Where Teddy's Zionism went wrong

Had he diverted a fraction of his great energies from fund-raising to economic development, he would have left Jerusalem a far better place.

teddy kollek b&w 298.88 (photo credit: Jerusalem municipality)
teddy kollek b&w 298.88
(photo credit: Jerusalem municipality)
The death last week of Teddy Kollek may bring to a close the era of great Zionist triumphs and, alas, also great Zionist failures. While it may be too early yet to draw an accurate balance between the two, an understanding of their dynamics may help us comprehend why a state that was launched with so much hope, faith, blood and sweat, finds it morale increasingly diminished; why despite all its truly remarkable achievements its often heroic citizens are struck more and more by a painful despondency, by a feeling that this was not the state for which they prayed and sacrificed so fervently. With the timeless Shimon Peres and the legendary Moshe Dayan, Teddy Kollek was, in the formative years of Israel, the 1950s, the key player in the triumvirate that dominated the Israeli polity under the aegis of its grand "Old Man," David Ben-Gurion. The careers of these three men, their spectacular achievements and grand failures parallel the tragic descent of political Zionism (more accurately socialist Zionism, since socialism totally dominated Zionism since the early 1920s) from its days of greatest glory, when it helped create, against all odds, a Jewish state in Palestine to its present-day decline when it organizational carcass, the Jewish Agency, is ignored as irrelevant or despised and pitied after it has lost the spirit that once animated it. In the '50s Ben-Gurion attempted to leapfrog his three "Young Turks" over the second-generation Mapai leadership, the old guard consisting of Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Pinhas Sapir and Golda Meir. Like most autocrats he could not stomach his heirs apparent. But he also had very serious concerns. He realized that this old guard and the corrupt machine that propped it up may have been politically successful, but that long term they were not successful in the excruciating task of building a nation. He feared that Labor dominance might be lost (as indeed eventually happened) as the discontent with its system of misrule, nepotism and corruption would alienate two key emerging voting groups - the young and the new immigrants - from his Mapai party. THE YOUNG, he saw, were already increasingly tempted by the Utopian siren song of radical socialism, (well, actually communism, and the worst kind, the Stalinist version). The new immigrants were starting to eye his hated rivals the Revisionists for traditionalist and nationalist reasons. Worse still, he feared that not being imbued with "the pioneering spirit" (namely socialist indoctrination) they might revert to their "degenerate" exilic life style of profit-seeking "capitalism" represented by the General Zionists, the party of shopkeepers and gazoz vendors (the only worse insult he could hurl at anyone was to call him a fascist or a Nazi, but that was reserved for Satan himself, Ze'ev Jabotinsky). He therefore decided to re-enliven Mapai's leadership by ridding it of its musty old ideologues and incompetent apparatchiks and replacing them by young "bitzuistim" - operatives who would get things done but have no political base of their own; technocrats who would loyally bring into fruition Ben-Gurion's tenacious vision of a socialist Israel. Between Peres, Dayan, and Kollek, Ben-Gurion tapped Teddy to be the director-general of the Prime Minister's office. Teddy was in fact the CEO of the state in the years when power was so concentrated in the hands of government that critics were only slightly exaggerating when they described Israel as the only Bolshevik state with free elections. Ben-Gurion was mostly impressed by Teddy's great appetite for work and capacity to get things done. Having just been hired, I recall arriving for an appointment with Teddy at 5:30 p.m. only to learn that my appointment had actually been for 5:30 a.m. He started his day at 4 a.m. and worked until late at night. He had plenty of time for catnaps, however, during long-winded political speeches in ceremonies he had to attend. But he also appreciated that unlike most of the gruff young Sabras around him, whose anti-bourgeois upbringing did not make them urbane, to say the least, Teddy spoke English well and had winning ways with people. With Israel then developing its close relationship with the US and with its Jewish community these rare qualities became great assets. SO WHY was Teddy's great promise not entirely fulfilled? Why did Jerusalem, which became Teddy's crowning love, the focus of his indefatigable efforts, not become a success story? Why, despite the many monuments he built, it is a city in decline, needing, like many sections of Israel, constant infusions of charity to save it from economic retardation and even occasional collapse. The answer is in the dysfunctional system that Ben-Gurion and his heirs instituted in Israel, and the anti-productive mentality that has made our most talented people economic cripples. Had Teddy diverted a fraction of his great energies from charitable fund-raising to economic development, to the cutting of taxes and of the Byzantine and corrupt municipal bureaucracy, to cheaper land prices and housing, to the encouragement rather than the suppression of private enterprise - he could have left us a prosperous Jerusalem with a sound economic base. But private economic activity was not part of Teddy's socialist vision of Zionism. Ideas, alas, do have consequences and wrong ideas very painful ones.