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- November 06, 1978
- Vol. 10
- No. 19
Mayor Teddy Kollek Presides Over Jerusalem with a Firm, Glad and Open Hand
His job would stagger a lesser man but, at 67, Kollek thrives on the international pressure and the 20-hour workdays. When he is not actually governing troubled Jerusalem, he is flying all over the world to promote it—and the State of Israel. He has a "million best friends," and among them are presidents and kings, film stars and musical virtuosos, archbishops and bankers. Almost without exception they have been persuaded or inveigled by Teddy Kollek to contribute something of value to his city. The Billy Rose Sculpture Garden, the Marc Chagall stained glass windows in a synagogue, the Rothschild Room of the Israel Museum, the Frank Sinatra Youth Center are monuments not just to their famous donors but to Kollek's ability as a schnorrer. It is Yiddish for "brash beggar," and he revels in the title.
Kollek finds time, too, for his more commonplace constituents. The lowliest Arab shopkeeper, Jewish housewife or Coptic monk can bring a grievance to him and be assured an attentive ear. Teddy is willing to listen to complaints that other mayors leave to subordinates—the noisy parties in a neighbor's apartment, faulty sewage systems, unfair taxes. Whenever possible, he acts on them. In Jerusalem itself, from shoeshine boys to the Chief Rabbi, he seems to know everyone. Among world capitals, the city, with a population of 380,000, is small potatoes, but as a spiritual epicenter of three great religions, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, it is a hot potato indeed. Let Mayor Kollek erect a controversial building, order a Jewish housing development in an Arab district or allow one of the city's sacred stones to be tampered with, and an international incident results.
It is a unique city, and his role is too. After the Six-Day War in 1967, when east Jerusalem, the Arab part of the city, was occupied by the victorious Israeli army, Kollek ordered the walls and barbed wire dividing the two sections torn down. Ever since, the mayor has staunchly defended the concept of a united city under Jewish rule—and hopes that no post-Camp David agreement will disturb the status quo. "Jerusalem must never be divided again," he says. To those who complain that he is too tolerant of the 100,000 Muslim residents, Teddy replies with irritation: "What do they want? Terrorism and disturbances? I do what I can for the Arabs, and this is responsible for the relative peace and quiet in the city. It's their city too. They have lived here for 1,300 years. My policy brought peaceful coexistence. Arabs and Jews live next to each other without fear. Three religions peaceful in one city. That's what it's all about. Jerusalem works." If he had his way, Kollek would give the Muslim and Christian minorities even more autonomy, dividing the city into boroughs, each with its native mayor. He commissioned a Gallup poll last spring to test the city's reaction to his administration. "If they are ready to play it my way," Teddy said at the time, "I will run again for another term. If not, I shall go home." Eighty percent of the citizens endorsed his policies, but then nobody in Jerusalem believed his threat to quit. Almost in the same breath he said, with a smile, "I intend to be mayor of Jerusalem as long as I can. Preferably until the year 2000." In municipal elections next week Teddy is expected to win a fourth five-year term with ease.
As the only major functionary of the opposition Labor Party still in office, Kollek has little to do with the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He is never consulted about Arab-Israeli matters or any other national issues. "Governments don't want advice," he growls. "They think they know everything." (Kollek, for instance, sharply disagrees with the construction of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. He advocates relinquishing all claims to that former Jordanian territory to avoid adding another million Arabs to the Israeli population.) Of Begin himself, Teddy says, "Our relationship is correct." But he was embarrassed when Begin greeted him with an emotional bear hug after his return from Camp David. "I don't like being kissed by men," says Teddy stiffly.
When he talks about other Israeli leaders past and present, he sometimes seems more candid than necessary. In his recently published autobiography, For Jerusalem, Teddy describes David Ben-Gurion, his own mentor and longtime boss, as "the most impersonal man I have ever known." He says, "I admired him, but I had lots of arguments with him." Of Golda Meir, he says, "We didn't get along. She had a fantastic power of persuasion, but she was always wrong." His blunt opinions are outcrop-pings of a hair-trigger temper that is masked by Kollek's charisma and geniality. "Sometimes it's hell working for him," whispers a secretary. "He bangs the table, hollers, throws ashtrays on the floor and has tantrums. But 10 minutes later he smiles sheepishly and apologizes. If he was wrong, he admits it too." A staff member adds, "He is goddamn impatient and has no understanding when it comes to inefficiency. But isn't that how he turned Jerusalem from a provincial town into a world capital and cultural center?"
