Teddy Kollek, the father of modern Jerusalem

SECURITY AND DEFENSE: Kollek’s personality helped him push through policies that would likely have been defeated if he had been just righteous.

The late Teddy Kollek, mythical Mayor of Jerusalem, talks on a public phone (photo credit: NATI HARNIK/GPO)
The late Teddy Kollek, mythical Mayor of Jerusalem, talks on a public phone
(photo credit: NATI HARNIK/GPO)

The first time I saw Teddy Kollek was when Jordanian shells began to fall on his city. It was the morning of June 5, 1967, the start of the Six Day War, although in Jerusalem it would actually be a two-day war. I had arrived in the country just five days before.

I found myself in a small park at the foot of Jaffa Road when the shelling began. The doors of all the buildings facing the park were closed, except for one. I dashed in. Several civilians and a uniformed doorman were sheltering inside. A sign that read “Jerusalem Municipality” caught my eye.

“Is this where the mayor has his office?” I asked the doorman, who nodded.

“Is he here now?”


“What’s his name?”

“Teddy Kollek.”


I recalled reading a year and a half before about a new mayor being elected in Jerusalem.

“Can I see him?” I asked. “I’m a journalist.”

When the elevator door opened on the fifth floor, the mayor was waiting in the corridor outside his office. There was no one else around. He took a seat at his big desk and leaned across the desk from time to time to turn the radio on for the news.

The army hadn’t expected King Hussein to attack, he said, but had nevertheless taken precautions. “The army tells me that we’re doing well in the south,” he said.

An aide entered and said “Take a look.” We stood at a window, watching explosions sending up clouds of dark smoke. “That’s by the King’s Hotel,” said the aide. “There goes Yemin Moshe.”

“I’m going down,” said Kollek.

I asked if I could go with him, but he said no. He didn’t want to be responsible for what might happen. I followed at about 40 yards and saw that his aide was coming, too. The rattle of small arms fire was deafening, and from time to time the mayor sheltered behind cars. There was no telling where the fire was coming from, because the sounds echoed off buildings.

Finally, we reached a building at whose entrance two reservists were standing guard.

“Shalom Teddy,” said one. The other drew two lines in the dirt with his shoe and tapped the second as our location.

Inside the lobby, residents sat on the floor. Their mood seemed good, and they greeted “Teddy” warmly.

An officer led us upstairs, where soldiers were engaging Jordanian troops on the parapets of the Old City wall about 30 yards away. Peering cautiously through a half-opened door, I saw a helmeted Israeli standing on a bed, his boots digging dark furrows in the white sheets as he aimed a bazooka. Even more than the shooting, those boots on the white sheets bespoke war. As we descended, we could hear the bazooka round go off and feel the backblast.

Kollek, who would continue to feel the city’s pulse throughout the battle, had been an intelligence agent in the Second World War, a major arms smuggler for Israel in the pre-state years, a principal aide to prime minister David Ben-Gurion and an Israeli diplomat in Washington, where he was a frequent dinner guest of CIA chief Allen Dulles. He had been growing bored with being mayor and was looking for a way out. The war changed everything. Jerusalem would have to be put together, a task difficult to visualize; wounds would have to be healed, and metaphorical minefields identified.

After the shooting stopped, he summoned a key assistant from his time in the Prime Minister’s Office, Meron Benvenisti, and named him head of the department dealing with Jerusalem’s Arabs. In addition to having civil service experience, Benvenisti was a young historian who had written a book on the Crusader period in Palestine and was working on a doctorate. Together, the pair would have a major say in how the Arabs of Jerusalem would be treated – as a conquered people, equal citizens, or something in between. They fell back on their liberal and pragmatic instincts. Some would see Kollek’s humanistic values as stemming from the European liberalism into which he was born. Kollek himself preferred to call them Jewish values, although he himself was far from religion.

As the first anniversary of the war approached, Benvenisti received a request from the Arab community to put up a memorial for their Six Day War dead, just as the Jews were doing on their side of the city. Benvenisti argued to Kollek that if they were not to be considered conquered, they must be granted the same right to grieve communally as the Jews whom they had fought. Despite strong right-wing opposition, Kollek pushed it through the city council.

One of the first goals the two men agreed on was to upgrade east Jerusalem’s infrastructure to the levels in west Jerusalem.

Two years after the war, Kollek tried to divert the army’s delayed victory parade from its planned route through the Arab quarters.

