In Jerusalem’s serene Arnona neighborhood, only a minute’s walk away from author S.Y. Agnon’s former home, stands the United States Consulate, slated to become the temporary location of the US Embassy as of May 14.
Just to the side of the beige compound is a wheel-chair accessible ramp for residents of the Diplomat Hotel, a neighboring building bearing the look of grandeur long gone. Elderly Russian immigrants are often to be seen here, carefully walking down the ramp’s incline while pushing small hand carts laden with groceries.
When The Times of Israel comes to visit, a handful of residents sit outside the former hotel, which currently serves as a subsidized housing community sponsored by the Absorption Ministry for approximately 450 elderly immigrants. Many of these men and women were doctors, musicians and academics in Russia before moving to Israel — some straight into the Diplomat — in the early 1990s. Most eventually found minimum wage jobs until work was no longer feasible.
Now, white-haired and wrinkled, the residents exchange few words while passing the hours together. They find comfort in each others’ company and the familiarity of routine: lectures, films, choir practice, and visits to the doctor. Each tenant has a comfortable yet modest room with a kitchenette, and there’s plenty of common space for the residents to mingle.
But this quiet life was stripped away when the elderly occupants were first informed in 2014 of their upcoming eviction. The building had been sold to the American Embassy for staff housing, were the embassy to ever move to Jerusalem.
Subsequently, the hotel’s lease was extended several times. But now that the American Embassy is officially moving next door, the current contract, which expires on June 20, 2020, will not be extended.
The consulate’s facility is set to be inaugurated as the American Embassy’s temporary residence in a ceremony on May 14 — the civil date of Israel’s 70th-anniversary — in the presence of a 250-person US delegation slated to be led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
The need to find alternative housing for the residents has been known since the 2014 sale. But President Donald Trump’s December decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and the following announcement that the US Consulate would become its initial quarters, has put added pressure on Israel’s Absorption Ministry to find a new home for the 450 elderly residents in their care. It is a task the ministry has yet to accomplish.
Svetlova steps in
According to MK Ksenia Svetlova of the Zionist Union party, as of now there is still no final withdrawal date, no set plan as to where or how the residents will be moved, and no estimate of potential costs or subsequent budget. And while there are still two years left on the lease, she cautions that residents could actually be evacuated before June 2020.
For Svetlova, who has emerged as a champion of the residents within the Knesset, this issue is personal: The Diplomat Hotel was her first home in Israel after moving with her mother from Russia in 1991.
In March, Svetlova initiated a meeting organized by the Knesset’s Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, which gathered all the relevant parties together to hear from Alex Kushnir, the director general of the Absorption Ministry.
Kushnir was tasked with presenting a concrete plan for the residents’ relocation at this meeting after providing no clear direction at the first Knesset gathering at the end of December.
Speaking with The Times of Israel after the meeting, Svetlova said there was still no plan of action. She said that the session exposed a lack of communication between the involved parties, and no feasible solution, timeline or budget.
“We still have no specific information,” Svetlova said. “For four years we knew this was coming. I don’t understand [Kushnir’s] reliance on the idea that ‘It will just be okay,’ or ‘Trust us.’ That’s not good enough for me.”
The committee extended the deadline until May for the Absorption Ministry to present a conclusive solution is at a follow-up Knesset meeting. A date has not yet been set.
According to Svetlova, the burden of responsibility and subsequent failure to form a cohesive plan falls on the Absorption Ministry. Additional players include the Ministry of Housing, Jerusalem municipality, Prime Minister’s office, and the Foreign Ministry, which is in contact with the US Embassy.
Absorption Ministry spokesperson Elisheva Cohen responded to a query on progress made since the March meeting with an email statement: “The Ministry is working together in full cooperation with the relevant bodies in order to find an appropriate solution for the residents of the Diplomat compound and will make sure that no new immigrant will be left without a housing solution following June 20, 2020.”
The ministry would provide no additional information.
Back in the fall, Absorption Minister Sofa Landver visited the Diplomat Hotel, reassuring the residents that a housing solution would be found for them in Jerusalem.
But despite such promises, until there is a feasible option on the table, Svetlova told The Times of Israel that nothing is certain.
Svetlova explained that the Absorption Ministry actually learned 11 years ago that the Diplomat Hotel would eventually be sold and there would be a need to move the residents. This lack of foresight, she said, leaves Israel’s most vulnerable population in the hands of a ministry that has waited until the very last moment to find a hasty remedy.
Two imperfect options
According to MK Avraham Neguise, chairman of the Knesset absorption committee, the March meeting showed that there are only two feasible options on the table: to either build a new home for the residents in Jerusalem or to find existing housing for the residents within Jerusalem.
Both present obstacles. The least costly option of moving the residents into existing housing remains largely open, though Svetlova questioned if it was even possible to find available facilities that could comfortably take in a large number of residents in Jerusalem.
