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Goodbye Mr. Jerualem
By Rabbi William Berkowitz
Theodor Kollek (May 27, 1911 - January 2, 2007)

Theodor ("Teddy") Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993, died on January 2, 2007, at the age of 95. During his tenure, Jerusalem developed into a modern city, especially after its reunification in 1967. He was once called “the greatest builder of Jerusalem since Herod.” Kollek was born in Nagyvázsony, not far from Budapest and was named after Theodor Herzl. Growing up in Vienna, Kollek came to share his father Alfréd’s Zionist convictions. Rabbi William Berkowitz publishes a dialogue he had with Mr. Kollek some years back.

BERKOWITZ: Mr. Kollek, from your perspective as the Mayor of Jerusalem, what is it that makes Jerusalem so special to so many? After all, she has no natural resources, she has no port, she really has no great wealth in the accepted sense. Why, then, do so many yearn and fight for Yerushalayim?

KOLLEK: Of course, it is difficult to imagine today how it all began. But certainly for thousands of years, for almost 3,000 years since David made it the capital of Israel, it was the capital of the Jewish people, and much more of a capital to the Jewish people than any capital to any other people. I sometimes think it was even more of a capital to us when we were not there than when we were there. When we were there, it was almost natural and simple; today it’s not too natural or too simple because it’s still being contested, and we can’t be certain that we shall not have great battles to fight – spiritual, or even, G-d forbid, otherwise – for Jerusalem.

But when we were not there, the very name Jerusalem kept us together. If you want to express the history of the Jewish people for 3,000 years in one word, I think the one word is Jerusalem. As for the others, there is a certain quality to the city that made Moslems and Christians and thousands and thousands of people over these years risk their lives for Jerusalem. In every way, people – and particularly the Jews – love the city. Still the question remains, why Jerusalem.

Of course, in terms of the origin, logically you can explain that it was the center of all Jewish tribes; therefore, it was the place around which the nation could unite. Or you can explain that in sitting there in the hills, with its mystical light, with its clear air, it gave people a chance to think about things other than only their daily life.

Jerusalem has a mystical background in which you can believe if you are deeply religious, or, if not, you can believe, as I do, in its history and what has happened there during these 3,000 years. No matter what, the fact is that one always comes back to Jerusalem’s special quality.

I took a very well-known American journalist around the city not long ago. I showed him the gardens we maintain, and the parks and the schools we build, and the kindergartens. He wasn’t very interested. He was interested only in political statements. In the end he said, “Why are you doing all this? Are you certain you will keep it?” I told him that nobody can be certain. Maybe this will sound a little discouraging, but in this sense we may be behaving like ants. As they do, we have built the most beautiful ant hills for anyone to enjoy, and maybe someone will come one day with a big stick, and disturb the ant hill. So what? We’ll build it again and again, and each time it will be even more beautiful. But one thing remains forever: nothing can or will ever drive us away from Jerusalem.

BERKOWITZ: Mr. Mayor, you beautifully and eloquently indicated the relationship of the Jews to Jerusalem. What has been the relationship of the Arab world to Jerusalem, in particular, before 1967?

KOLLEK: Today it is very unimportant whether or not Muhammad actually came to Jerusalem during his night ride, and went from there to Heaven. The fact is that Moslems have believed that for several hundred years. Hence, the Moslems who live there regard it as a holy place, and they regard it as their city. We have in our city administration a fairly high-ranking Arab official whose family came here 800 years ago. They have lived in the same building overlooking Har Ha-Bayit, the Temple Mount, for these 800 years. Certainly in Israel, or even in Europe, you can’t find many families who have lived in the same building, in the same apartment, or in the same castle for 800 years.

For the Arab, the attachment is obviously a religious as well as a national one. This, of course, stands in some competition to our Jewish attachment. It is true in a physical sense, particularly, as far as the Temple Mount is concerned. However, we are in a comparatively good position for one reason: According to our tradition, Jews, if they observe all the mitzvot, are not allowed to go on the Temple Mount. Certainly, we are not permitted to build a temple. A temple has already been built; it is in Heaven and is waiting there for the Messiah to arrive. When He does arrive, the Temple will be set in its appropriate place in Jerusalem, without much consideration for the building codes or licenses that the City of Jerusalem is issuing.  

