Teddy’s Town

Jerusalem’s late mayor transformed the city in ways that today are often taken for granted

By Noga Tarnopolsky

Published January 26, 2007, issue of January 26, 2007.
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The evening after Teddy Kollek lost his last race for mayor of Jerusalem in 1993, after 28 years at the city’s helm, I sat in an Arabic language class at the Hebrew University. The teacher, a Muslim from East Jerusalem, asked his students, a motley assemblage of young, chatty left-wingers, retirees and barrel-chested young men from the security services, what they thought. The young leftists rushed to condemn Teddy: He betrayed Jerusalem’s Arabs! He built illegally on Arab lands! He was obtuse about Jerusalem’s standing as an international city! He neglected the poor neighborhoods!

Smiling softly at this chorus, our teacher, a man of about 60, said, as if acknowledging a breach that could not be repaired, “But he is a lion.”

My intention is not to plunge this private memory into a bath of maudlin sentimentality, as if Kollek never had his problems or his flaws, or as if he was loved by all. It is a generational memory for me: The teacher was old enough to see Kollek for what he was, outsized, whereas the students were awash in a vogue of the day, which has since ripened, of judging Kollek by quotidian political concerns.

Not that these concerns do not loom large, but the students sitting in the classroom that evening could not remember or even imagine the Jerusalem in which our teacher had grown up. Not because they could not conceive of the city partitioned, but because without knowing it, they could not imagine the city without Kollek, meaning the city without the Jerusalem Theater or the Khan Theatre, without the Cinematheque, without the Sam Spiegel Film School, without Binyanei Ha’oomah, the conference center, without the Supreme Court, without the Israel Museum, without the Museum of Science. It feels somewhat gauche to spell out such a list, but the fact remains: One man built them all, and today, for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, Jerusalem is literally impossible to think about without them.

Jerusalem is not a city that expanded by natural growth. It is by several orders of magnitude different from what it would have been, even after the Six Day War, without the impatient, obsessive and municipally megalomaniacal ministrations of Teddy Kollek. (Not incidentally, from the instant in which the end of the Six Day War was decreed, Kollek came out saying that with the exception of Jerusalem, every centimeter of land conquered should be abandoned. Many of Israel’s commenting class who have attacked his record would be embarrassed to have to account today for the euphoria they expressed in those very days, about those same lands.) The construction of buildings is, of course, a common mania among leaders wishing to leave their mark. Among heads of state, the un-modest Francois Mitterand was happy to be remembered for one great structure, the Arche de la Défense. Kollek, striding like a cigar-chomping goliath, established at least 10 world-class cultural institutions in his adopted city. Ironically, this makes him all the more difficult to sum up; the standard by which Teddy Kollek might properly be evaluated or understood is far from evident.

Without a doubt, Kollek was the last of the great builders, the leaders after whom reality is utterly changed. Jerusalem, as my old Arabic teacher knew, became an unrecognizable place once Teddy Kollek passed through it.

He arrived on the scene in an Israeli political context breathtakingly bereft of the cynicism that assails us today, in which the national government’s economic betrayal of Jerusalem was something shocking, not banal. The government’s refusal to invest in Jerusalem’s development (while always touting its eternal, ethereal qualities) led Kollek, who detested red tape, pitiful pretexts and poetic ruminations, to establish the Jerusalem Foundation as an alternative source of funding. For him, managing Jerusalem, from dawn garbage-collection inspections to the laying of sewer lines in East Jerusalem and unto the Herodian scale of construction, was fueled by a blistering sense of urgency.

Kollek was irritated by the almost inevitable comparison with Herod, whom he saw as a profligate, but he was not a man bereft of ego. When Mario Cuomo came to Jerusalem in 1992, in the midst of another abortive presidential campaign, Kollek lifted his cane to point out a huge boulder just to the right of Jaffa Gate, and began thus: “You’ve heard of my predecessor, King David? Great leader, great strategist. Great lover, too. On that rock — see? — David made love to Bathsheva.” He was histrionic, and he was flawed. In his later years, he publicly regretted his failures to integrate East and West Jerusalem, and the iniquity is great. But he left a mark on Jerusalem and on all of its residents like that of a beneficent force of nature. The mayor of any major historical city (Walter Veltroni of Rome and Bernard Delanoe of Paris come to mind) would likely give up a limb to have a fraction of the impact he had.

Noga Tarnopolsky is a cultural correspondent living in Israel.

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