To World, Kollek Was Jerusalem


Jerusalem — A visitor handed Teddy Kollek a book to autograph several years ago. Kollek, sitting behind his desk in the office of The Jerusalem Foundation, where he worked as international chairman after losing a race for re-election as the city’s mayor in 1993, looked at the cover — the book, distributed by the foundation, was a collection of writings and photographs from his career.

“Where did you get this?” Kollek asked.An assistant said she had given it to the visitor.

“Why didn’t you ask for money?” Kollek barked — in other words, why hadn’t his aide requested a donation for the foundation.

It was vintage Teddy Kollek, Gruff. Unconcerned about his image. Looking out for Jerusalem’s best interests.

Kollek, who died this week at the age of 95, was, after almost three decades as mayor, the living symbol of Israel’s capital, though a reluctant candidate for office the first time.

“He was in love with Jerusalem,” said portrait photographer Arnold Newman, a friend of Kollek since the late 1940s. “To him, Jerusalem was his life. You knew that if he asked for money, it was for Israel.”

A New York patron of Kollek’s projects once remarked, “Just calling Teddy to say Happy New Year winds up costing me a $1,000 donation.”

A blustery, cigar-smoking, short-tempered executive, Mr. Kollek was at times a shirtsleeves-and-open-collar bon vivant who charmed money from the world’s tuxedo crowd.

He was a bundle of contradictions: a tough but caring boss who rose before dark to greet Jerusalem’s garbage workers; an avowed secularist who garnered criticism from haredi residents while granting land to Orthodox institutions; an idealist who admitted in his post-mayoral years that his vision of a united Jewish-Arab city was unrealistic; a self-effacing public figure who reluctantly let Jerusalem’s soccer stadium carry his first name; a non-politician with a politician’s knack for remembering people’s names; an indefatigable worker who would doze off at ceremonial events; an accessible public servant whose home number was always listed in the phonebook.

“People phone me with personal problems,” Kollek said when he was again a private citizen, during the administration of his successor, Ehud Olmert. “People still come to me [with problems]. Naturally, I do anything to help.”

“Everyone was his friend,” said New York film producer Carl Katz, who shared with Kollek an interest in antiquities. “He cultivated their friendship. He would send someone a cigar or congratulate them on a kid’s graduation.”

And to most people, he was simply “Teddy.”

The parks and gardens and halls of culture that were built during Kollek’s administration earned him the reputation as Jerusalem’s greatest builder since Herod, who ruled there as king two millennia ago. “I was never interested in the greater politics, but in what I can personally do,” Kollek said in a 1999 interview, adding that he considered the construction of 24 community centers — 19 in Jewish neighborhoods, five in Arab neighborhoods — to be his proudest accomplishment.His historical legacy?

“I’m not interested,” he told an interviewer. “I’m not at all interested.”

Always ‘A Doer’

In his later years Kollek showed up each day at The Jerusalem Foundation, leaning heavily on a cane in his last years, still smoking cigars — he cut down to two a day, he insisted. There he was surrounded by photographs and other mementos of his 60-plus years in Israel’s public life. At the foundation, he made calls, answered letters, and greeted dignitaries who wanted to shake the hand of history.

“I enjoyed doing things,” Kollek said in a 2003 interview with The Jewish Week. “I’m not here to [just] sit here.”

“He was harder on himself than he was on other people,” Newman said.

“Teddy’s a doer … a person who has great vision,” said Ralph Goldman, honorary executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and a friend of Kollek for more than five decades. “No job for Teddy is limited by what you’re supposed to do.

Goldman called Kollek “a yelling guy,” but “a sensitive guy.”

“When Teddy wants to get something done,” Goldman said, “he wants it done yesterday.”

Born in a village near Budapest, Kollek was named for Theodor Herzl, a friend of Kollek’s father at the University of Vienna.

At seven, he moved with his family to Vienna, where he met Sigmund Freud and was known as a talented skater, avid theatergoer and indifferent student. His fundraising abilities were evident early — at his bar mitzvah party, he asked guests to give money to buy a canoe for the Zionist youth group in which he was an active member.

He dropped out of school temporarily to work on a youth movement farm; in 1935, sensing danger for Europe’s Jewish life from the growing Nazi movement, he moved to Palestine, followed two years later by his bride, Tamar, daughter and granddaughter of a Vienna rabbi. The couple was founding members of Kibbutz Ein Gev on the Sea of Galilee.On missions back to Europe for Zionist youth groups, he met with Adolf Eichmann, persuading the Nazi leader to release 3,000 Jewish youngsters from concentration camps in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in order to immigrate to England.

“It was a very formal visit — very correct,” Kollek said of the encounter with the war criminal.