One way or the other, there’s a distinct competition between us, and the Arabs, vis-à-vis the Temple Mount. The attachment of the Arabs is a long one, and it’s a religious one. It is impossible for the observant Moslem to agree that a holy place should not be part of the realm of Islam. We will have to find a solution for ourselves as to how we can live with this.

BERKOWITZ: When I was in Jerusalem, a year ago, I was out walking at a very early hour, and someone said to me, “You see that car? That’s the Mayor’s automobile. He makes a tour through the city every morning before five o’clock.” He told me that is Mayor Kollek sees a piece of paper in the street, he stops the car, gets out and picks up the piece of paper, and puts if back into the car in order to have a cleaner Jerusalem. Certainly we are all very interested in your day. What is it like? What are your responsibilities? What are your headaches? What are your joys? And particularly, what is it like to be Mayor of the capital city of the Jewish people.”

KOLLEK: Well the story you told before is a vast exaggeration. I pick up paper only when I walk; I don’t stop the car to pick up paper. And I don’t get up at four in the morning; I get up at five. My day actually begins when I have breakfast with my wife at five thirty. At six I start on my way to the office, and those are the most productive hours, when one can deal with memoranda and papers and dictation. And I don’t ever mind phoning people then, because at least I know I can find them at home at that time.

BERKOWITZ: And how do they respond if you call them at six or seven in the morning?

KOLLEK: By now, they’re accustomed to it. They can’t help themselves. Of course, the rest of the day consists of a variety of things. A great deal of time is taken up by meetings with department heads on problems of education, or finance, or problems of social welfare, or of town planning, and on a variety of other matters. There are meetings of committees, and then there is a great number of visitors of all kinds.

BERKOWITZ: You told me a lovely story about the time Walter Conkite was in Israel.

KOLLEK: Walter Cronkite, together with 2,000 other journalists, came to cover the Anwar Sadat story in 1977; he’s an old acquaintance of mine. He hadn’t been to Jerusalem in ten years. And so, when there was a free hour, I suggested we walk around the Old City together. We walked through the Jaffa Gate, and we were met by a large group of American tourists, who recognized Walter Cronkite and were very excited. It was the greatest thing that could have happened to them. Jerusalem was not important, but Walter Cronkite – that was it! And then we walked on through.

I wanted to show him what we were doing to repair the Old City, to restore it to some extent to its old form. It had been neglected by subtenants for 2,000 years, and since we, the owners, have come back, we’re trying to put it into shape again. So we walked through the shuk, the marketplace, and we stopped into a lot of Arab shops where people who recognized me came out and offered us some coffee and tea. I explained to Walter Cronkite that the Americans we met before had been his constituency, and that these Arabs were my constituency.

“But what about security?” he asked. So I said, “You’re right. Tell me how many mayors in the United States would walk through an area that is regarded at least by some as dangerous, while protected only by Walter Cronkite!” Well he couldn’t name even one.

But to continue my day, we have a great number of area committees, mainly of Jewish citizens, but also of Arab and Christian citizens. Practically every day we meet with one of the area committees to discuss their problems, whatever they may be–whether it is sewage or public telephones, or education, or roads, or whatever the case. And so the day passes. Sometimes an emergency arises. It may even be that somewhere an explosive charge is detected. Or a water main has broken. It may be a complaint that has recurred several times in a certain area of town. I take fifteen or twenty minutes to go there and see with my own eyes why people are complaining.

In the evening, there are more meetings, sometimes conferences, or visiting groups from abroad whom I address for a few moments. Later on there is a lot of paper work that I take home, or maybe I invite somebody home for a quiet conversation, the kind of quiet talk about a more serious problem than I can deal with during the hours of the day. So the day goes by.

