Remembering Teddy

Teddy Kollek transitioned Jerusalem from divided city to united capital.

Teddy Kollek and David Ben-Gurion on the Kinneret. (photo credit: NAFTALI OPPENHEIM/ BEIT YIGAL ALLON ARCHIVES, GINOSSAR)
Teddy Kollek and David Ben-Gurion on the Kinneret.
For a moment after the guns fell silent in June 1967, nothing could be heard across the hushed city except the faint flutter of history. Then it started again – the rumble of heavy vehicles, the unforgiving crump of explosives. This time the sounds were of bulldozers demolishing barriers that divided the city and explosions marking the demise of minefields.
Within a few weeks, the two Jerusalems were separated by little more than a strip of neutered noman’s- land so narrow a child could throw a stone across it, so filled with shadows that virtually no one could probe its depth.
For 19 years, Israeli Jerusalem had been a sleepy border town cut off from the rest of the country except for a narrow corridor. Knesset committees preferred meeting in Tel Aviv rather than making the tedious hour-and-a-half trip up the Judean Hills, and their chairmen had to be periodically reminded that Jerusalem was the nation’s capital.
Jerusalemites traveled to Tel Aviv for serious shopping, major bank loans, or important cultural events. Apart from its hilltop setting, there was little august about Israel’s capital. The universal city Jerusalem had symbolized since antiquity had little relation to the poor Levantine town that for centuries had borne its name.
But the Israeli half of the divided city had a small-town charm and a distinctive mystique that set it apart. Bars were a rarity, movie houses were unheated barns, and a handful of traffic lights provided a dash of urban tension as people waited for the colors to change before crossing the street (unlike in Tel Aviv, where residents paid them little attention).
A resident emerging from a cafe when it closed at 10 p.m. one night in the mid-1960s was confronted on an otherwise deserted street by a tourist.
“Excuse me,” said the visitor. “Where’s the nightlife?” The resident pointed up the street to a sign visible in the light of a solitary street lamp.
“That’s the office of the burial society. There should be someone on duty till midnight.”
The presence of a tourist after dark was itself a rarity. Almost all tourists were day-trippers up from Tel Aviv. The new Israel Museum in 1966 was floodlit at night so that tourists who did remain would have something to see. Because of the $30 nightly electricity bill, however, this could be managed only twice a week.
It was by chance that the person in charge at City Hall when the walls dividing Jerusalem came down was someone whose life had served as preparation for one of the most challenging tasks ever to confront a mayor.
TEDDY KOLLEK was a former gunrunner with the tastes of a Viennese banker, which he might well have become. Born to a banker employed by Rothschild interests in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Kollek grew up in a genteel world of spas and pastry, but was caught up in the Zionist movement in his teens. He arrived in Palestine in 1935 on the ship Gerusaleme and helped found Kibbutz Ein Gev on Lake Kinneret. The Zionist movement would periodically send the articulate, self-confident young pioneer back to Europe on sensitive missions. On one occasion, he obtained travel permits from a Nazi official in Vienna for Jewish youngsters going to Palestine.
The innocuous-looking official was Adolf Eichmann.
During World War II, Kollek was sent to intrigue- ridden Istanbul as a Jewish Agency liaison with Allied intelligence. In 1947, he was posted to New York to head the arms-acquisition mission of the Hagana. From a hotel suite above the famed Copacabana night club, he ran a whirlwind operation, purchasing everything from blankets to bombers. It was a job that kept him one step ahead of British intelligence and the FBI and in touch with scientists, bankers, union bosses, mobsters and anyone else who might help the cause.
With Israel’s independence, he took over the American desk at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, but he was soon back in the United States as the No. 2 man at the Israeli Embassy. The convivial Kollek established an easy rapport with the top figures in the American political and intelligence establishment and was a frequent dinner guest at the home of Allen Dulles, head of the CIA. When he returned to Jerusalem, it was to the nerve center of government as director-general of prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s office, a post he held for 11 years.