On the option of building a new residence, Marina Kontsevaya, the Jerusalem city council member who holds the immigration and absorption portfolio, said plans were underway with Jerusalem’s land allocation committee to find an available piece of land to build on either in the Arnona or Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhoods. Such an initiative would take significant time and finances.
Kontsevaya told The Times of Israel that the residents were overly worried simply due to their advanced age. She said she was fully confident that a solution would be found. Though there has been no agreement to this effect, Kontsevaya claimed, “The Americans aren’t just going to kick them out.”
Without a proposal in place, the Absorption Ministry cannot request funds for an alternative living space, said a representative from the Finance Ministry. The 2019 Knesset budget was already passed this March.
Russian immigrants check in
At the March Knesset meeting that Svetlova organized, Diplomat resident Yosef Demsker, 85, pleaded with government officials to keep the residents together in large groups within Jerusalem, rather than scattered in available rooms throughout the city or country.
“It is important for us to stay together, and stay together in large groups, and not one person alone,” he said, explaining the family-like community the residents have built with one another through the years. He continued, “At our age, it’s difficult not to have details [about the future].”
How Demsker and his fellow residents found themselves as permanent residents of a former hotel is a story 30 years in the making.
It began with the Absorption Ministry’s need to find creative housing solutions for a wave of Russian immigration that began in the late 1980s after the USSR opened its borders, and increased following the 1991 fall of the Iron Curtain.
This huge Russian influx into Israel coincided with the start of the First Intifada, which left many hotels in Jerusalem nearly vacant.
Jan Sokolovsky, a longtime advocate for the Diplomat residents and founding member of Keren Klita, a nonprofit organization established 30 years ago to assist with the absorption of Russian immigrants in the Jerusalem area, said that an idea sprouted at the time to convert several low-performing hotels into housing units for the new Israelis. The Diplomat Hotel was one of these converted facilities and is the only one remaining today.
Sokolovsky, an attorney, still advocates for the residents, although Keren Klita officially closed down earlier this year.
According to Alice Jonah, an original volunteer at the Diplomat who later became its director of social affairs, life at the hotel was far from an ongoing vacation. Still, she said, it was an exciting time full of possibility and action.
“At the beginning, it was very busy because people came with no knowledge of Hebrew, no knowledge of how to cope with daily life,” she said. Banking or finding schooling for children was a struggle.
With backing from Keren Klita, Jonah and other volunteers helped the residents obtain everything from basic household items to jobs. Slowly, life became more livable for the residents.
“It was very easy to make things better for so many people in those days,” Jonah said. “It was wonderful time — there was so much to be done and so much could be done.”
Although retired, Jonah remains a volunteer at the Diplomat.
“Through those years, there was a lot of comradeship between people. We instituted a lot of things. We had an ulpan [immersive Hebrew language course], a choir, a second-hand shop, trips, we did all the religious holidays, musical films and lectures. It was actually wonderful because it was a growing and learning process for a lot of these people,” she said.
Not so suite-life
According to Jonah, many of the more elderly immigrants from the original group remain at the Diplomat today. Likewise, as some early residents moved out, rooms were filled by other aging immigrants from around the world.
But in June 2014, when it was announced that the Diplomat Hotel had been sold to the American Embassy with a handover date set for June 2016, residents were surprised to learn that the community they had spent years building together might come to an end.
According to Jonah, “In 2014 when [the residents] were told this was going to happen, they were very worried. They marched and wrote letters and there was a lot of activity but they kept being assured, ‘Don’t worry, it’s a long way away, things will be worked out.’ Now, of course, they’re apprehensive.”
“Some of them are well into their 90s and this has been their home since 1991. They’re established, they have their routines, they have people who help them, their doctors, some family and friends nearby,” she said.
By February 2015, according to Sokolovsky, the residents were agitated and upset, having been kept in the dark about any possible plan to move them. Right before Israel’s March 2015 elections, a last-minute decision to extend the lease until 2019 temporarily calmed the residents.
The late check-out
Now with a final 2020 deadline, the residents are left anxiously waiting for the Absorption Ministry to announce their fate.
“Many prefer not to think about it,” Anna Cipis, a social worker who has worked with the center’s residents for 15 years, told the Israeli newspaper Maariv in December.
“The Absorption Ministry answers that it will take care of every tenant according to his needs, and [residents] hope that this will indeed happen,” Cipis said, noting the residents’ desire to stay in Jerusalem where their relatives and medical care are based.
“The residents have the right to know what their future is,” Svetlova. She has called out the Absorption Ministry for a lack of transparency on the matter.
Noting that finding funding for the decided-upon initiative could be a prolonged process, Svetlova said that time is of the essence.
“Two years is not a long time [to find a new home] for these residents,” she said.