BERKOWITZ: Menachem Begin has often said that as far as he was concerned, “Everything is negotiable.” Do you think he was including Jerusalem in that statement as well? Is her status negotiable, and if it is, how? Or to put it another way, will Jerusalem ever be divided?

KOLLEK: I don’t think it will. I don’t think that would be an answer to the problems of Jerusalem, and I cannot imagine that this is what Mr. Begin or anybody else who is speaking about Jerusalem means. I believe that lots of things in Jerusalem are negotiable, and we can do many things in Jerusalem that would satisfy the very legitimate needs of others, as well as of Jews, or Israelis, but always within the framework of one city, always within the status of the capital of Israel.

For instance, if we have permitted Arabs in Jerusalem to remain Jordanian citizens, if they so choose, and therefore have enabled them to travel across the bridges linking Israel and Jordan whenever they like, we have given up a certain right of sovereignty in not forcing those who live in our midst to accept our citizenship. Or if we have left the Temple Mount under the administration of the Moslem authorities and not interfered with it, I think we have given up a certain amount of sovereignty, and I think wisely so. For we have not insisted on any rights that are not absolutely necessary to us, but instead have given others a chance to live.

If we had not insisted on turning Jerusalem into a melting pot, we would have then continued the old position of thousands of years that Jerusalem is a mosaic in which Jews live separately, and Christians live separately, and Moslems live separately. Instead, we have chosen to create a united city, and any concessions we have made are for the sake of comparatively reasonable living side by side. I could continue doing this. All these things have been given temporarily. They have not been codified so far; they are not part of Israeli law. Of course, they could be made part of Israeli law and, by this, ensure officially that there will remain rights for minorities. I believe that in this sense a great number of things in Jerusalem are negotiable in order to make life for others easier within the city. And in that sense–and that sense only–I think Jerusalem is negotiable.

BERKOWITZ: How do you respond to those who argue that the best and most practical solution to the Jerusalem question is the creation of an international city?

KOLLEK: That argument is naive. I tell such people that they are damn fools who haven’t done their homework. Let me explain. In 1947, the Vatican suggested internationalization of the Holy City. An international committee would have been appointed and it would have been a committee consisting who people who came from countries who had some background connected with monasteries, with religion and, in a wider sense, with the things for which Jerusalem stood. If today an international committee were to be appointed, it would consist of people from the Third World who, even if they wouldn’t choose Idi Amin, are, on the whole, not very nice people. Some would be Communists from China, or from Russia, or from the Ukraine. Maybe the Christian representatives would be Swede or a Dane who would always vote with the Third World. There certainly wouldn’t be a Christian majority. Therefore, for some years, the Vatican has not repeated the suggestion of internationalization of Jerusalem. Christians are not interested. We certainly are not interested. Even the Arabs are not interested.

Arabs have a rule: A holy place must be part of the realm of their land. That is their expression for sovereignty, and they express it in two ways. First, in the Friday sermon by the preacher the name of the Arab ruler of the place should be mentioned. In Jerusalem for the past few years it has not been mentioned because there is no Arab ruler of the place. Second, they have to have the right of coinage. But the main thing is that they cannot be ruled by an infidel. As infidels are defined, Dr. Kurt Waldheim (then Secretary General of the UN) is as much an infidel as I am. Therefore, the problem of the Arabs wouldn’t be solved by internationalization. Whoever suggested internationalization just repeats a word that came into being several years ago, but has no real meaning, and no real substance. It does not solve the needs of the Arabs or the Jews or the Christians. So it is not the solution.

BERKOWITZ: Anwar Sadat of Egypt was the only Arab leader to recognize Jerusalem in a de facto way as the capital of Israel. Do you think others will ever recognize it as well? Do you think it’s time for other nations, in particular one I can think of immediately, to recognize Jerusalem once and for all as the true capital of the State of Israel?