In 1965, following Ben-Gurion’s retirement, Kollek went into business for the first time in his life, becoming a well-paid real-estate executive. Within six months, he was bored and open to new suggestions. Ben-Gurion loyalists who had broken off from the Labor Party to form Rafi – including Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan – urged Kollek to run for mayor of Jerusalem. As a gesture of loyalty to Ben-Gurion, he agreed, filing his candidacy on the last possible day.
His campaign manager was Meron Benvenisti, who had worked in the government’s Tourism Department when it was part of the Prime Minister’s Office. Kollek recognized in him a kindred spirit – a pragmatist who did not permit bureaucracy to get in the way of the grand design.
Benvenisti had Kollek make speeches from the back of a pickup truck around town, a type of spirited campaigning new to staid Jerusalem. Kollek’s initial lack of enthusiasm gave way as the campaign heated up. In a major political upset, his list achieved a tie with the incumbent Labor Party. By forming a coalition with smaller factions, Teddy Kollek, at 54, became mayor of Jerusalem.
He was soon wondering aloud whether he would be able to finish his four-year term. The answer was provided by the Jordanian gunner who fired the first shell into Israeli Jerusalem on June 5, 1967. Kollek once again had a challenge worthy of his talents.
THREE WEEKS after the war’s end, the Knesset tripled the size of Israeli Jerusalem by annexing Jordanian Jerusalem and a large swath of rural territory around it. Sixty-five thousand Arabs and 180,000 Jews who had been dodging each other’s shells a few weeks before looked across the broken border fences to find themselves neighbors. The Arabs were stunned and terrified, the Jews euphoric.
On the eve of the annexation, defense minister Dayan declared that there would be free movement between the two halves of Jerusalem for both Jews and Arabs. Officials reacted with alarm. Murder, looting and general mayhem would follow such a precipitous move, they warned. Two days later, the barriers came down and Jews and Arabs streamed past each other at crossing points to visit what had been for 19 years as remote as the far side of the moon. On this dreamlike day, police recorded not a single untoward incident.
Ninety thousand mines that Israel and Jordan had planted in and around Jerusalem were cleared in the ensuing months – though not before a dozen army sappers and 70 Jewish and Arab civilians trying to cross no-man’s-land reportedly had feet blown off.
The medieval ramparts of the Old City were cleared of bunkers, and Arab craftsmen restored the war-battered gates under supervision of Israeli preservation experts.
Kollek offered Benvenisti the most sensitive task in the city administration: responsibility for the Arab sector. Kollek was an experienced man of the world, Benvenisti a promising young historian.
But the pair had no precedent to follow in integrating a conquered population into an urban framework alongside the people who had just conquered them. (The term “conquerers” is misleading in that it was the “conquered” who started the war.) In the absence of clear government guidelines, the pair fell back on their liberal and pragmatic instincts.
When the first anniversary of the war neared, Benvenisti proposed that the Arab residents be permitted to put up a memorial to their war dead the way Israelis did. Kollek pushed the proposal through the city council in the face of opponents who noted that the Jordanian dead had set out to destroy Israel. A memorial was put up by the Arab community in the Muslim cemetery outside the Old City walls, near Lions’ Gate.
The bulk of east Jerusalemites preferred to retain their Jordanian citizenship rather than accept Israeli citizenship. But they were entitled, as residents, to vote in municipal elections, and thousands would do so. They did not field their own candidates, so as not to grant legitimacy to Israeli rule. However, Kollek and Benvenisti met regularly with the 44 mukhtars, or headmen, of villages and neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
The pair agreed not to appoint “Uncle Muhammads” who would sit on the city council in Arab headdress to provide window dressing. They understood the alienation Jerusalem’s Arabs felt and their need for communal – not just individual – self-expression. When a group of foreign architects urged Kollek to raze the Muslim Hospital on the Mount of Olives – a building they termed an eyesore – he replied, “We can’t do that, because they built the hospital themselves. They infinitely prefer it to anything we can build, even if we build it infinitely better.”
KOLLEK AND Benvenisti fought the government’s plan to hold a military parade on Independence Day through the heart of east Jerusalem two years after the war, saying it would rub salt in the Arabs’ wounds.
