A lament for Jerusalem and for its mayor

Flora Lewis

October 25, 1990|By Flora Lewis

PARIS — IF THERE'S a living soul who embodies the city of Jerusalem, it's Teddy Kollek. This is a lament for the city, and for him, because he has made his life's work trying to revive it, beautify it and bring it harmony.

But it has wrenched itself apart in fear, hatred and violence. Not that Teddy weeps; it isn't his way. He still storms around, tongue-lashing the arrogant and the fanatic, crowing delight at the greenery, the great art and music brought to give warmth to the old stones and the hopes they symbolize.

Teddy -- everyone calls him that -- has been mayor since 1965. When he was first elected, there was a high tin wall next to his office in the Municipal Building, a shield to protect people in the streets from snipers on the Old City walls nearby.

After the 1967 war, all the physical barriers were torn down. Teddy plunged into ceaseless activity to unite the city, if not in friendship -- that was too much to ask -- at least in mutual acceptance and neighborliness.

For a long time, Jerusalem was a virtual island of calm as waves of bloody anger rose around it. That was not by happenstance. Teddy, who is known for falling asleep on public occasions, habitually spent only three or four hours a night in bed so he could look after the hospitals and schools and parks he was building, visit all kinds of people, deliver his message of good will and try to make amends for provocation.

It wasn't surprising that when the government of Israel refused to receive a United Nations delegation after the recent killings on the Temple Mount, Teddy's was the one voice saying he would be glad to see anyone who wanted to talk to him. His is a voice of reason. "The world is a better place when moderates run it," he has said.

He was born in Vienna in 1911 and joined a Zionist youth group as a teen-ager. He undertook clandestine missions around Europe to help save Jews from Hitler, settling in Palestine in 1935 as a pioneer. As an aide to David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel's first prime minister when the state was founded in 1948, he was closely involved in the dreams and pains of its creation.

He never did well in national politics. He is too blunt, too demanding and straightforward, too attentive to the details of everyday human troubles to get on with the party apparatus, as Israel's unwieldy system requires for advancement. But the same qualities brought him such personal admiration and affection that he has always been re-elected mayor.

It was not without constant quarrels. Nationalists say he does too much for Arabs. He bemoans constraints on attending to their needs as fellow citizens. Worried about youth gangs, he multiplied diversions -- festivals, sports to keep young people busy. But when he wanted to build a municipal swimming pool, he was called "too Hellenistic."

Still, it worked for a time. As late as last year, only one Palestinian had been killed in Jerusalem while hundreds died in the occupied territories, and the police had never fired live ammunition at rioters. Now the toll is mounting.

The ranks of die-hard fundamentalists are growing on both sides. Meron Benvenisti, his former deputy mayor who parted ways with his boss years ago over Teddy's insistence on looking at the bright side, has called him "a hero in a tragedy."

But he also pointed out, "Jerusalem isn't a piece of real estate, it's a symbol for both sides, and symbols are indivisible and exclusive. The Palestinians aren't looking for good government, they're after a political identity, self-esteem, their own flag. If you think they'll settle for better sewers and roads, you're mad."

Teddy refuses to despair. Undermined, saddened, he seeks reason for consolation. From the telephone in his car as he raced about, he told me: "It's been a bad few weeks. But fewer people have been killed in Jerusalem than in other cities this size. I hear (New York's) Mayor Dinkins is talking about a curfew to control crime. Of course it's different; here it's nationalism and there it's crime."

He's still finding practical ways to improve the city's life on both sides of the emotional divide. There's no question, he said, of a big new settlement for Soviet immigrants in East Jerusalem, as the Israeli government suggested. He's planning 7,000 new apartments for Arab housing.

"We're all in a bad mood now. But we all know there's no choice, we'll be together forever. Wait a few weeks until it simmers down, before we can talk and make sense."

But it isn't going that way. Teddy will be 80 in May. "It's a different generation, they aren't heard," another Israeli commented. Not only the story of Teddy's life will seem vain if another generation fails to join his endless work for a Jerusalem at peace.

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