KOLLEK: Well, I think it’s always time, but most nations have not done so. They feel that if they do, they might offend some Arabs, particularly Saudi Arabia. Therefore, there is very little hope that they will do so in the near future. President Sadat was very careful and made only very ambiguous statements about Jerusalem, much less the statements that he made about the rest of his demands. I think that was partly the result of seeing with his own eyes what was happening in Jerusalem, since he was there with an Egyptian fighting unit in 1948 while on the other side. But the recognition of other countries, I think, will not come so soon, and it is mainly their loss.

BERKOWITZ: You have gained a world reputation of being the gracious host par excellence to international figures. If I’m not mistaken, the best guest–certainly in terms of his unexpectedness–was President Anwar el-Sadat. What was the visit like? What incident stands out most in your mind about it? What was your impression of President Sadat? The American newspapers said that, when he shook hands with you, he said, “Shalom, Mr. Jerusalem.” What were your impressions of that historic moment in the life of the State of Israel?

KOLLEK: As you said, it was an unexpected visit, and I think it was his show from the moment he decided to come. From the moment he stepped out of the airplane, until the moment he left again, he knew how to carry himself and how to carry off the whole thing. I had a chance to travel with him for about the better part of two hours from the hotel to the mosque through the city, and felt that I shouldn’t impose myself on him. But as I entered his car, I asked him whether he wanted me to sit quietly, or whether he wanted me to show him things, and comment on what we were seeing while we were passing by. He wanted to know and he asked questions all the way there and then back again as we went to the Temple Gate and through the shuk and through the various we visited, and then back again to the hotel.

I’m sure you must have noticed on television that he is a deeply emotional and deeply religious person; he means it. He isn’t just play acting when he prays, and he believes in what he does. He is also a better-read and better-tutored man than I would have thought. As we were traveling around, and we were passing the Mount of Olives, and Gethsemane, and various other sites, he knew all the connotations and everything that this city has meant for us and for the Christians. As for the future, now we can only be hopeful.

BERKOWITZ: In an article in Foreign Affairs, you said the following: “I think the history of relations in Jerusalem between Jews, Arabs and Christians during this decade points out the kind of solution we should eventually evolve for Jerusalem.” My question has two parts: What is the solution, and how do you see the hope for peace in the Middle East in light of recent developments?

KOLLEK: First, I would like you to realize that Jerusalem for the last 2,000 years or longer has not been a homogeneous city. Since the days when the Greeks and Alexander conquered Jerusalem in about 300 BCE, Greeks lived in Jerusalem, along with Egyptians, Syrians, Romans, Byzantines and others. It wasn’t any more a purely Jewish city. If we walked into the Israel Gate of the Old City 120 years ago, when nothing existed around the Old City, but only the Old City within the walls, we would have found a Greek quarter, a Latin quarter, an Armenian quarter, an Abyssinian quarter, a much larger Moslem quarter, and a still larger Jewish quarter. In 1840 the Jews were the majority, and people lived alongside each other.

But it never became a melting pot. No Armenian ever wanted to be a Greek, and no Greek ever wanted to be an Arab, and no Arab ever wanted to be a Jew, or the other way around. This principle of not having a melting pot still continues. We are not trying to force people to speak the same language, or eat the same foods, or live together in the same ways. We are a mosaic, and we think that we are avoiding tensions and not adding to the tensions.

Second, you have to know why there is a comparatively good life in Jerusalem. The Arabs want to protect the Arab part of the city. They want to preserve their culture and their civilization there. In order to do that, there must be a comparatively good life. Otherwise there wouldn’t be enough work or enough activity, and many of them would leave. Work is offered all the time to them in nearby countries. So why should they stay in Jerusalem if they can earn a better living elsewhere? From their point of view, the Arabs want to protect the Arab character of the city, and that is why they are against terrorism.

From the point of view of the Jews, the majority of Jews in Jerusalem are those who come from Arab countries. While they have not great love for the Arabs, they also want no violence. So from two different points of view–I could give you a third point of view, the Christian–people are living together without using violence, not because one loves the other, but because of their own self interests. This self interest, paradoxically, creates a situation in which people can live together. Now all we have to do is continue it for the next 200 or 300 years, and it will work well.