“This is a parade for Jews, not Arabs,” argued Kollek. The route was partially altered. They also attempted, with less success, to limit government expropriation of Arab land for Jewish housing developments and to prevent nationalist Jews from moving into Arab neighborhoods.
They succeeded in persuading the government to waive the Israeli Arab curriculum that had initially been imposed on east Jerusalem schools, and to link them instead to Jordan, an enemy state. Kollek pointed out that east Jerusalemites wished to send their children to universities in the Arab world.
The government agreed to permit east Jerusalem’s schools to adopt the Jordanian curriculum and to have their matriculation examination papers processed by Jordanian officials permitted entry for that purpose.
Addressing 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 east 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. You can’t change that. 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 in the world 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?”
Kollek would be dubbed “Defender of Islam” by the right wing, while Benvenisti, who received several telephone threats, woke one morning to find the word “traitor” painted on his front door. The relative tranquility the city experienced in the postwar years was not won by enlightened policy, Benvenisti would maintain, but by the innate good sense of the Arab population, which chose to refrain from dangerous provocation.
Nevertheless, the liberal policies he and Kollek shaped made life tolerable for the Arabs for two decades.
“TEDDY,” AS he was called by all, arrived at city hall at 6:30 a.m. every day and insisted on punching the clock like any municipal employee. Early risers would see him being driven through the city on an inspection tour, sometimes with a visiting journalist for whom he could find no time later in the day. By the time his secretaries arrived in the office, they would find notes on a yellow pad about street lights and road signs that needed installing, graffiti that needed erasing, potholes that needed filling, and trees that needed planting. The mayor’s work day, which included cultivating foreign donors, often lasted past midnight. He never napped at home during the day, but he regularly fell asleep on public platforms as speeches droned on. His own speeches rarely lasted more than two minutes.
Clocks were not the only things the mayor punched. Despite his age (he was 80 when he ran and lost his last mayoral race in 1993 to Ehud Olmert) he did not hesitate from time to time to slap citizens on the street who were offensive. Such was his image that no one ever filed charges.
Kollek kept his home telephone number listed. An elected official, he felt, should be accessible to the public. He would sometimes get calls after midnight. The left-leaning Kollek would serve as mayor for 28 years, even though Jerusalem voters were overwhelmingly right-wing. The Likud found it difficult even to find a candidate willing to stand against him. “I’m running opposite Teddy, not against him,” said a Likud candidate in the 1980s who had been pressed by his party leadership to enter the race.
“Teddy’s above politics,” explained a blue-collar voter outside a polling station. “He cares about the city and he gets things done.”
With government funding limited, he established the Jerusalem Foundation, which served as a conduit for hundreds of millions of dollars raised abroad – mostly by himself – to build parks, community centers, theaters and museums.
He presided over Jerusalem during one of the most tumultuous periods in its history. That it did not collapse about his ears was testimony enough to his abilities. Despite the occasional terrorist act, Jerusalem would remain a safer place than almost any major Western city until the outbreak of the first intifada 20 years after the Six Day War.
During his gunrunning days in New York, Kollek recalled one day, he had sometimes escaped the strain of work by traveling uptown at midnight to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, something he would no longer do in the 1970s.
“You have to build a city so that the fire hazard is small. I would like to build a city that will still be safe years from now,” he said. His formula was to encourage each community to celebrate its own distinctive identity in order to cultivate both self pride and mutual respect.
It was among the worldly and successful that he was best able to reach into himself. With a brandy glass in one hand and a cigar in the other – shaping his thoughts as he stared into the smoke – he would offer a vision of Jerusalem to a group of world-renowned architects and educators with an eloquence the public never heard.
Reunification had ushered in a new epoch on his watch. Not since the time of the Second Temple had Jerusalem witnessed such intense development.
Not since the Crusades had it been such a focus of world attention. The goal Kollek had set for himself was to turn a sleepy backwater into a radiant city that did honor to its name. Some would see the humanistic values that guided him as stemming from the European liberalism into which he was born. Kollek himself would call them Jewish values.
The writer, a former reporter for
The Jerusalem Post, is author of Jerusalem on Earth and of The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest.