One mayor, one city

In this interview first published on Jerusalem Day in May 1992, Teddy Kollek readily recalls past struggles, and looks ahead.

Teddy Kollek is like the duke who became king. He started his mayoralty in 1965 in a sleepy, spartan town, better known for its place in the collective folk memory of the world than for its center stage position on the international map. "When I assumed the position, one and a half years before the Six Day War, it was a sad place, without visitors," recalls the world's best-known mayor in his modest Rehavia home. "Those visitors who came, did so for a few hours and carried their sandwiches in their pockets. There was nothing to visit; there were no trees, no parks; and everywhere you turned, there were signs warning 'Caution! Frontier Ahead!'" In 1990, Teddy was named "Father of the Israel Museum" for his role in developing the city's first major cultural monument. Somewhat incongruously, he gives the impression that he is prouder of this achievement, initiated before he became mayor, than he would be if he were to be known as the "Father of Jerusalem." "When I realized we had to build something to keep the visitors here a few more hours, my thoughts turned to building a museum." Pinhas Sapir, then finance minister, grumbled, "A museum you need? Let's first solve all the other problems." THERE STILL are other problems to solve, and not all of them are new. Even before inheriting the problems of east Jerusalem, the city had enough challenges to keep Kollek occupied. "There were Jews from 104 different backgrounds. The Fifties were years of great immigration. From Afghanistan to Morocco, Jews who had not heard of Israel had prayed for Jerusalem. "Large transit camps were established. As a result, approximately 70 percent of the Jewish population hails from these countries. (This compares to 25% in Tel Aviv and 15% in Haifa.) These were large families without means or applicable skills, and it took a long time to absorb them, particularly as the government wasn't very active." Although regarded as a man of vision, Kollek had not considered that he would be bequeathed the problems of another population, almost without warning, in June 1967. "Suddenly 40 different Christian denominations were added, along with Muslims who made up 28% of the population. "The most immediate problem was how to deal with the population 'on the other side.' They had stayed at the same 70,000 they had been when the city was divided, first by armies then by walls, barbed wire and minefields. We had to try and eliminate this dividing obstacle to a normal city and rapidly provide the population with food, milk and water and help them bury their dead soldiers. "Simultaneously, we had to rebuild the Jewish Quarter which had been largely destroyed. Its synagogues had been demolished. In this, we saw the continuation of the old historical trend: the Romans destroyed the Temple; the Muslims destroyed the churches; the Crusaders, the mosques. "One of our first actions was to clean up the area outside the [Western] Wall. We knew that with Shavuot approaching the masses would come the minute the roads were free of mines and other obstacles. On Shavuot that year, 250,000 people came to the Wall." THE MAYOR of Jerusalem is obviously well-versed in countering the stories which surround the building of the Wall's plaza. Without prompting, he explains what this meant in terms of the local population: "With the exception of 105 or 106 Arab families, no one was removed from where they had been living. These were not their own homes, but had been rented for a couple of generations from the Algerian Wakf. We gave them another dinar or two so that they could rent homes somewhere else." It is no surprise to hear Kollek categorically state, "Jerusalem will remain undivided and the the capital of Israel"; nor is the way he pulls a slip of paper from his pocket to quote Ben-Gurion on the subject anything more than superficial reinforcement of his claim: "Jerusalem is an indivisible part of the State of Israel and its eternal capital. No vote by the UN or any other body can change this historic fact." Indeed, had Kollek made any statement which contradicted this oft-mentioned view, you would have read it as headline news. But some of the reasoning Kollek uses to explain his stand is heard less often: "The Arabs want at least the part of Jerusalem that was under Jordanian rule to be their part of the city and build their capital there. This is a proposition which is not only unacceptable, it is unjustified. "When they had half the city, they built their capital in Amman. There are many reasons for this, among them that the Hashemite rulers felt safer there. They badly neglected Jerusalem in order to invest money in Amman, which I understand has become a presentable capital. "The Arab tradition is not to build capitals in their holy cities." Kollek, in the comfort of his living room with his patient wife Tamar at his side, is waiting for the Messiah to sort out problems like who can ultimately build on the Temple Mount. And he doesn't believe in forcing the Messiah's hand: "The groups who are fighting this are small, but are willing to go to great extremes." Jews are not the only ones who want to expedite the Third Temple. "I receive many letters from Southern Baptists asking that we rebuild the Temple in order to enable the return of the Messiah. I don't think it was ever fully formulated, but the government's idea was and is that the Temple Mount remain in Muslim hands, under our sovereignty, until the Messiah comes. Then he will rule and adjudicate." Until then, the mayor has to cope, and he has some firm ideas