The Book of the Week is “For Jerusalem, A Life” by Teddy Kollek, with his son, Amos Kollek, published in 1978. Kollek was best known for his mayorship of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993.
Born in a small village near Budapest in May 1911, Kollek was an athletic bibliophile as a child. When he was eleven, he began joining Zionist youth movements and for the next decade, traveled to Czechoslovakia, Romania and Germany. His grades in high school were poor; he graduated only at the behest of his parents. His father had been an Austrian army officer during WWI, then became an operations manager for the Rothschilds. Most of the Jewish bourgeoisie voted for the Social Democratic party in Austria.
As a true Zionist, Kollek wanted to move to Palestine. He put his name on the waiting list of the Zionist Organization, and was finally granted permission to go the promised land in spring 1935. Once he got there in 1936, he almost had “buyer’s remorse” after suffering a series of illnesses– typhus, malaria, sandfly fever and typhoid, almost dying in a British hospital.
Nonetheless, Kollek was granted Palestine citizenship. Shortly thereafter, he bestowed the same on his Austrian girlfriend by marrying her. He served as village headman in the kibbutz of Ein Gev in the Jordan Valley for a little more than a year. Playing well with the British, he would ride a horse around the mountains all day. Nearby tribes included the Bedouins and Cherkessians. The new Zionist settlers lived in shacks and had a communal shower.
In autumn 1938, Kollek supervised a different youth group in England. He also acted as an intermediary between the German and British authorities to let a few thousand Zionist teenagers become farm workers in England, as there was a shortage of them. He did the same for Austria and the British, negotiating with Adolf Eichmann.
Due to the Anschluss in March 1938, Kollek’s parents and brother moved to Palestine. At the start of WWII, Kollek assured the safe transport of contraband arms and people from Syria to Palestine. For the rest of the war, Kollek worked in British intelligence, and then coordinated smuggling operations for the Jewish Agency.
In 1941, David Ben-Gurion thought that Jews in the United States, rather than those in Great Britain, would provide the major impetus ideologically and financially to spur the creation of a Jewish state. He turned out to be correct.
The date May 14, 1948 saw legalization of transport of arms and people to Israel, as it officially achieved sovereignty. Prior to that, there was honor among thieves, according to the author. “In those days, everybody lived frugally and was so utterly devoted, without thinking of himself that we had complete confidence in one another.”
Even so, in the early 1950’s, the new nation had to rob Peter to pay Paul to fund itself, selling bonds and obtaining loans from American banks. And the FBI tailed all of the Jewish freedom fighters, even after independence.
Thanks to a business loan secured with Kollek’s assistance, the Israeli government was able to own and operate a retail chain store, Maskit, which sold handicrafts made by Israelis, co-founded by Moshe Dayan’s wife.
In summer 1952, Kollek was appointed to a position with a lofty title, to serve as a coordinator among government ministries in Prime Minister Ben-Gurion’s administration. In the mid-1950’s, the country obtained financing from gentiles for agricultural research and social and educational projects.
A decade later, Kollek was elected mayor of Jerusalem. His Labor party displaced the Mapai party, which had been the dominant one for years. The mindset of the older generation of (federal) Cabinet members could not shaken– even by Kollek– that they were the caretakers of agricultural collectives, rather than a nation that had become more than three quarters urbanized.
About once a month, Mayor Kollek wanted to resign. Nevertheless, he claimed to have made Jerusalem a better place in numerous ways. The previous mayor had failed to stop Orthodox Jews from throwing rocks at the Mandelbaum Gate because Jordanian Christians in buses en route to religious journeys were disrupting their Sabbath. Kollek’s solution was to bar traffic around Jewish houses of worship on Saturdays.
Perhaps Kollek accomplished so much and was reelected so many times because he lacked the politician’s mentality of expecting the kind of reciprocity that leads to patronage. He truly cared about improving the lives of his fellow Jerusalemites, rather than horse-trading only insofar as to acquire more power or funding.
In sum, Kollek wrote, “Being mayor is the most varied, absorbing, sometimes aggravating (sic), but still the most satisfying job in the world, and while I’m at it, I’ll work as hard as I can, eat as much as I want, and shout at whomever I please.”
Read the book to learn the role radio played in the 1950’s in the lives of Egyptians and Israelis; what Kollek did: for Israel’s tenth anniversary celebration, in the founding of the Israel Museum, during the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars, with regard to the Western Wall, and much more.