Corridors of Power: A legend in his own time

Without holding long meetings or taking expensive overseas trips, Teddy Kollek spoke from the heart – and always made an impression.

Teddy Kollek singing_521 (photo credit: Vera Etzion)
Teddy Kollek singing_521
(photo credit: Vera Etzion)
Today, while some of you are reading these lines, several veterans of the Labor Party in Jerusalem will be treading upon various spots in the city in the footsteps of the legendary Teddy Kollek, the last representative of that party to take the helm as mayor of Jerusalem. There is a certain naive charm about attempting to restore the ties of what is left of the movement that stood by the fledgling state in those almost forgotten days of glory.
It is legitimate, of course, but one must admit that it is also quite pathetic. After all, almost 20 years have passed since Teddy was in charge, and there are no indications that Labor will be taking the reins of power again anytime soon.
Meanwhile, three mayors, each one as far from Kollek’s legacy as could be, have tried to fill his massive shoes.
The first, Ehud Olmert, is now facing severe legal charges. The second is Uri Lupolianski, whose failure as a mayor was due no less to his being haredi than to making his own mistakes.
The third is the current mayor, Nir Barkat, whom it is perhaps too early to judge, although there is no question that he is different from Kollek in almost every respect.
While it is not clear what place history will hold for Olmert, Lupolianski and Barkat as mayors, perhaps this is the right time, in the week marking the centenary of his birth, to understand the secret of Teddy Kollek’s charm, which turned him into such a legend, even during his own lifetime.
Well, first of all, his directness was one of the keys. “With Teddy Kollek,” recalls Anat Hoffman, Kollek’s former deputy, “you always knew exactly where you stood. He didn’t bother to wrap his opinion in long-winded sentences.
He would look you in the eye and tell you very succinctly exactly what he thought – something very few leaders dare to do nowadays.”
One example of this capacity occurred at the opening of the famous Israeli song contest of May 1967 at Binyenei Ha’uma. I say “famous” because it was at that contest that a young woman sang Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” during the break, and the rest is history.
Kollek jumped onto the stage, took the microphone and said, “Good evening. Happy Independence Day to all of you who love Jerusalem. Enjoy this evening,” and stepped down, to a thunder of applause. Is there any leader who’d be bold enough to do the same today? In another instance, during an interview on Israel Radio, following haredi protests in the city center, Kollek dared to say, “I think that different people should not live in the same neighborhoods because they live differently, they cook differently, so it’s better to be separated in order to coexist.” Probably one of the boldest non-politically correct statements ever heard on that issue.
But there’s more. One of the many legends tied to Kollek was his respect and concern for the Arab residents he inherited with the outcome of the Six Day War. Respect he certainly had. However, Kollek’s investment of the city’s funds in east Jerusalem was next to nothing – certainly compared to the budgets Olmert put in and Barkat is investing. So how did that legend come into being? Very simple: Kollek succeeded in convincing the residents that even though he couldn’t solve a problem, he nevertheless cared. He never arrived surrounded by too many assistants and advisers – just the minimum required; he never delivered speeches carefully written by public relations experts but said in a few words what he really thought; and he didn’t send employees to check if the streets of Jerusalem were clean enough but took the trouble to do it himself, at dawn.
And he did one more thing. Kollek didn’t talk much; but when he did, nobody dared to refuse his requests. Artists, musicians, philanthropists, world leaders – he would just hold their arm, get close to their ear and say something about “Yerushalayim” – and would get what he wanted.
No conventions, no long trips around the world, no expensive meetings – his incredible capacity to touch hearts did the job.
In an interview with Israel TV, Kollek once said that his “secret” was very simple: “I make them feel that they are those who want to give to the city, and I’m just there to tell them what it’s about.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing is that despite all the differences between Kollek and the mayors who have succeeded him, they have all tried at one point or another to convince the public that Kollek was their role model.