In 1941 he began working with David Ben-Gurion, later Israel’s first prime minister, at the Jewish Agency. He made contacts with the Jewish underground in German-occupied Central and Eastern Europe, opened a Jewish Agency office in Istanbul, coordinated with American and British intelligence agencies, headed the Haganah’s clandestine operation in New York City to obtain arms for Israel, helped organize the first Israel Bonds drive, and was appointed director general of the prime minister’s office.

In 1965, a year after he joined a group of prominent individuals in founding the Israel Museum, he heeded the call to run for mayor of Jerusalem that came from Ben-Gurion, who had left the Labor Party to establish his Rafi faction.

Kollek was not interested in the position.

“It was not a terribly glamorous job,” said Steven Bayme, American Jewish-Israeli relations director at the American Jewish Committee.

But Kollek ran for mayor, he said, because “I lived under the impression, which I still do today, that if the prime minister needs somebody to do something, it is a citizen’s duty to do it.”

He won the race. The next year he founded The Jerusalem Foundation to raise money for cultural and civic projects not covered by the municipal budget; over the years, the foundation has raised more than $500 million.

And the next year, 1967, Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, reunifying the city, which had been divided since 1948.“Everything changed,” Kollek said. “Suddenly I had a fascinating job.

‘Awesome Responsibility’

“As the first mayor of a unified Jerusalem, I became the guardian of the most significant place on earth,” he said. “Because of this awesome responsibility, I knew Jerusalem had to go beyond merely providing a better life for those who made this their home. It had to live up to the values of the Jewish people and fulfill the dreams of others throughout the world who turned to Jerusalem for hope and inspiration.

“Back then,” he said, “Jerusalem was still very much an Ottoman city. It was also the poorest city in Israel, with an immigrant population so large that people had to live in tents.”

He set out to transform the city, from a Levant backwater to a European-style cultural center, from an arid plain to an oasis of green, from a place recently divided by barbed wire to a city whose Arab and Jewish residents felt equally at home. Appointing a Jerusalem Committee of leading experts in many fields to advise him, he upgraded the education and health systems, planted trees around the city, spearheaded the building of housing and synagogues, rebuilt the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, had historical landmarks restored, and encouraged archeological research.

A product of an Austro-Hungarian lifestyle, Kollek tried to import its flavor to the Middle East. “He brought an environment of coffeehouses and parks and grand public spaces and great public institutions,” film producer Carl Katz said. “He set the tone and he established the attitude” of the city’s dealings with its new Arab citizens, said Kenneth Bialkin, a prominent New York attorney and Jewish leader. He said Kollek made a “great effort to reach out to the Arab community.”

“Despite his great goodwill,” Bialkin said, “the political roadmap was such that although many parts of the Arab community respected him, the Arab leadership never would accept the kind of living together that Teddy idealized.

But Kollek did not let that stop him from “reaching out to the Arab community,” Bialkin said. One of Kollek’s pet projects was the Jerusalem Zoo, which eventually moved from the urban Sanhedria neighborhood to the then-underdeveloped Malkah area.

“We have to bring people together,” he would explain. “We have a varied population, Jews from 104 backgrounds, 40 different Christian denominations. All the groups mix at the zoo. If this goes on for a generation, they’ll grow up without having fear of the other group. In Jerusalem, the zoo fulfills a political function.”

If Kollek misjudged Arab rejection of Jewish rule, he equally overlooked the changing nature of the city, according to some observers.

Strains With The Orthodox

“I don’t think Kollek ever anticipated the dramatic transformation of Jerusalem,” to a city with a decidedly Orthodox character in the last few decades, said Bayme of the American Jewish Committee.

Haredi residents of Jerusalem increased in numbers and political influence during Kollek’s 29 years as mayor. Many of the so-called ultra-Orthodox community considered him unsympathetic to their concerns.

“Relations between Kollek and the haredi community were very strained, and it was largely the unified haredi vote for Olmert that brought him to power,” said Jonathan Rosenblum, director of the Jerusalem-based haredi Am Echad media resource organization. “But his reign as mayor was a long one, and the nature of the relationship cannot be confined to just the last years,” Rosenblum added. “It was Kollek, for instance, who gave Belz [a major chasidic group] permission to build its massive world center.”

Kollek was “not religious, but not anti-religious,” said Rabbi Menachem Porush, former Knesset member and longtime Orthodox politician. Rabbi Porush supported Kollek’s political career.

“He was a very broad-minded man,” the rabbi said. Though a cosmopolitan man, Kollek refused to make one symbolic concession to modernity – he did not befriend the computer. “I decided one day that it does not pay at my age to learn to use one,” he said in a 1999 interview.

What path would his life have taken if he had not become mayor of Jerusalem, a visitor asked Kollek.

“What did I do before I became mayor?" he asked rhetorically — he would have continued working for David Ben-Gurion.

Then Teddy Kollek went back to work.