“This is a parade for Jews, not Arabs” he said.

He was only partially successful in changing the route. He was more successful in opposing the imposition of the Israeli-Arab curriculum on east Jerusalem schoolchildren, arguing that many parents there wanted their children to go on to schools in the Arab world, where Israeli matriculation certificates were not recognized. Instead, the Jordanian curriculum would be used in east Jerusalem after being vetted for anti-Israel material. The government agreed to permit Jordanian educators to enter Israel to mark the papers. It was a remarkably liberal decision.

“The Arabs are here by historical rights,” Kollek said. “Not by rights we gave them.”

When a visiting group of foreign architects urged Kollek to raze the Muslim Hospital on the Mount of Olives, which they termed an eyesore, he said: “We can’t do that, because they [local Palestinians] built the hospital themselves, and they infinitely prefer it to anything we can build, even if we build it infinitely better.”

At a public meeting in 1968, Kollek said: “War and peace is not a city’s business, only the process of living. Nobody demands a declaration of loyalty from the Arabs of Jerusalem.”

Five years later, he said: “The Arabs will continue to regard themselves as hemmed in, their culture and way of life threatened by our aggressive way of life. The Jews and Arabs will not easily love each other in this generation or the next, and it isn’t necessary. I don’t know where different peoples love each other. The question is whether, with all the antagonism which exists, you can find a way to live together. Can we who run the city be tolerant enough to give others a chance to live their own way of life?”

Teddy Kollek: Love for Jerusalem above all

A political phenomenon, the left-leaning mayor would serve 28 years with ever-increasing majorities, even though the Jerusalem electorate remained strongly right-wing in Knesset elections. A blue-collar voter emerging from a polling station in the 1980s put it succinctly to a reporter: “Teddy’s above politics. He cares about the city, and he gets things done.”

I ACCOMPANIED Kollek one evening on one of his periodic visits with neighborhood groups – this one in Silwan, the largest of the Arab villages within the expanded city.

“When I come to any neighborhood in the city, there are always demands, because the municipality is not rich and always does less than enough,” he told village leaders. “I can tell you ahead of time that we can’t solve all your problems. We can solve some of them. But some of them you must solve yourselves.”

He often started his workday at 6 a.m. with a tour of neighborhoods, looking for traffic lights not functioning, graffiti, uncollected garbage and other problems, which he noted on a pad. Sometimes joining him on his rounds were foreign dignitaries or journalists for whom no time could be found on his regular calendar. When he returned to the office, he gave his notes to secretaries to type up and distribute to the relevant department heads. Woe to those who failed to act. His workday would often continue to midnight, with Kollek taking the wheel after his exhausted young driver had gone home.

With the government unable to fund the city’s many needs that Kollek identified, he founded the Jerusalem Foundation, which over the decades would raise $1.5 billion, mostly from foreign philanthropists. Community centers, sport facilities, libraries and innumerable programs would proliferate, in Arab neighborhoods as well as Jewish.

To forestall ongoing pressures for the internationalization of Jerusalem as called for in the UN decision to partition Palestine, Kollek even carved out his own foreign policy by establishing The Jerusalem Committee, consisting of world-famous architects, town planners, cultural leaders, historians and others. In their enlightening discussions, he maintained, he was giving the international community a say in Jerusalem’s development. The Foreign Ministry refused to participate, because it saw it threatening Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem.

Kollek’s personality helped him push through policies that would likely have been defeated if he had been just righteous. The Likud found it difficult to find a candidate to run against him.

“I’m running opposite Teddy,” said one, “not against him.” Reuven Rivlin, future president of Israel, was one of those who declined to run against him. When Egyptian president Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem and met Kollek, he termed him “the most famous mayor in the world.”

About once every year or two, Kollek slapped someone in public who said something he believed offensive. No one is known to have ever responded in kind.

Kollek was staggered by the First Intifada in 1987. Instead of talking in terms of needing generations for real peace to come, he now talked of centuries.

“At the beginning I was in absolute despair,” he said in a late-hour conversation in his office. “The solution will come in 200 years, 300 years. If 30 years, so much the better. You’ve got to respond to it day-to-day and do so in the most intelligent way every day.”

“Where will the solution come from?” he was asked.

“From life,” he answered.

The writer, a former reporter for The Jerusalem Post, is author of Jerusalem on Earth, The Yom Kippur War, The Boats of Cherbourg, and The Battle for Jerusalem.