That plus the constitution of a fighting bull. Every morning at 5:30 a.m. the alarm clock rouses the mayor in his modest four-room apartment in Jerusalem's residential quarter. Teddy sleeps no more than four or five hours a night and makes up for it with catnaps—at meals, during dull meetings, at concerts, even standing up. After selecting his clothes for the day—he has three complete wardrobes in different sizes to fit his variable waistline—he sits down to a trencherman's breakfast prepared by his patient wife, Tamar, 61. Breakfast is the only time when she can count on seeing her husband alone. Their son, Amos, 31, a novelist, lives in a nearby apartment with his second wife; their daughter, Osnat, 18, is away on her compulsory service in the Israeli army. Over the years Tamar has coped with her husband's habit of telephoning an hour in advance to announce that he is bringing 10 guests home for dinner. She always manages, often with chicken soup and ragout, though world celebrities may have to sit on the floor.
Kollek drives himself to work—his official chauffeur does not come on duty until 8 a.m.—and is the first arrival at the dingy municipality building. He gathers the morning papers at the entrance gate and races up three flights of stairs to his office, too impatient to wait for the laggard elevator. His walls are decorated with ancient maps, mostly of Jerusalem, and glass cabinets filled with artifacts dug up around the city (e.g., a pair of loaded dice left behind by Roman legionnaires). Kollek's booming voice soon is ricocheting through the old building. The problems are both typical of a big city—streets and buildings—and unique to Jerusalem—the restoration of ancient neighborhoods and the absorption of 100,000 immigrants from Arab countries. Meanwhile he receives a procession of Arab notables and representatives of the city's 34 Christian sects.
Lunch is brief and often shared with a distinguished tourist—Saul Bellow, Arthur Rubinstein, Jackie Onassis, a Rockefeller or a Rothschild. There is almost always something in it for Jerusalem: a magazine article, a benefit concert, a fat donation, or just publicity pictures. Teddy rarely attends official lunches or dinners. "It means three hours' loss of time," he explains. "If I met three different people during those hours instead, it could result in a park for the poorer quarter, maybe another great master for the museum, perhaps another community center too."
If there are no official functions to attend at night, the Kolleks often entertain visitors at their apartment and end the evening with a nocturnal spin around the city—now spectacularly illuminated—in a minibus, with Mayor Kollek pointing out the sights. The magnificent Israel Museum, high in the Judean hills, is Teddy Kollek's proudest achievement.
After his guests depart, Teddy may drop into Fink's Bar or the Goliath for a sandwich of Camembert on black pumpernickel, a glass of red wine and conversation with artists, politicians and intellectuals. On his way home he prowls the town, endlessly inspecting, and continues to dictate letters into his tape recorder in the bedroom until 1 a.m.
The world has always known him as Teddy, although when he was born in Vienna in 1911, he was formally—and prophetically—named Theodor Herzl Kollek, after the founder of modern Zionism. His father, Alfred, was a prosperous director of the Rothschild bank in Vienna. During World War I, when Alfred was an officer in the Imperial Austrian army, the family followed him around central Europe to various billets. By the time Teddy was 11 he was a member of the Zionist movement, and not long afterward he began exhibiting the talents that have made him famous. At his bar mitzvah, he writes in For Jerusalem, he gave the customary speech, then "I added that I was a member of a youth movement, and that a canoe was of major importance, so I would appreciate it if the guests add a little cash to their presents. It was my first fund raising."
Never much of a student, he persuaded his parents to let him end his formal education after high school. He worked briefly in a Rothschild steel mill in Czechoslovakia, but within two months was an unpaid, full-time worker for the Zionists. Living on remittances from his father, he traveled all over Europe on clandestine missions. On a vacation at home, he met and fell in love with Tamar Schwartz, then only a schoolgirl. In 1935 Teddy emigrated to Palestine and helped found a kibbutz on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Tamar followed him two years later and lived with him until her tourist visa was about to expire. "I was a citizen of Palestine by then," Teddy recalls, "and by marrying me she could become one too. That's what convinced us to lay aside our socialist convictions and accept the bourgeois institution of marriage."
In England in 1938, while training young Jewish émigrés for kibbutz life, Teddy met Ben-Gurion. From that point on, the young man's life became a chapter from a spy thriller: arranging with Adolf Eichmann for the emigration of Austrian Jews after the Nazi Anschluss; spiriting refugees out of wartime Europe through Turkey; smuggling arms for the Zionists from the U.S. and Latin America. Soon after the State of Israel was proclaimed, Kollek was named to head the American desk at the foreign office and then served as minister in the embassy in Washington. Later he was director-general of the prime minister's office for 12 years. In 1966 Ben-Gurion persuaded him to run for mayor of Jerusalem.
In all the years since King David, Suleiman the Magnificent, the Crusaders and two millennia of Roman, Ottoman and British proconsuls, it is doubtful whether Jerusalem ever had a more devoted administrator. For all his efforts, Teddy Kollek is paid only $360 a month. Yet he has no ambitions for wealth or more important office. After all, he says, "From Jerusalem there is no promotion. What can be higher than that?"
March 30, 2015
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