitors at an Israeli hospital where they contracted COVID-19. They stayed in a room together, and as the hotel began to fill up, Aysha noticed that the guests were segregating themselves. She wanted to branch out, so one evening, she scanned the lobby during dinner and chose to sit with a Jewish couple, Amram Maman and his wife Gina. Aysha said she chose Amram and Gina because they were always laughing, and by the end of the meal, their whole table was laughing together and singing "Inta Omri," ("You Are My Life"), a popular Egyptian song from the 1960s.
This trend continued when Noam Shuster-Eliassi, a Jewish Israeli comedian who speaks Hebrew, Arabic, and English, began performing for the guests at Hotel Corona. Before the pandemic, Noam had been on a fellowship at Harvard University writing her one-woman show titled, rather ironically, Coexistence My Ass. Reflecting on her experience at Hotel Corona, Noam wrote, “Because I grew up with both cultures, I’m used to navigating between the two groups in a way that recognizes that power dynamics are always present. I had hoped to use this shared quarantine experience to come up with new material for my shows. But the lack of tension in the hotel was anticlimactic. Shocking, even…At the hotel, something about this extreme situation brought out different sides of people that I had never witnessed before.”
Unlike the rest of the world that was experiencing strict lockdown, social isolation, and separation in the spring of 2020, the guests at Hotel Corona were healing together through shared meals, dance sessions, exercise classes, socializing, and even hugging. Many of the guests took to social media to broadcast their experiences and new relationships, and much of the world watched in anticipation.
The greatest test for Hotel Corona came in early April as Passover drew near. Baruch Shpitzer and the hotel management decided to open the banquet hall for guests to host their own Passover Seder. The young, secular Jewish guests wanted to film the Seder for social media, but the ultra-Orthodox Jewish guests were not willing to allow electronics on religious holidays. To accommodate both groups, the hotel divided the banquet hall with floor-to-ceiling barriers so there could be two separate Seders. Noam explained, "[The barriers] reminded me of our default — that we prefer separation rather than the compromise that comes with uniting." When Amram and Gina Maman walked in and saw the barrier, Gina insisted that she couldn’t “do the Seder like this.” Amram recruited some younger guests to help him move the barrier, and an ultra-Orthodox man immediately jumped up to help move the barrier wall as well. With all 180 people in one room, they blessed the wine, and the Seder began with Aysha, Mohammed, and other Muslim guests celebrating as well.
None of the guests at Hotel Corona were ever convinced that their experience would translate to the real world. As the manager of Hotel Corona, Shpitzer said there is no need to repeat the experiment or recreate the experience. Rather plainly, he reflected, "We are not in the Love Boat—or, life is not a movie." We are reminded of the systematic inequalities outside of Hotel Corona in Israel’s vaccine rollout. As of April 12, 2021, 60 percent of Israel’s population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but certain groups—namely the Arab minority, which is 20 percent of Israel’s population—are systematically left behind. Further, the Israeli government is refusing to vaccinate the occupied population of the Palestinian territories, claiming that vaccination is the Palestinian Authority’s responsibility under the Oslo Accords. Fully vaccinated individuals in Israel receive a green passport or a green pass that provides access to restaurants, hotels, cultural events, concerts, wedding halls—a ticket back to normal life. Israel is divided yet again between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, or the liberated and the left behind, and this latest division compounds preexisting, intersectional inequalities.
At the start of the pandemic, Hotel Corona provided an example of communal care, integrated well-being, and healing together, but as the pandemic turns a corner, Israel provides a familiar example of exclusion, isolation, and compounding injustice with truly imminent life and death implications.