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HomePerspectivesGeorge WeigelTwo men of the Levant

Two men of the Levant

Two giant figures of the contemporary Middle East recently died within days of each other. One was a great murderer, a man who mailed the body parts of his shredded victims to their families, which perhaps explains why he never slept in the same place two nights in a row. The other was a great builder, a mayor who kept his home phone number listed in his city’s telephone directory. One destroyed the very possibility of “politics” in his country, which was why, in the end, he had to be destroyed. The other was a consummate politician, who wheeled-and-dealed with the best of them, in order to make the world’s most bitterly contested city a place worthy of its name.

One, of course, was Saddam Hussein, executed in Baghdad on December 30. The other was Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem for almost three decades, who died on January 2.

Babylonians, Byzantines, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Ottomans, Persians, Romans, Saracens, and Seleucids each ruled Jerusalem, in their turn, as conquerors. From 1965 until 1993, Teddy Kollek governed Jerusalem as a trustee. Living at the epicenter of a region caught in the cruel web of violence, Teddy embodied civility, decency, and tolerance.

He was a proud Israeli, who in his youth had run guns and done intelligence work for David Ben-Gurion; as Mayor of Jerusalem, he conducted himself as a servant of people of all faiths, determined to maintain free access to the city’s holy places for all who wished to worship there. His critics, perhaps resentful of his success, called him “the last pasha,” the last Ottoman in style if not ethnicity. And it’s true that Teddy was, at the same time, politician, statesman, impresario, urban planner, gardener, judge, host, construction-gang boss, and world-class shnorrer (fundraiser). But perhaps in a region where the politics of consensus and compromise are planted in rocky soil, it takes a pasha — in this case, a thoroughly democratic pasha — to make things happen. And Teddy Kollek made things happen.

The original U.N. partition plan for mandatory Palestine envisaged Jerusalem as a corpus separatum, an international enclave not part of any state. That was an idea going nowhere; so in 1948 the city was divided by barbed wire, between Israel and Jordan, and remained that way until its reunification in 1967 during the Six-Day War (which Israel’s leaders had begged Jordan’s King Hussein not to enter). Teddy, in response to renewed calls for some sort of international oversight, created a non-governmental body: the Jerusalem Committee, an eclectic gathering of lawyers, statesmen, academics, theologians, and architects from all over the world — all dedicated to religious freedom, all committed to an open and undivided Jerusalem, and all invited by Teddy to “congratulate us when we get it right, and correct us when we get it wrong,” as Teddy said in inviting me to join the Committee (as the most junior of subalterns, I should confess) in 1990.

We did both. Long before my brief service on it, the Committee helped Teddy prevent the city from getting overbuilt. In fact, the Jerusalem Committee encouraged and supported some of the greatest exercises in urban design of the late twentieth century. I also remember Teddy’s intense interest, at our 1990 meeting, in the Sheikh Jarrah health clinic he had built for poor Palestinian children, even as he took in hand the Committee criticism for the municipality’s failure to entice the local Palestinian population into municipal politics (which, in truth, wasn’t Teddy’s fault, but the first intifada’s).

Jerusalem is hardly an oasis of tranquillity today. But it is a far more tranquil place — and a far more beautiful place, and a far more open place — than it would have been absent the tough love lavished on it for decades by Teddy Kollek. This great and good man, who was the human antithesis of the brute who died seventy-two hours before him, embodied the promise that Jerusalem might one day be in reality what it has long been inspiration: the city of peace. Gathered to the fathers, may he rest in peace.

George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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