David Ben-Gurion’s face was creased into the gleeful smile of a
“You know Teddy?” he asked a visiting American. “He’s my
manager. He’s a real mamzer.”
Now for you literalists, mamzer in this
sense is a Yiddishism based on a legend that illegitimate offspring are
brilliant. Many a doting mother has sighed over her little Yankeleh, “Oy what a
mamzer-kop.” It was equal to another kvell-word, ‘minister-kop.’ And for you
nit-pickers, yes, Teddy Kollek was director-general of the Prime Minister’s
Office at that time. Did B-G not know the official terminology (based on British
government usage)? Or did he really feel that Teddy managed all of his affairs.
Teddy did all that and beyond.
As B-G’s “manager,” he made sure the
government ran properly, since the Cabinet Office was under him, and B-G’s small
inner secretariat cleared all major matters with Teddy. As I recall the office
in the early 1960s Teddy met regularly with the directors-general of the other
ministers, and telephoned them to make sure things were getting done, or to
liaison. In my mind, I called Teddy Kollek “the switchboard of Israel’s
He had on his staff a specialist in foreign affairs and
intelligence, (in my time, the future ambassador Shlomo Argov, a brilliant and
original-thinking civil servant) while his own contacts with the CIA, the State
Department and British intelligence were dramatically important and secret. The
advisor for Arab affairs worked for him. The Authority for Science and
Development, the Great Translations from World Literature, which eventually
became Keter Publishing, Voice of Israel radio, all were under Teddy’s watchful
eye. He formed a Center for Information (Merkaz Hahasbara) whose film section
had an important impact on the development of Israeli film
His relationship with important Jews in the US, Canada and
Europe as well as with a formidable list of overt and covert US government and
political figures was managed from a plastic Rolodex file of cards. Teddy took
the time and effort to write a personal birthday card, his generous signature
spread across it.
Teddy played a major role in getting the Rothschild
family to finance the Knesset building. Later, when he became mayor of
Jerusalem, it was his vision and power of conviction that saw them give the
funds for the start of the Israel Museum. Thus the Givat Ram area went from a
provincial government center with a world-class university to the beginnings of
a great and world-level museum and culture center, straddled by the Hebrew
University campus on the one end and the Israel Museum with its Shrine of the
Book on the other.
How did he do all this? He was a born leader, a
charismatic person who led by example.
Teddy started before 8 a.m. and
would work through most days till late evening. Those of us who kept pace with
his hours also had easy access to him. He cared for every project he led or
initiated but equally cared for every one of his subordinates and multitude of
He was the least formalistic of any director- general, and cared
nothing for bureaucracy.
His loyalty was legend. His backing for anyone
who worked with him and had earned his trust was total. He chose well, so that
top people in most fields worked for or with him.
In other cases he
selected young people whom he believed were worth cultivating.
When I had
the good fortune to be added to his team I was still in my 20s. I was charged
with overseas information. I received no more than a title from him, and had an
entirely free hand in how to carve out the job description.
I reported to
him regularly, and if he could not see me during the day, I would call him at
home as late as 10 or 10:30 of an evening to keep him up to date.
for Teddy meant to work like Teddy and we knew it. Once when on separate
missions to London, my colleague Uri Lubrani and I could only find time to meet
at 10 p.m. at my hotel, Uri said, “If Teddy can do it so late, so can
Besides Teddy’s innate charisma, stamina, dedication to Israel and
personal ties with Ben-Gurion, I have often theorized about another powerful
factor behind his fabulous drive. True, his Zionist father marked his fate by
naming him Theodor, after the founder of modern Zionism, but there was probably
a stronger immediate drive. Teddy, like his colleagues who had been back and
forth to Europe before and after the Shoah, were driven by the necessity
imprinted into their souls through the loss of loved ones. They had been all but
helpless to save their families among the millions murdered. Creating Israel was
more than an ideological mission. It was to create the only place where Jews
controlled the portals of entry, where Jews would not experience dehumanization
and mass murder.
Above, I have traced a few lines about Teddy in only one
phase of his leadership. There is more to come, because if Ben-Gurion was the
visionary prime force in creating Israel, Teddy was one of the greatest movers
and shakers in realizing that vision.Avraham Avi-hai was director of the
Overseas Division in the Prime Minister’s Office under director Teddy Kollek and
prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Avi-hai’s novel A Tale of Two Avrahams reflects
the author’s immersion in modern Israel as well as in Jewish history.
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