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Saul Bellow’s Favorite Chicago Mayor Wasn’t Richard Daley or Rahm Emanuel. It Was Teddy Kollek.

The Nobel prize-winning author called the Jerusalem mayor a ‘phenomenal personality, schemer, finagler, and arranger’ who ‘towers over most of the political figures I have known.’

David Mikics
June 06, 2016
Chronicling a Crisis/ A Documentary Film By Amos Kollek
Teddy Kollek, IsraelChronicling a Crisis/ A Documentary Film By Amos Kollek
Chronicling a Crisis/ A Documentary Film By Amos Kollek
Teddy Kollek, IsraelChronicling a Crisis/ A Documentary Film By Amos Kollek

Any reader of Saul Bellow knows that the writer loved hotheaded, scene-stirring characters. You’d think he would have been fascinated by Daley or Koch, but he wasn’t. Instead, he gravitated toward Teddy Kollek, his clear favorite among the politicians he knew.

Kollek was a “phenomenal personality,” Bellow wrote to his friend, Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse, in 1992, a “schemer, finagler, and arranger” who “towers over most of the political figures I have known.” Alexandra, Bellow’s fourth wife who traveled with him to Israel, remembered Kollek when I talked to her last year as “a very remarkable man … he was a man of extraordinary energy, of tremendous power, you had the impression that this man never sleeps. He absolutely loved Jerusalem, he wanted to make out of Jerusalem the greatest city on the planet. Every home was open to him, he was amazing. Whatever he did, you forgave him, if he made a faux pas you forgave him a thousand times.”

Kollek was a charming publicity hound and gossipy pal of Frank Sinatra and Liz Taylor. He kept in his refrigerator two pitchers of dry gin martinis for guests. There is a famous photo from February 1966 of a rumpled Kollek sitting at the feet of Marlene Dietrich on one of her visits to Israel. It’s true he was sitting “next to the most famous legs in the world,” he said when some members of the Knesset expressed their disapproval of the picture. But, Kollek added, if they observed the look on his face they would be able to tell that he had been thinking not about Dietrich’s legs, but about Jerusalem’s ruinous financial situation.

Kollek could be huffy, impatient, a grump. “Don’t talk to me unless you have a check,” he was known to say. Once he tore up a check for $10,000, deeply insulted—not enough zeros. Avraham Avi-hai, an adviser to Kollek, described what he called “doing a Teddy”: Before a benefit concert Kollek would make his way to the front rows, glad-handing VIP donors. Then, as the lights dimmed, he would sneak out the door. But Kollek cared about his constituents, all of them. He was a classic pothole mayor, roaming the streets with his driver from 6:00 in the morning on and fielding citizen complaints until late into the night.

“Balzac would have taken to the mayor,” Bellow writes in To Jerusalem and Back, noting Kollek’s ruddy color, with his red hair combed roughly forward, and his broad, forceful charm. “Everyone serves his ends, and no one seems harmed by such serving. … He turns a fine phrase, is a man of some culture. His manners are Viennese, with super-added British graces.” Bellow describes Kollek’s meeting with the aged Greek patriarch of Jerusalem, whom the mayor calls, with delight, “Your Beatitude.” Kollek has a “feeling for tradition and hierarchy,” Bellow comments. “The Patriarch is ancient, densely bearded up to the eye sockets, faltering a little as he walks toward us. He kisses Kollek on both cheeks, and with warmth,” and Kollek returns the fragile, elderly patriarch’s affection.

Bellow is clearly wowed by Kollek’s “fabulous” international connections. “He is in touch with Brazilians, Finns, Rhodesians”; he consorts “with Rothschilds and Warburgs, and even with Hapsburgs and Romanoffs, I imagine,” Bellow writes. And, best of all, “he gives one reason to think that he knows backstairs, attics, and cupboards as well as salons and boardrooms.” A gossip-monger like Bellow himself, Kollek is also “a stainless idealist,” fighting for “the city that holds the soul of his people.”

Even his critics admitted that Kollek remade the landscape of Jerusalem. He was “Herod the Second.” He founded the Israel Museum, the Jerusalem Theater, and the Cinematheque, determined to make Jerusalem a cultural lodestar. He tirelessly raised money for his projects, which ranged from sports arenas to archeological digs. In 1966 he started the Jerusalem Foundation, dedicated to preserving and improving the city.

To Jerusalem and Back, published 40 years ago, could have been written last week. Bellow’s criticisms of the Israeli occupation and of left-wing anti-Semitism are stunningly au courant. Some Europeans, Bellow remarks, “appear to believe that the Jews, with their precious and refining record of suffering, have a unique obligation to hold up the moral burdens everyone else has dumped.” Bellow had covered the Six Day War for Newsday, and he knew the territory well. His idiosyncratic analyses of Russian attitudes toward Israel have never been surpassed, and his sharp, quick portraits of Kissinger, Hubert Humphrey, and other politicians are indelible. But the book lavishes most attention on Teddy Kollek. Bellow, who sensed the potential for peace at the heart of conflict-ridden Jerusalem, saw him as Teddy ha-Melekh, “Israel’s most valuable political asset.”

