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

January 03, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

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.

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