The mayor who remade holy city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 January, 2007, 12:00am

The American woman was picking a rose from a roadside flower bed near the Knesset in Jerusalem when a car braked sharply and a portly man leaped out.

'What do you think you're doing?' he shouted as he advanced on her. 'Would you do this in your home town?'

'It's just one flower,' said the alarmed woman.

'Do you know what would happen if every tourist picked just one flower?' he responded.

The city's then mayor Teddy Kollek was demonstrating the up-close-and-personal stewardship that would keep him in office for 28 years, an outspoken left-wing politician in a manifestly right-wing city. On January 2, Kollek died in a Jerusalem retirement home aged 95.

As the man who presided over Jerusalem when the Israeli and Jordanian halves of the city were joined after the Six Day war, Kollek was often cited as 'the most famous mayor in the world'. The fame stemmed from his attempts to forge a united city out of a dual entity, representing the conflicting aspirations of Jews and Arabs.

He transformed Jerusalem from a sleepy backwater into a beautiful city infused with cultural vibrancy; this while burnishing its status as a city holy to three great monotheistic religions and achieving a large measure of tolerance in an ethnically and religiously polarised city.

In 1993, at age 82, he ran for a seventh term at the bidding of the Labour Party. But Jerusalem's public decided he had done enough. The man who defeated him was future prime minister Ehud Olmert.

Last week, Kollek was buried in a state funeral on Mount Herzl, in a section reserved for prime ministers and national figures - the only mayor accorded such an honour.

Kollek was born on May 27, 1911, in Nagyvaszony, Hungary. He was named Theodor after Theodor Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, but Teddy was the name he would choose to go by.

He was raised in Vienna, where his father was an executive in the private Rothschild bank. His comfortable upbringing imbued him with self-confidence, as well as a taste for earthly pleasures that shaped his cosmopolitan persona. However, determined to live in a kibbutz (an Israeli collective community), he spurned his father's attempts to make a businessman of him and sailed in 1935 for Haifa, now the main city of northern Israel, on a ship called Jerusalem.

With a group of other young Zionists, he founded Kibbutz Ein Gev on the eastern shore of Lake Tiberias. His girlfriend Tamar, a rabbi's daughter from Vienna, joined him and they married in a simple ceremony. Kollek came down with malaria several times as he helped eke out a living for the commune from fishing. Despite spartan conditions and the oppressive summer heat, he revelled in what he regarded as the fulfilment of his life.

Kollek was chosen to represent the kibbutz in its contacts with the British Mandatory authorities because his English was good and because of his easygoing, urbane personality, bereft of either deference or surliness.

During a stint as military commander of the kibbutz, he would ride up the adjacent Golan Heights on a horse to meet leaders of Arab villages in an effort to maintain good relations. In 1938, he was sent to England to train youths planning to settle in kibbutzim. On one occasion, he travelled to post-Anschluss Vienna to obtain exit permits for several hundred young Jews. The Gestapo official who granted the request after a brief conversation was Adolph Eichmann, who would oversee the transportation of Jews to the death camps during the second world war.

Kollek returned to Palestine in 1942 and became deputy head of intelligence at the Jewish Agency, the embryo government of the Jewish state-in-the-making headed by David Ben-Gurion.

In 1943, he joined a small band of Jewish Agency operatives in neutral Istanbul whose task it was to establish contact by phone and mail with the doomed Jewish communities in Nazi-occupied Europe, the most excruciating task of his life.

At war's end, he was sent to New York to head a purchasing mission to acquire weapons and equipment - often illegally - for the coming confrontation with the Arabs.

After the establishment of Israel, Kollek was sent back to the US, this time as number two in the Israeli embassy in Washington. In this capacity, he established close relationships with CIA heads.

Walking through CIA headquarters one day with a senior official, he saw a familiar face in the corridor. He had last seen it in Vienna more than 20 years before but he had no trouble recognising Kim Philby, whom he had known back then as a communist who married a Jewish girl in Vienna whom Kollek had known.

Kollek asked what Philby was doing in CIA headquarters and was told that he was a senior British intelligence officer. Kollek's warning about Philby's ideological orientation was not taken seriously and it was years before Philby's identity a Soviet KGB agent was revealed.

For more than a decade after returning from Washington, Kollek served as director-general of Ben-Gurion's office. Given a virtual free hand in domestic affairs, he laid the foundations of the country's tourism industry and reorganised radio broadcasting.

In 1965, he agreed to run for Jerusalem mayor as an act of loyalty to Ben-Gurion, who founded a new party.

'All government officials, including me, had no regard for mayors,' he would say. To his own surprise, he won. But within a year, the tediousness of local politics made him regret it. 'The greatest sin,' he would say, 'is boredom.'

The Six Day war thrust him into the most energetic phase of his life as he set about transforming the backwater that was pre-war Jerusalem into a radiant city on the hill.

He rebuilt the city's infrastructure and initiated the construction of parks, theatres and museums, helped by more than US$500 million he raised abroad through the Jerusalem Foundation, which he founded.

Although a left-winger, he was elected six times by one of the most right-wing electorates in Israel because the public sensed that he was real and that he cared. He remained a Viennese cosmopolitan, who enjoyed a good brandy, a good cigar and good company, but he never lost the sense of duty that brought him to the country as a pioneer.

Almost every morning at 6am he would be driven through the city for an hour as he made notes on potholes, trees that needed planting, rubbish bins that had not been emptied.

Woe betide the department head who did not remedy the situation quickly.

He kept his home number listed and citizens would often call him at night, sometimes after midnight, with complaints.

His enthusiasm was matched by a short temper and not infrequently he would slap a constituent who became abusive. This only increased his popularity as an 'authentic', not a politician, as did his habit of falling asleep on public platforms as other speakers droned on.