BERKOWITZ: Mr. Kollek, in your term of office as Mayor of a united Jerusalem, you’ve said that several crucial principles have emerged that will lead toward progress. One is “free access to the holy places.” What do you mean by this?

KOLLEK: As you know, in 1948, when the armistice was signed, we were supposed to have free access to the Mount of Scopus, to the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital there, and free access to the Western Wall. But that did not come about. I will not say it was out of a malicious desire not to carry out the Armistice Agreement. I don’t think that any Jordanian government had the guts to do this. It was just that they felt it wouldn’t be popular, and that all kinds of trouble would come from it. So they didn’t permit free access. Since 1967 we have had the policy of free access. We have 150,000 visitors every year who come from Arab countries, residents of Arab countries who come across the bridges and can visit their holy places freely, and there will be another 150,000, 250,000, 300,000. Certainly the Christians come too, in great numbers, and they have free access to their holy places. This is being carried out fully, for the first time, under Israeli rule.

BERKOWITZ: The second crucial you laid down toward progress is free reign of Arabs and Christians in their respective sections. How do you envision this?

KOLLEK: I believe that one day we’ll run the city divided into boroughs. To be honest, we have a difference of opinion in Jerusalem on this. There are Jews who say that if we had boroughs today, this would be the first step toward dividing the city again. I’m of a different opinion. I think boroughs can work, because even today you have independent Arab education, independent Armenian education, and independent Greek education, and the various communities have their own self management to a very great extent.

BERKOWITZ: What about the principle of equal government, equal municipal and social services to all areas?

KOLLEK: We are still far away from it. We incorporated a city, East Jerusalem, which was then at a much lower level technically, as far as service is concerned, than Jewish Jerusalem, and we haven’t caught up yet. For example, all of East Jerusalem, with the exception of the city within the walls, had no sewer system. Every house had its individual cesspool. When the cesspool was filled, somebody came and pumped it out and was paid a fee. As for drinking water, before 1967, 90 percent of the houses did not have any running water. Today, almost all of the houses do. Before 1967, everyone went to the public well. Now hardly anybody goes to the public well. But we are still working at equalizing things. We have equalized water, but sewage will take us another three or four years. We have built a great number of school buildings, but not enough to equalize. Gradually, it will happen, and if we had more money and could do it better and quicker, it would be good. But so far, we don’t have it.

BERKOWITZ: Mr. Mayor, the final and crucial principle toward progress, one that is most interesting, is the increased contact among the various communities. How do you see this taking place?

KOLLEK: As I said, the various communities live very much apart unto themselves. I think there are great advantages in this, even beyond the lack of tension. I believe our low and diminishing juvenile delinquency is due in part to the fact that the various communities are strong, autonomous units and that the family unit all means something in most parts of the city. We want the various communities to run their own affairs, and they are doing that already to a great extent. We want to give them independence in running their own affairs, and we are helping them to the extent that they need it. I think this is a good principle to live by. In Jerusalem it is the continuation of a tradition that has existed for a long time, and has been proven to work. To break that tradition would not make any sense.

I will, however, add something that I admit will be more controversial. I believe all these principles are right. Everything we have done is correct, and we should have done it. But here and there we might have been a little more generous. Certainly, in some cases, we could have been less condescending. But again, as long as all these things that we have done–freedom of access, maintenance of nationality, self-autonomy of schools and other things–as long as they are limited to municipal action and are not incorporated in to Israeli law but exist as special privileges to an Arab minority, I don’t think we will have achieved very much. Because the Arabs can always say to themselves, “You know, today we have this, but how do we know we will have it tomorrow?”

BERKOWITZ: Mr. Kollek, let us turn, for the moment, to the realm of personal influence. Who have been those who’ve had the most personal and political influence in your life? Do you consider anyone to be your mentor, someone who has had the most profound effect on your thinking and your outlook?

