The Making of History / Teddy's Legacy

The 28 years Teddy Kollek spent as mayor of Jerusalem created a legendary equivalence between himself and the city.

Were he alive today, Teddy Kollek would be celebrating his 100th birthday at the end of this month. The 28 years he spent as mayor of Jerusalem created a legendary equivalence between himself and the city. No one symbolized more the fiction of the "enlightened occupation" that Moshe Dayan invented, and Kollek believed in - even if not to the very end.

Kollek was elected mayor in 1965, and a year later was already fed up with the job. The backwater he had taken it upon himself to run was too small for him. The newspapers were united in the opinion that he had failed at his job. Kollek planned to resign. And then the Six-Day War took place. The conquest of the eastern part of the city made Jerusalem the most important project since the founding of the state, and Kollek came across as the David Ben-Gurion of the capital.

Teddy Kollek
Getty Images

Amid the young Mapai party members who huddled in David Ben-Gurion's shadow, Kollek radiated something foreign. He never fully mastered the Hebrew language: He thought in English and German, the language of his Vienna youth. I asked him once where he actually felt at home, and Kollek replied that if President Roosevelt had invited him to manage the New Deal, he might have felt at home in the Tennessee Valley. Undertaking the development of Jerusalem turned him into the city's great patriot.

Few could resist his charm; he came across as a paternal dynamo whose private telephone number was listed in the phone book, and who knew every traffic light and every flowerbed. He hated bureaucratic restrictions, and did not always keep to the right side of the law, with a somewhat childishly impatient attitude that expected the municipality's legal counsel to legitimate his every whim.

In the history of the Zionist movement there was no better schnorrer when it came to securing donations: Kollek would explain to would-be contributors that they weren't doing the city a favor in leaving their money in it. On the contrary: Jerusalem was doing them a favor by deigning to accept their money. He tended to decide almost by himself what would be done with the money, and from this standpoint he was a millionaire without any millions to his own name: Indeed, in contrast to his successors he was not a wealthy man.

Ehud Olmert aroused Kollek's suspicion - even before the veteran mayor knew about the man that everyone knows today. And Nir Barkat, a charisma-challenged, millionaire-technocrat, is someone Kollek would have appointed at most to run the municipal tourism department.

Starting in 1977, I worked as his chief of staff for two years; more than once we discussed the limits of his influence as mayor: Had people listened to him, he believed, the new neighborhoods that were hastily built after the Six-Day War might not have become distant bedroom neighborhoods and would not have smothered the city center to death.

Many believed that the multicultural tolerance Kollek had internalized in Vienna made him the right man to run things in Jerusalem. For a while he did in fact manage to give the occupation the character of a never-ending peace carnival, and attracted to the city celebrities from every country: Marc Chagall and Frank Sinatra and everyone in between. Everyone bought from him the promise that a "united Jerusalem" could succeed, because they became convinced that he himself believed this; many of them became ambassadors of the occupation.

We spoke a lot about the city's Arabs. Kollek saw it as his duty to be everyone's mayor, though he was sorry that this population had not fled or been expelled in the Six-Day War, as the country's Arabs had fled and been expelled in the War of Independence. He was unable to persuade the Arab inhabitants that "united Jerusalem" would be a blessing for everyone, just as the Zionist movement had failed in its attempt to persuade the Arabs that establishing the State of Israel would be economically beneficial to them as well.

The gap between the level of services in the two parts of the city kept on growing; this did not happen deliberately so Jerusalem's Arabs would leave, but rather because not many saw a contradiction between the oath to maintain "Jerusalem, eternal and united," and discrimination against its Arab residents. Kollek was more sensitive to the Arabs' desires, but also neglected the eastern part of the city. In the early years of his tenure, this policy contradicted his declared purpose of severing the Arabs from the Palestinians in the West Bank. Like the fathers of the Zionist movement, Kollek believed at first that economic prosperity would make the Arab population forget its national yearnings. Over the years he came to realize his mistake, and toward the end of his life Kollek too knew that sooner or later the city's governance would be divided anew.