Kollek was born in Hungary in 1911, in the village of Nagyvaszony, near Budapest, and grew up in Vienna. His father, an ardent Zionist, gave him the name Theodor, after Herzl. Teddy went to Palestine in 1935, where he was one of the founders of kibbutz Ein Gev, and then to Britain in 1938. Kollek’s connection with Britain was a powerful one: In the early 1940s he was a spy for MI5, the British intelligence agency, and turned over the names of many Irgun and Lehi fighters to the British (a thousand men, he said later, adding, “I’m proud of it; I’d do it again”). Kollek was firmly on the Haganah side, and he saw Begin’s men as terrorists. The years 1947 to 1951 he spent mostly in New York raising money for the Jewish Agency and the Haganah, from an office over the Copacabana nightclub.

Kollek was something of a self-mythologizer, but he did have an extraordinary career. He claimed that he had raised a million dollars for the Jewish cause in Mexico City in one day; that in 1939 he had gotten Eichmann to release 3,000 Jewish children from the camps after a few minutes of negotiation; that he had delivered to the CIA the text of Khrushchev’s secret speech condemning the Stalinist crimes. These boasts are probably true.

Disappointingly, Kollek leaves most of the gossip out of his autobiography (co-written with his son Amos Kollek, who later made a movie, Chronicling a Crisis, that deals in part with his relation to his father). He does include a good story from Vienna in the mid-1930s, when Kollek found out that one of the city’s large department stores was denying service to Jews. He went there right away, piled up shirts, coats, trousers on the counter and asked them to be wrapped for purchase. Then Kollek said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot that you don’t serve Jews,” leaving the salesman with a mountain of clothes.

Kollek became mayor of Jerusalem in 1965 when it was still for all practical purposes a village. In those days Jordanian snipers took aim at the Israeli side of the city on Ammunition Hill, where the Jews’ apartments had iron shutters. From his office Kollek could hear the sounds of battle a few hundred meters away in June 1967. That month something happened that no one could have dreamed: the reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli rule.

Kollek fought his heart out to keep Jerusalem united by showing his concern for its Arab citizens. Bellow writes about Kollek that “my guess is that he is prepared to consider reasonable proposals for a shared administration” of the city. In 1977, a year after Bellow’s book, Kollek floated a proposal for “boroughs” in Jerusalem with “local autonomy.” But it wasn’t enough. The first intifada showed that large numbers of East Jerusalem youths were refusing Israeli sovereignty altogether.

It was no surprise that Kollek, in a 1989 letter to then-President George H.W. Bush, defended new housing for Jews in East Jerusalem. In theory, more of an ethnic mix would make the city more united. Yet in Palestinian eyes—and East Jerusalem Arabs were Palestinians, nearly all of them refusing to apply for Israeli citizenship—the return of Jews to East Jerusalem was a clear act of aggression.

East Jerusalem was always a different world from the city’s western half, under both Kollek and his successors. A 1986 government memo noted that there were “unpaved dirt paths without sidewalks or electricity” and no garbage collection in 60 percent of East Jerusalem. Kollek knew that uniting the city couldn’t be done on the cheap, but he drastically overestimated the willingness of successive Israeli governments to finance the improvement of the city’s eastern half. The PLO was more reluctant to meet with Kollek than with other Israeli politicians because they knew he couldn’t deliver the goods: He never got the Knesset to shell out nearly enough money for the poor eastern half of the city.

Jerusalem never truly became a seamless whole in the way Kollek envisioned. Kollek himself knew his great project had failed—failed gloriously, but still failed. And his successor Ehud Olmert knew too; that’s why Olmert proposed dividing the city in 2008 in his negotiation with Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert even said that the city government had “avoided investing in areas that I think in the future will not be part of the Jerusalem that will be under the State of Israel’s sovereignty.” When Kollek died, Tom Segev, who ran the mayor’s office for several years, wrote that “the Kollek era in Jerusalem … deserves to be remembered more as a story of illusion than as a success story.” He had failed to bring the two halves of the city together.

In 1973 Kollek met the young political scientist Moshe Amirav, after Amirav published a piece in Yedioth Ahronoth complaining about the focus on building an “outer ring” to Jerusalem at the expense of the city’s own infrastructure. Kollek summoned Amirav to his office. Smoking a Cuban cigar, Kollek told him, “Young man, I was impressed by the article you wrote, and I agree with you 100 percent.” The mayor added, “Your government, they’re all drunk. One day they’ll sober up, but it will be too late.” Decades later Kollek boasted of the construction of Jerusalem’s Outer Ring, now consisting of Maale Adumim and other West Bank suburbs.

Some years later Amirav wound up working for Kollek. Amirav pointed out to his boss that the municipal budget reserved for Arabs should be raised from 4 percent to at least 10 percent, since they made up 30 percent of the population; Kollek agreed but insisted that the Knesset should pay, not the city. After five terms, 28 years, as mayor, Kollek finally lost to Ehud Olmert in 1993. Olmert got the Haredi vote; Kollek, who had often depended on Arab voters for his margin of victory, didn’t get the support of Arab East Jerusalem in 1993—only 7 percent of Jerusalem Arabs voted at all in 1993. Arafat, then in Tunis, refused to lend his support to Kollek.

Amirav was present for Kollek’s Rosebud moment. In 2000 he visited Kollek in a nursing home, prepared to argue the former mayor into endorsing Barak’s offer to Arafat to divide Jerusalem. No argument was needed. “We failed to unite the city,” Kollek said instantly. “Tell Ehud Barak that I support dividing it.”


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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.