on the way human rule should be carried out. "At the moment, all the advantages and basic freedoms that are being given to the non-Jewish population are done so by administrative rules which hold since 1967. I think the only normal thing to do would be to turn these administrative regulations into law. It would also be our strongest argument against the outside world for keeping Jerusalem as our capital." SO SENSITIVE is everything related to Jerusalem that even the borders have been disputed by both Arabs and Jews. Kollek explains the basic idea behind the city limits: "We've defined our borders on the principle of the most territory with the smallest Arab population - that's why Eizariya and Abu Dis aren't within the municipal borders. Even in 1948, when a large number of residents in Bethlehem requested that they be accepted as part of Jerusalem, because they were scared of the Muslims, it was decided not to accept them. "We thought at that time that the boundaries we drew up would remain the borders of the country." Again Kollek nostalgically recalls, with help from Tamar, the role "The Old Man," Ben-Gurion, whom he served as chief aide from 1952 to 1964, played in his life and views: "On June 11-12, 1967, Ben-Gurion came up from Sde Boker to our house and went to the Wall for the first time. It was still a narrow strip with snipers shooting from the Old City. Ben-Gurion gave expression to his very strong opinion that after such a defeat the Arabs would now negotiate to make peace with us and that we must return everything - except Jerusalem which was to be kept for historic reasons. How I wish it had been that way. "Meanwhile the occupied territories have created not a large but a convinced group which believes that its convictions are the only right ones. I believe this attitude of the extremists - that they are above the law of the state but ruled by a law they have decided on based on their interpretation of the Scriptures - presents a far greater threat to us today than the threat by any Arab country or all of them combined. "To spend large amounts of money to bring tiny numbers of Jews closer to the Temple Mount to be ready for the Messiah, while not enough houses are being built for new immigrants who want to live in Jerusalem, borders on the criminal." Nor is the problem of the extremists the only challenge which faces the mayor of the socially mixed city: "We have serious internal Jewish problems: some like the Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide are on their way to being solved; others, like poverty and poor schooling, will take longer to overcome. More serious is the gulf between the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and secular Jews. "I have great sympathy for the haredim. At the beginning of the last century, they were virtually the only Jews living here and their way of life was the dominant one. But they cannot impose their way of life on others. It only creates hatred." KOLLEK WAS born May 27, 1911, in Hungary and raised in Vienna. He came to British-mandate Palestine in 1935 and helped buy up weapons illicitly during the War of Independence war. He is painfully aware that today a yearning to live in Zion is not enough to bring or keep immigrants to the city. Jerusalem is a poor city with a very narrow tax base. There is only basic industry and the social structure does not bode well for the city coffers - many of the religious pay low taxes because of their large families and low incomes, and many other Jerusalemites are low-paid government officials who, as the mayor puts it, "pay low taxes on undersized apartments." It is this weak social structure that lies behind Kollek's arguments with politicians of both sides of the political map for building satellite cities. "These are dragging out from Jerusalem a very important part of the population which is active both socially and economically. This is the productive sector and also those people who are able to support cultural ventures." The themes of culture and quality of life run through Teddy's talks as a major refrain. "Be sure to mention the Jerusalem Foundation. It's impossible to imagine what this city would be like without its contributions. And let's not forget the role of the Jerusalem Committee: an unusual group of distinguished personalities from all over the world - educators, writers, historians, philosophers, theologians, architects, city planners and artists. It was our way of recognizing the universal character of the city." Kollek has often been heard to say "For Tel Aviv, you pay; for Jerusalem, you pray." Jewish immigration and tourism will only come to a quiet city with a sound economic infrastructure. Here lies Kollek's greatest regret after 27 years as mayor. "My greatest frustration is that I have never managed to get any government ministry to solve Jerusalem's basic economic problems. And I shall not be mayor for much longer." (After 28 years in office, Kollek was defeated in his seventh bid for mayor in 1993 by Ehud Olmert.) From discussing plans to attract modern industry to the city as one of his major goals, Kollek makes a dramatic turn to end at the beginning. "One of my major aims for the future is the commemoration of 3,000 years since King David made Jerusalem the capital of his kingdom." Kollek the mayor, politician, author and fighter, obviously admires David, "who was an attractive man; a singer, a poet. Both Jews and Christians sing his psalms. He was a fighter, a hero; a great king who commanded armies, but also introduced legislation. He loved life and women. He has a place in the hearts of Christians, Muslims and Jews - he may even today be a unifying force."