KOLLEK: There is no question that the man who had the greatest influence on me was Mr. David Ben Gurion. I regard him as the greatest Jew in the historical period in which we live, bar none. He saw further than anyone else, and he was the most modest and simple person I’ve ever met. I couldn’t express all I feel and think of him in a few words, but he certainly had the greatest influence on me.

BERKOWITZ: The first time we ever visited Jerusalem, my family and I went to the home of a very unusual individual. It so happened that while we were there you, Mayor Kollek, called on the phone. This gentleman, when told you were on the phone, barked back at his maid, “Tell Teddy Kollek I’m busy.”  And I was taken aback. After all, the Mayor of Jerusalem was calling. How can you say such a thing? Then I thought to myself that only one man could get away with that. That man was someone who was very beloved, the right man to Chaim Weizmann, the unusual Chancellor of the Weizmann Institute, the late Meyer Weisgal. What are your recollections of him?

KOLLEK: He was the most original person, full of good humor, full of great creations and great ideas. He knew how to express himself vividly and originally, in all languages, but particularly in Yiddish; and there were few people who were more dearly beloved than he was.

BERKOWITZ: Let me turn the clock back. In 1937 or 1938, you met a certain officer in Europe. Who was he, why did you meet him, and what was your reaction when you saw him twenty years later?

KOLLEK: The German officer was Adolf Eichmann, who became infamous for everything he stood for many years later. At that time, Germans and Nazis were still quite happy to let Jews go if they only had somewhere to go. Those were the years when the Christian world could have saved millions of Jews if they had only taken them in. I was then able to acquire 3,000 immigration visas for young people who had been given agricultural training in Germany, in Austria and Czechoslovakia, to go to work in agriculture in England. The man to talk to in Vienna then was an SS officer who sat in the old Rothschild chalet. I had been there once or twice in more peaceful times. I was born in Vienna, and my father was a director of Rothschild’s, and I had known this building. So I was particularly shocked to see who now occupied it. But I had no particular impression of him, aside from his being a little bureaucratic who, in fact, dealt with the problem very speedily.

I got my 3,000 exit permits for the entry permits that I had brought with me from England. So I was perfectly satisfied. It was only later, in 1942 or 1943 that the name of Eichmann, together with the “final solution” and everything that he organized became widely known. Of course, it was even more so when he was brought to justice in Jerusalem.

KOLLEK: You had occasion to meet Henry Kissinger in some of the many trips he made. What is your assessment of Dr. Kissinger?

KOLLEK: I met Dr. Kissinger mainly before he became advisor to the President, and before he became Secretary of State. He had come to Jerusalem on several occasions, either as a lecturer at the university, or as a lecturer at the National Defense College, and on several occasions, he spent some time at our home. I believe that the Jewish people have done Dr. Kissinger an injustice. We regarded him, somehow, as with a kind of Queen Esther complex. We felt that he had been chosen to carry out a mission to save the Jewish people, and that as long as he wasn’t concentrating only on his job, he was just a no goodnik. I think this was a parochial attitude, and I can well imagine that the time may still come when we all will respect Dr. Kissinger and his policy.

BERKOWITZ: In writing about you, Saul Bellow says, “Teddy Kollek is Israel’s most valuable political asset.” Particularly, he refers to the wide range of people that you’ve met and to whom you’ve been host. In addition to those whom we’ve discussed, are there any other international visitors to Jerusalem who stand out in your mind and about whom you’d like to comment?

KOLLEK: Yes one: Saul Bellow. As far as I’m concerned, I think you shouldn’t take Saul Bellow’s book about Jerusalem so seriously. I have great admiration for the writing of Saul Bellow, but on the whole, his great heroes are shlemiels. And when he writes about me, I think he writes with tongue in cheek. At least I hope so. So I don’t take him seriously. 

BERKOWITZ: Well, I’m sure, Mr. Mayor, that all here will agree that while Saul Bellow may have written about shlemiels in the past, in writing about you, he wrote about an unusual, great, and noble Israeli of our time.


Posted on January 18, 2007
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