Listen to this, you who devour the needy, annihilating the poor of the land, saying, If only the new moon were over, so that we could sell grain; the Sabbath, so that we could offer wheat for sale
Mitzpeh Ramon is a small town perched on the edge of the huge and majestic geological formation in the heart of the Negev, the Ramon Crater, or Makhtesh Ramon. The town, built in the 50s to house construction workers on the road to Eilat, probably would fit most peoples image of living at the end of the world. And how much the more so, now that there is a new highway to Eilat that doesnt pass this way. One drives over an hour south from Beersheba, through hilly, rocky, mostly empty desert, you pass a small industrial zone, a traffic circle from which the main street of the town veers off to the right, and then there you are, about to begin the descent, by switchbacks, hundreds of feet down the cliff wall. The view is truly breathtaking, an otherworldly landscape of colored rock formations spread out below you, to the horizon.
The town itself contains a small business district and a minimum of services for the 5,000 inhabitants. Also a few B&Bs. And one hotel, part of a chain, cleverly created by reconfiguring and upgrading an old apartment block. The hotel defines itself as luxury, with prices to match, and indeed has an outstanding dining room, and a pool and spa. Since I was to accompany two groups to Mitzpeh Ramon during the summer, Tami and I decided that it would be useful and fun to do an advance weekend there to reconnoiter. So we made a reservation at the hotel. When we checked in on Friday, the clerk reminded me that checkout time was 2:00 p.m. I said that we dont travel on Shabbat, and would like to keep our room until sundown, which is a standard procedure in Israeli hotels. He said that the policy that was now standard (and unbending) throughout their chain was to charge a $35 fee for that extension. My display of indignation (Who ever heard of such a thing?! - which indeed I hadnt) didnt impress him. So I grudgingly agreed; and my grudge grew when it became clear that the hotel was mostly empty, and would certainly not need the room for Saturday night. In any case, we had a lovely Shabbat. When I came to check out on Saturday night, the same clerk was on duty. He presented me with my bill, which did not include the surcharge. He didnt mention our previous conversation, and neither did I.
When I got home and mentioned the experience to a friend, she found a discussion of this very policy, on an Israeli internet travel forum. Someone wrote to express his shock and anger at this new policy, and drew hundreds of responses, more or less equally divided between indignation (how, in a Jewish state, can people be penalized for keeping Shabbat?) and hostility (who do these religious people think they are why should they be exempt from the check-out rules that are standard throughout the world and apply to everyone?). I had always taken the free Shabbat checkout extension for granted; when we ran a hostel here, we almost never had to deal with a Shabbat check-in, and if we had guests for Shabbat, we would only accept incoming reservations if they agreed to check in after sundown Saturday night. We did this not so much out our own religious scruples, but out of the assumption that it was simply not acceptable to require a guest to leave in the middle of Shabbat. It never occurred to me until I read some of the hostile entries on the web forum that this assumption was not universally accepted, and that it poses an unfair burden on the hotel industry or on those non-Shabbat-observing guests who are indirectly paying part of the cost, through the price of their rooms, of the free extension given to those who wont/cant leave on Shabbat.
Even at the end of the world, the dilemmas catch up with you. And once again it seems that it is impossible to have a conversation about anything in this country without someone (in this case everyone) feeling that s/he is a victim.