The truth about Teddy

Loyal, honest, irascible, driven - an insider's take on the qualities that made him great.

teddy bukharan 88 298 (photo credit: )
teddy bukharan 88 298
(photo credit: )
Beyond all talent and charisma, the outstanding trait of the young Teddy Kollek - he was in his mid-40s when we first met - was unswerving loyalty. Most obvious was devotion to David Ben-Gurion. I once asked Teddy whether Ben-Gurion's shortness could be a key to understanding his drive to leadership. Teddy exploded. "What are you talking about? He is a great man." Analyses were unnecessary; B.G.'s greatness was a cast-iron fact. And B-G.? His love for Teddy he once laughingly, proudly, expressed to me as only an Eastern European Jew could: "Teddy, my manager, is a real mamzer!" Teddy's loyalty was all-embracing. It extended to his old friends, his former followers in the youth movement in Central Europe, and to his staff. The truth is that Teddy remained a madrich, a youth movement leader all his younger life. His loyalty was rewarded with the same blind loyalty. Is there anyone today who would protect his people like Teddy? An example: In those early years, Israeli prime ministers were not officially invited to visit the US, and were not received in the White House. By exploiting an invitation to receive an honorary doctorate from Brandeis University, B-G was about to go to the US, and "happen" to meet President Eisenhower in New York. And in those days, a state secret was a state secret. I was having lunch with an American Jewish leader at the King David Hotel. He, Sam Rothberg, was in the know. I was not. Teddy happened by, asked me to step out for a minute, and said, "I want you to know what Sam knows: B-G will be going to America." In a minute he briefed me and I returned to the table. Teddy would not let me be seen to be out of the loop. Only a youth movement leader would protect his followers like that. Today, I believe "leaders" - less loyal, less secure - take a fiendish joy in not sharing information with those with whom they should. Teddy worked all hours. Perhaps it was the Holocaust and Teddy's attempts to rescue Jews from Europe which made him run. I was one of the many he would call at 6 a.m., well before my usual waking time. I could call him at home at 11 p.m. He was driven by the need to strengthen Israel, to forward its interests in every way. Teddy as director-general of the Prime Minister's Office was primus inter pares, the man who coordinated with his parallel numbers in other ministries, as well as with ministers. Nothing happened anywhere without Teddy being involved. This stretched from intelligence contacts, relations with the US, delicate secret negotiations over water sources, through to scientific development, tourism, national parks, revival of historic areas, Independence Day celebrations, overseas information, and on to the most detailed and mundane preparations for home entertainment with Tamar in their small, modest apartment. I can see him meticulously mixing the martinis (stirred), serving snacks to his guests, peeling oranges for them in a long single strip. Temper? Yes. He did not bear fools lightly, and did not forgive laziness. I was able to gain his trust - I am sure - because I was always available, did not need lengthy briefings, and took initiative. And, perhaps most important, not being a yes man. In his second campaign for the mayoralty, some of his brain trust advised him to run on an anti-haredi program. He was swayed, until one of us - modesty prevents me from naming him - said, "Teddy, the day after the elections, we will need to live together in this city." Teddy sought excellence. He opened his office to people who were not only not from Mapai, but even from the opposite - Revisionist - background, which was then a major taboo. Teddy did not tremble before the party-liners of political correctness. His irascible and cranky older self, when weariness and frustration took their toll, could fall away when meeting former trusted colleagues. Under the later, posed cynicism was a man of honor. Once he asked me if I would be prepared to be his successor. Flattered as I was by the offer, which thank God never materialized, I stupidly said, "Yes." A week later, when I met with him, the subject came up for the last time. I never returned to it, and years later discovered that I was one of half-a-dozen who had received the "offer." Neither of us said a word about it again. But when Teddy gave me a signed copy of his book, he wrote, "In friendship, from Teddy (on whom you shouldn't rely)..." The erstwhile youth leader never lost his honesty, even when political expediency was paramount. Teddy was not demonstrative. Only once did he show his recognition for my devotion to him. About five years ago, when I sat at his feet at a party, he patted my face. "I always enjoyed working with you," he said. I did not see Teddy after that. Avraham Avi-hai was Director of the Overseas Division under Teddy Kollek from 1960 to 1963. Previously he worked with him on Israel's Tenth Anniversary, and later, during Kollek's early terms as Mayor. Dr. Avi-hai is the author of David Ben-Gurion: State Builder and of Danger: Three Jewish Peoples.