Teddy Kollek, 95; Jerusalem mayor was a founding father of Israel

Times Staff Writer

Teddy Kollek, the courtly, cigar-chomping mayor who in his 28-year tenure oversaw the reunification of Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East War and championed coexistence of its Jewish and Arab populations, died Tuesday. He was 95, one of Israel’s oldest remaining founding fathers.

He died of natural causes at the Jerusalem retirement home where he had lived for several years, said Nomi Yeshua, his assistant at the Jerusalem Foundation. Kollek had started the charity and worked there until his health failed about six months ago, triggering “a gradual physical shutdown of his system,” she said.

Israel Radio said Kollek would be given a state funeral Thursday.


Kollek became mayor of Jewish West Jerusalem in 1965, when the city was divided between Israeli and Jordanian rule by barbed wire and machine-gun posts. After Israel captured East Jerusalem from the Arabs two years later, he presided over the city’s most ambitious building and restoration projects in four centuries.

He practiced pragmatic rule in a city that, through history, has been torn by ethnic and religious rivalries. Guided by a vision of a united city with disparate groups living in separate but equal communities, he lobbied to bring voting rights, access to schools, religious freedom and social welfare benefits to its poorer Arab minority.

But as a Zionist, he insisted that the city remain under Israeli sovereignty, rejecting Palestinians’ demand to make the city’s Arab section the capital of their would-be state. And he allowed construction of nine Jewish suburbs, moving 160,000 Jews into East Jerusalem to reinforce the city’s Jewish majority.

“Jerusalem’s people of differing faiths, cultures and aspirations must find peaceful ways to live together other than by drawing a line in the sand,” he once wrote.

It was a position that made it impossible for him to fully win the trust of the Palestinians.

Never aspiring to higher office, Kollek was reelected five times, leading the city longer than any other mayor, until his conciliatory vision was undermined by rising Palestinian hostility and the rightward drift of Israeli politics. He lost in 1993 to Ehud Olmert, the current prime minister.

“When he was elected, Jerusalem was a divided city with a status unworthy of itself,” Olmert said in a statement eulogizing his former rival, whom he had once called “probably the most famous mayor in the world.” “When he left office,” the prime minister added, “Jerusalem was a great, modern and united city.... His name will always be an inseparable part of Jerusalem’s glory.”

Uri Lupolianski, the current mayor, said: “Teddy was Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was Teddy.”

Arab assessments were less generous. “He was a respectable Israeli figure,” said Khatem Abdel-Qader, a prominent Palestinian resident of Jerusalem and a leader in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement. “But while it is true Kollek sought coexistence, he did not believe for a single moment that Palestinians in the city have political rights, only social rights.”

For Jews and Arabs, Kollek was a voluble, ubiquitous figure, portly in a suit and open-necked shirt as he toured the city in daily 6 a.m. inspections, making long lists of things to fix. He listed his home telephone number, saying the mayor should be available to all.

He was a European-born Jew whose Jewish constituency was mostly from North Africa and Arab countries, a liberal in an increasingly right-wing stronghold, and a secularist in the center of Jewish orthodoxy.

Walking a tightrope, he worked to prevent the city’s growing ultra-Orthodox community from imposing its lifestyle on secular Jews and promoted special housing projects for the ultra-Orthodox to locate them far from traffic that would spoil their Sabbath rest.

“Mayor of Jerusalem is not the most important job,” Kollek once said, “but it is harder than being prime minister.”

Kollek’s role as a conciliator seemed out of sync with his public personality. He could be sharp-tongued, and repeatedly scolded the Palestinians for refusing half steps toward improving their lot. “You never work hard at details,” he once told a veteran Palestinian leader.

He was a magnet for generous donations to the city. The Jerusalem Foundation, which he started in 1966 to finance development and education projects in the city, collected more than $1 billion over the years of his stewardship.

His fundraising skills had been honed in the 1950s, when he helped organize the first Israel Bonds drive in the United States and was a key negotiator in efforts to get the first American aid for the new nation.

“There was nobody who could stand up to his charm ... Hollywood actors, ministers, presidents of various countries,” said former Israeli President Yitzhak Navon.

Theodor Kollek was born May 27, 1911, in the Hungarian town of Nagyvazsony and raised in Vienna. His father named him for Theodor Herzl, founder of the modern Zionist movement; the two men had belonged to the same Zionist group at Vienna University.

