Theodor Kollek, public administrator: born Nagyvazsony, Hungary 27 May 1911; founder member, Kibbutz Ein Gev 1937; member, Political Dept, Jewish Agency for Palestine 1940; head of the US Division, Israel Foreign Ministry 1950; Minister to Washington 1951-52; Director-General, Prime Minister's Office 1962-65; chair, Government Tourist Corporation 1955-65; Mayor of Jerusalem 1965-93; married 1937 Tamar Schwartz (one son, one daughter); died Jerusalem 2 January 2007.
An 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 hometown?"
"It's just one flower," said the alarmed woman.
"Do you know what would happen if every tourist picked just one flower?" Teddy Kollek responded.
The Mayor of Jerusalem was demonstrating the up-close-and-personal stewardship that would keep him in office for 28 years, an outspokenly left-wing politician in a manifestly right-wing city.
As the official who presided over Jerusalem when the Israeli and Jordanian halves of the city were joined in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, Kollek was often cited in the media as "the most famous mayor in the world". The fame stemmed from his attempts to forge a "united city" out of an entity shaped by the conflicting aspirations of Jews and Arabs. He would not succeed in uniting the city except in the formal sense, the Arab population insisting on retaining its separate identity. But he transformed Jerusalem from a sleepy outback into a modern city infused with cultural vibrancy; this while burnishing its status as a city holy to the three great monotheistic religions. In 1993, at the age of 82, he ran for a seventh term at the bidding of the Labor Party. But the Jerusalem public decided that he had done enough. The man who defeated him was the future prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Kollek was born in 1911 in Nagyvazsony, a village near Budapest. 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. Teddy Kollek's comfortable upbringing cultivated in him a sense of well-being and self- confidence as well as a taste for earthly pleasures that shaped his cosmopolitan persona. It did not, however, diminish his desire to become a pioneer in Palestine. Spurning his father's attempts to make a businessman of him, he became a leader of the Zionist youth movement in Europe and in 1935 sailed for Haifa on a ship called Jerusalem.
With a group of other young pioneers, he founded Kibbutz Ein Gev on the eastern shore of Lake Tiberias. His girlfriend Tamar, a rabbi's daughter from Vienna, joined him there and they married in a simple ceremony with a solitary witness. Kollek came down with malaria several times, as well as other diseases, as he helped eke out a living for the commune from fishing and selling lake-shore gravel to builders. Despite the spartan conditions and 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 easy-going, urbane personality, bereft of either deference or surliness. "He was able to deal with the British as an equal," a colleague would recall. "That was not very common in the country at the time." During a stint as military commander of the kibbutz, he would ride up the adjacent Golan Heights on a horse to meet with leaders of Arab villages in order to maintain good relations.
In 1938 he was sent to England to train youths who had fled Europe and were planning to settle in kibbutzim. On one occasion, he travelled to post-Anschluss Vienna to obtain exit permits for several hundred Jews who had received entry permits from England. The German official who granted the request after a brief conversation was Adolf Eichmann, who would oversee the transportation of Jews to the death camps during the Second World War. Kollek was in England during the Blitz and would always admire the equanimity of the British people during that period.
He returned to Palestine in 1942 and was offered the post of deputy head of intelligence at the Jewish Agency, the embryo government of the Jewish state-in-the-making headed by David Ben-Gurion. In this capacity, he mixed with British intelligence officers and political officials in Palestine and Cairo.
In 1943, he joined a small band of Zionist operatives in neutral Istanbul whose task it was to seek out contact by phone and mail with the doomed Jewish communities in Nazi-occupied Europe. At war's end he was dispatched by Ben-Gurion to New York to head an arms purchasing mission which acquired vital weapons and equipment for the coming confrontation with the Arabs. Much of his activity contravened American laws and Kollek and his staff attempted to keep one step ahead of the FBI.
After the establishment of Israel, Kollek was sent back to the United States, this time as number two man in the Israeli embassy in Washington. In this capacity, he established close relationships with intelligence officials, including successive heads of the CIA, Bedell Smith and Allen Dulles, and was often a guest in the latter's home. Walking through CIA headquarters one day with a senior official, he spotted 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 as a Communist who married a girl in Vienna, also a Communist. 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 passed on.
For Kollek, these forays into international intrigue were only side excursions. His principle interest lay in the creative aspects of human experience - building a society - and he would thrive not on stealth but on human interchange. For more than a decade after returning from Washington, he served as director-general of Prime Minister Ben-Gurion's office. Given a virtual free hand in domestic affairs, he laid the foundations of the country's tourism industry, reorganised radio broadcasting and founded the Israel Museum.
Kollek agreed to run for Jerusalem mayor in 1965 only as an act of loyalty to Ben-Gurion, who had left the Labor Party to found his own party. "All government officials, including me, had no regard for mayors," he would say. To his own surprise, he won. Within a year, the tediousness of local politics made him regret it. However, the results of the Six Day War thrust him into the most energetic phase of his life. He rebuilt the city's infrastructure and initiated the construction of parks, theatres and other cultural features, much of it with money he raised abroad through the Jerusalem Foundation, which he founded.
Most mornings, at 6am, he would be driven through the city for an hour as he made notes on potholes that needed filling, trees that needed planting, rubbish bins that had not been emptied. He kept his home number listed in the telephone directory and citizens would often call him at night with complaints or requests. His enthusiasm was matched by a short temper and he would not infrequently slap a constituent who became abusive. This only increased his popularity as an "authentic", not a politician.
He recruited many of the world's leading planners and architects as well as leading clergymen and political figures from all continents as an advisory committee which met periodically in Jerusalem to discuss the city's development. It was a gesture intended to demonstrate that Jerusalem was not just an Israeli concern. "All of us have two hometowns," said one of the participants. "The city we live in and Jerusalem."
Abraham RabinovichReuse content