Analysis: Taking Kollek out of context

Even in defeat, Kollek remained an icon, as the tributes to him upon his death three months ago proved.

kollek cigar 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kollek cigar 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
History can be a strange judge. Laborite Teddy Kollek was reelected time and again as mayor of Israel's most right-wing city. His involvement in the Saison (hunting season), the campaign the Zionist establishment waged against the breakaway underground groups in the years before independence, was well known in Jerusalem. And for those who weren't aware of the assistance he gave to British intelligence services in arresting members of the Irgun, crudely printed posters that appeared before every municipal election in the city's center served as an education. But Kollek still won by landslide after landslide. In the end, he was beaten in 1993 by Ehud Olmert, who used one of the slickest election slogans in Israeli political history: "We love you Teddy - Voting Olmert." Even in defeat, Kollek remained an icon, as the tributes to him upon his death three months ago proved. His pre-state actions never caught up with him; only now are Kollek's files being exhumed from the archives. The British Public Record Office was careful not to declassify them while he was alive. On Friday, Yediot Aharonot is publishing Kollek's record, in a feature that has already caused a minor storm on the radio talk shows. Aside from the fact that Kollek's role as a senior operative in the Jewish Agency's intelligence department in the cooperation with the British was already widely known, there is a degree of disingenuousness in the way Kollek's part has been taken out of context. He might have been an important link in the transfer of information, but the Saison was much larger than that. It was all-out effort by the Yishuv's leadership, spearheaded by the Hagana, to reduce the operational capability of the Revisionist undergrounds. It involved more than working with the British, and included independent Hagana operations, mainly kidnaps of Irgun fighters. And most important, it was approved at the highest level of the Jewish Agency's leadership, and had David Ben-Gurion's blessing. There was nothing out of the ordinary in Kollek's actions. There were other Hagana members who went much further, including, according to some sources, torture and liquidation of Irgun members. The morality of the Saison can and has been debated over the decades, but two facts are undisputed. The decision to cooperate with the British against their fellow Jews was motivated by the fear that the Irgun's attacks against the British would cause severe damage to the Jewish and Zionist cause, not out of interests of rivalry. And Kollek and his colleagues who passed on information and prisoners to the British received no material reward for their actions. For these reasons the Saison, traumatic as it was at the time, did not haunt the new state and there were no belated reprisals or revenge. There was intense hostility between the two sides for decades but it remained at the political level, never boiling over into civil war. The political heirs of the Irgun in Likud cooperated with Mapai officials who had been active in the Saison, not only with Kollek. Moshe Dayan, who was also a central figure in the Saison, was appointed foreign minister in the first cabinet of prime minister Menachem Begin, the legendary Irgun commander who had eluded the joint efforts of the Hagana and British intelligence to capture him. The Saison is occasionally mentioned by far-right groups as an example of typical left-wing perfidy, and leveled against police and the Shin Bet's Jewish section when they arrest Jewish suspects in attacks against Palestinians. But at the height of the Saison, Begin wrote to his soldiers from his hiding place: "Be calm loyal Jews. There will not be a war of Jews against Jews in this land."