The young Kollek, universally known as Teddy, joined Zionist groups in Austria. Arriving in what was then called British-ruled Palestine in 1935, he helped found a kibbutz and married his Austrian Jewish sweetheart, Tamar Schwartz.

He became a protege of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, having worked in Britain during World War II with the future leader in the Jewish Agency. That group was responsible for arranging immigration to Palestine.

He also worked with Allied intelligence services during the war, helping them to contact Jewish underground groups and to aid Jews escaping from Nazi persecution. In that role, he met Adolf Eichmann, a senior Nazi official later executed after trial in Israel, and arranged for the transfer of 3,000 young European Jews to Britain.

During the first Israeli-Arab war after the creation of Israel in 1948, Kollek secretly bought weapons in the United States for Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary force.

He was Ben-Gurion’s chief of staff from 1952 to 1964 and ran for mayor at Ben-Gurion’s urging.

“I don’t think he really wanted to be mayor at first,” his son, filmmaker Amos Kollek, recalled Tuesday. “But when the city reunited, he understood that something unique and historical was happening and that he must take responsibility since this is a one-time opportunity. From then on, he dedicated all the powers in him to build the city.”

With the reunification, Kollek’s city of nearly 200,000 residents had expanded to include 70,000 Arabs.

Within days, he ordered the stone wall that had divided Jerusalem to be torn down. He restored the Jewish part of the Old City, razing an Arab neighborhood to build a plaza in front of the Western Wall, the Jewish holy site.

Making the city normal -- or at least appear normal -- was one of his main goals. Tulip gardens became so abundant that Dutch horticulturists named a strain of the flower after Kollek. He laid out parks and promenades and built libraries, museums and a soccer stadium.

He maintained that Israeli sovereignty in the city rested partly on the quality of its treatment of Arab residents, both Muslims and Christians, even if they have rejected Israeli citizenship. He was fond of comparing his own era with the conditions of East Jerusalem under Jordanian rule between 1948 and 1967.

“Look at all the building permits we have granted for churches in the city,” he once said. “Jordan never did that.”

But Kollek’s designs were buffeted by a pair of revolts. Observant Jews bristled at his efforts to make the Holy City entertaining. Strict Orthodox residents threw stones at Friday night moviegoers in a protest against what they termed desecration of the Sabbath. Still, the movies and restaurants stayed open and were a source of pride for Kollek.

The growing religious community, which makes up about 20% of the population, also clashed with more secular residents over the flow of Friday night and Saturday automobile traffic. The opening of a new highway that skirts the edge of a religious neighborhood set off a spate of stone-throwing protests. Police suppression and a high roadside wall cooled things down.

The Palestinian revolt against Israeli rule that erupted in 1987 was a more fundamental challenge. Violence and fear of unrest redrew the city’s boundaries and made a mockery of Kollek’s frequent description of the city as eternally unified.

Residents in Arab neighborhoods took part in the daily afternoon protest strikes and car burnings that shut down business throughout the eastern half of the city, dividing Jerusalem physically and psychologically. Israelis avoided Palestinian neighborhoods for fear of stonings. Arabs, moved warily in Jewish neighborhoods, vulnerable to harassment.

In October 1990, police killed 19 Muslims who had gathered at Al Aqsa Mosque to resist a threatened march into the compound by a Jewish group committed to expelling the Muslims. Kollek called the incident “the greatest tragedy that fell on this city” during his years as mayor.

Late in his tenure, Kollek fought unsuccessfully against a right-wing Israeli government campaign to break up Arab communities by moving in Jewish settlers, a settlement policy far more intrusive than his own. But Arab leaders gave him no credit for such moderation, faulting him instead for the lingering inferiority of city services to their neighborhoods.

Few Arab voters turned out to support Kollek when Olmert, the right-wing Likud Party candidate backed by ultra-Orthodox Jews, campaigned against the 82-year-old Labor Party incumbent with the slogan, “Because everyone knows it’s about time.” Kollek remarked bitterly: “If he hadn’t kept mentioning my age, I would have won.”

The former mayor was to work another 13 years, raising funds for the city, even after his knees gave out and he was confined to a wheelchair.

He is survived by his wife, his son, a daughter, Osnat, and four grandchildren.

Special correspondents Sigal Saban in Tel Aviv and Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.