Editor's Notes: Mourning Teddy Kollek

Is it nostalgia that places the likes of Kollek, whose idea of personal betterment lay in the growth not of his bank account but of his city, on a higher plane than his national leadership successors?

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
It was to Teddy Kollek's Jerusalem that I came as a new immigrant in the early 1980s. The city was the heart of the revived Jewish nation, and it was the mayor who kept it pumping. It was a capital of seemingly impossible contradictions - "unified" for a decade and a half but patently divided - that only the confidence of a truly visionary mayor could reconcile. I studied in the rarefied air of the university on Mount Scopus, ate Richie's pizza downtown, went to movies in a dilapidated hall with broken seats in Kiryat Hayovel where they provided free tea to help compensate for the absent heating, spent most evenings working here at the Post and occasional others guzzling watermelon and watching martial arts movies at the outdoor stalls facing Damascus Gate. Up the hill was the bullet-pocked exterior of Kollek's municipal headquarters, watching over the improbable mix. The indefatigable, irascible mayor poured his soul into his city, the patent honesty of his cause positively obligating benefactors far and wide to help fund it. Defying the demographics, and belying east Jerusalem's subsequent ready co-option of Intifada violence, his Jerusalem flourished. That Kollek lived a long and extraordinarily full life - contributing more than most of us ever will in the decades before he even thought of becoming Jerusalem's mayor - must compensate for the fact that his passing was rather muted. It had been more than a decade since he had failed in a last, reluctant bid for one more term, and though he kept on working at the Jerusalem Foundation and the Israel Museum, illness had later left him far removed from the public eye. He also happened to die on the day that a rival breaking news story drew bigger headlines. The glass half-full approach would have it that modern, first-world, transparent Israel exposes scandals that would have been covered up in the past, or not thought scandalous at all. The glass half-full approach would have it that the leaders of yesteryear whom we romanticize as icons of selfless propriety would shuffle away shamed and stained under the scrutiny to which their successors are routinely subjected. But is it really misty nostalgia that places the select likes of Kollek, whose idea of personal betterment lay solely in the growth not of his bank account but of his city, on a higher plane than his national leadership successors? I strongly doubt it. Just as I strongly doubt that earlier generations of Israelis had to contend with the repugnant stench of corruption that is today afflicting most every wing of governance and authority. There were scandals, of course, and shocking improprieties by some in high office that went unpunished. But scandal today - inside the police, among ministers, in the presidency and beyond - is the norm. Teddy Kollek, the man who spent some of his younger years battling to save Jews from the Holocaust and his older ones battling to guarantee them a home in their ancestral capital, died on the day that a bunch of allegedly rotten public servants and their allegedly lousy business associates were exposed for having allegedly ruptured the integrity of the tax commission, an authority whose absolute incorruptibility is a necessity if the rest of us are to be expected to honor our financial obligations to the state. Allegedly caught up somewhere in the toxic brew - and how ironic this further coincidence - is the official, Shula Zaken, who performs the same right-hand role for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Kollek played for prime minister David Ben-Gurion. The nation, and most especially the IDF, is still endeavoring to cope with the repercussions of last summer's unsuccessful war with Hizbullah, only too aware that the threats to our physical well-being are multiplying. But Israel's capacity to withstand external aggression is not solely a function of military wisdom and might. In a small country with a people's army, the day-to-day contentment, or otherwise, of those people is a major factor, too, in national security. A country, like ours, in which large proportions of the population simply cannot make it financially through the month is much the weaker for it, no matter how impressive the incomes of the top earners or the overall national growth figures. And a country, like ours, in which the citizens are understandably losing confidence in the institutions of power and those who head them is much the weaker too, its sense of national identity harmed, its patriotism shaken. The rot, moreover, spreads from the top - people watch the bigwigs play fast and loose with the law, and ask themselves why they should be scrupulously honest. In a climate of corruption, it becomes an act of defiance, rather than the norm, to behave with integrity. The last time I saw Teddy was at an event, typically, that brought together a group of overseas donors and notables for an evening at David's Citadel, just inside the Old City's Jaffa Gate. This was a good few years ago, but he was plainly not in the best of health. Still, he mustered the energy to speak briefly with us about developments at the Biblical Zoo, delighting in the then-imminent addition of an array of mosaic-sculpture animals - one more little improvement for his city and its people. Those other headlines on the day of Teddy's passing, that latest evidence of the cynical lawlessness that has come to replace his ethos of eager public service, only underline how much the poorer we all are for the loss.