Behind the Lines: Teddy + Kollek = Jerusalem

Kollek's 28 years in City Hall were an anomaly.

teddy kollek 298 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
teddy kollek 298 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Yehoshua Matza, Shlomo Tussiya-Cohen and Shmuel Pressburger, forgotten names of political lightweights, were expendable kamikaze candidates sent by the Likud on a suicide mission - all because the party in power couldn't afford the humiliation of not running a challenger to Jerusalem's eternal emperor. Teddy Kollek chewed each of them up and spat them out before breakfast on Election Day. But Kollek's 28 years in City Hall were an anomaly. How did the left-wing kibbutznik make it for so long in the religious and nationalist capital? Jerusalem was a Herut stronghold long before Menachem Begin came to power, but it took 16 years for the 1977 upheaval to take place here. Even Ehud Olmert had to smother his rival with adoration to unseat him in 1993, using a slogan that should be taught in every course on political campaigning - "Love you Teddy - voting Olmert." His strategist, David Fogel, recognized that the voters just couldn't bear to be cruel to their mayor, even if they realized that at 83, he really shouldn't be running for a seventh term of office. That's why his other slogan was "Olmert - because the time has come." Kollek was reelected time and again by the people of Jerusalem because, despite political differences and his often infuriating ways, he had become the embodiment of the city he led, a rare accomplishment for a politician, especially a democratically elected one. Not that Kollek was without his autocratic traits. Like many a dictator, he found it impossible to work with a media which was anything but fawning; he failed to groom a successor; and he enjoyed contributing to his own personality cult. But what was it that made him a larger-than-life figure? Since Sunday morning, colleagues and rivals have been lining up to pay tribute to the reunifier of Jerusalem, its great builder and international star fund-raiser. He was all that, of course. But there was more to it than that. In 1965, when Kollek was first elected after serving as a powerful director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, he was already well on his way to becoming a premier league politician. Jerusalem was just a way station, a non-onerous temporary job in which Kollek could cool his heels before returning to the larger stage. But history dealt him a once-in-a -lifetime opportunity - in the form of the Six Day War. Eighteen months into his first term of office, suddenly Kollek had almost unlimited space for his ambitions, and a chance to transform the mayoralty of Jerusalem into an unparalleled role. The Kollek myth was built over the next two decades, engraved in letters of stone and marble: in sprawling neighborhoods spanning either side of the old border; in a string of municipal landmarks, cultural monuments and parks; and with a constant procession of the Jewish world's millionaires - roped in by Teddy's charm offensive - to foot the bill. Not content to remain solely a builder, Kollek also created an image of a micro-manager, by arriving at his office early every morning, patrolling the streets and inspecting the work of garbage collectors, and by demanding constant updates on the construction of his myriad pet projects. He didn't do this every day throughout his tenure - it mainly characterized his early years on the job - but the legend persisted. It was this legend that the people of Jerusalem people clung to. Jerusalemites might live in the country's capital, the world's most historical city, fought over bitterly for thousands of years, but at almost any point in living memory, they have had an inferiority complex where the first Hebrew city to their west was concerned. From the 1930s onward, Tel Aviv has been the undisputed financial and cultural capital of Palestine and then Israel. The main national symbols and government offices might reside in Jerusalem, but it remained a sleepy town of officials, clerics and academics, while things were happening in the real metropolis of Gush Dan. History and religious significance are all well and good, but the best jobs, shopping and entertainment were usually to be found in Tel Aviv, where Habima (the national theater), the national sports stadium and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra chose to reside, and no one thought it odd they never even considered moving to the capital. Over the decades, Israeli culture created an image of Jerusalem dwellers as quaint, slightly backward village mice. Kollek didn't manage to change that. He never really tried. But at least he offered his constituents his own personal brand of star quality. And he made full use of his stature, personally shepherding statesmen, tycoons, movie stars and Nobel laureates around the city. They all were his personal friends, calling him "Teddy," and posing for photographs with him - a living monument to the eternal city. IT WASN'T all PR. Over the years, Kollek brought more than a billion dollars of foreign money into the city. Without his efforts, Jerusalem would have remained a cultural wilderness. But even his abilities and contacts weren't enough to reverse deeper national trends. The obituaries this week all paid tribute to the brotherly spirit between the city's Jews and Arabs Kollek had instilled, but when the first intifada erupted in 1987, while Kollek was still in office, east Jerusalem played its part in the Palestinian uprising. It wasn't as violent as in Gaza or Ramallah, but it was bad enough for the great majority of Jews to stop shopping in Shuafat, fixing their cars in Wadi Joz or walking through the alleys of the Old City's Muslim Quarter. Reports of violence in the Arab parts of the city caused many Israelis to begin avoiding Jerusalem altogether. Lavish receptions for Arab notables at City Hall were not enough to hide the fact that almost all Kollek's investments were aimed at the Jewish areas. The then staunchly right-wing Olmert, in his first five years as mayor, actually spent more money on rebuilding basic infrastructure in the Arab neighborhoods than Kollek had done in the quarter century after 1967. Neither was the massive building of new apartment blocks, schools, cultural centers and industrial parks ultimately enough to stem the tide of emigration from the city. Olmert was blamed for "selling out" to the haredim in return for their votes, but the fundamental demographical shift in Jerusalem's population began during Kollek's watch, when previously mixed and secular neighborhoods like Makor Baruch, Romema, Ma'alot Dafna and Sanhedria totally changed their character. Kollek might have had a special emotional rapport with his citizens, but his most ardent supporters were those who came on pilgrimage, paid him tribute by signing a fat check and then returned to their homes elsewhere. "It's sad to be the mayor of Jerusalem," wrote Yehuda Amihai in one of his more famous poems. Sad, perhaps, but also dangerously seductive. No one can dispute Teddy Kollek's incomparable contribution to Jerusalem, but as the mayor of the most mythical city in the world, he also allowed himself to become part of the myth.