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Teddy Kollek and the Native Question

Joost R. Hiltermann

Middle East Report 05-06/1993

On Saturday night, June 10, 1967, Israeli authorities informed more than 100 families living in the Mughrabi quarter of Jerusalem's Old City that they had three hours to evacuate their homes, where some had lived for generations. As Teddy Kollek, mayor of the western half of the city since 1965, recalled in his 1978 autobiography,

Something had to be done about the small slum houses that crowded close to the Western Wall--the Moghrabi quarter. The one area that should have been spacious and bright was cramped and dark...When we decided to allow the first pilgrimage in 19 years...we expected hundreds of thousands of people to take part...But how would these hundreds of thousands of people reach the Wall through the dangerous, narrow alleyways? The only answer was to do away with the slim hovels of the Moghrabi quarter...My overpowering feeling was: do it now; it may be impossible to do it later and it must be done...Then the archaeologists and other experts went to the Wall and drew a map of exactly what should be torn down...[1]

Bulldozers operated by floodlight throughout that night and the next, and by the morning of June 12 a plaza before the Western Wall comprising one acre had been cleared.[2] In addition to religious occasions, this plaza has become a site for Israeli patriotic ceremonies, such as torchlit graduations for elite army unit recruits.

At around the same time, Kollek also took part in a decision to remove forcibly all the Palestinian Arab inhabitants of the Old City's Jewish Quarter, many of whom had fled there from parts of the city taken over by the Israelis. The mayor put it much more delicately: the authorities were only trying to "find alternative housing" for the Quarter's "Arab squatters." "There were only a few Arab families who had even lived in the Quarter for a generation or two, or even longer," Kollek wrote in his autobiography, "and some of these were reluctant to leave. But with these exceptions, all the Arabs in the Jewish Quarter were only too happy to receive ample compensation and settle outside the Old City. They had no special feeling for the place."[3]

Kollek's suggestion that the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants of Jerusalem lack any historical or cultural bond to their own city, and are therefore somehow undeserving of it, has set the tone for the dispossessions and removals that have taken place, in various ways, since June 1967. Never mind that the vast majority of buildings in the Jewish Quarter were Arab-owned at the time of the 1948 war, which divided the city in two.[4] And never mind that Palestinians--Muslims, Christians and Jews--had been living in the Old City for generations. Following the June war they became, as Thomas Friedman put it in his fawning portrait of Kollek, a "disaffected political minority."[5]

Israel added 43 square miles of mostly Palestinian West Bank land to Jerusalem's municipal boundaries on June 29, 1967, as part of their de facto annexation of the city. Kollek's administration then set out to suppress the resident Palestinian Arab voices, their claim and their identity, through the unrelenting construction of highrises for Jewish habitation only, chiefly on this newly annexed land. This would tip the population balance in East Jerusalem and thereby would render Israel's incorporation of the city irreversible.

Teddy Kollek has played a central role in Israel's effective suppression of the "native question" in Jerusalem,and thus of any serious challenge to its claim to exclusive sovereignty over an undivided city. Kollek, today in the twilight of his mayoralty, has been one of the most articulate proponents of this claim. He has nurtured a reputation for himself as a benighted liberal Zionist under whose stewardship Jerusalem has grown from an "overgrown village" into "a vibrant center for culture and the arts."[6] He has, in fact, presided over the gradual takeover of Arab East Jerusalem by the Jewish western part. Unlike the Israeli settlers whom Kollek has denounced as "fanatics" for their violently intrusive practices, the mayor's method has been to build new apartment complexes on confiscated Palestinian agricultural land.[7] The end result is the same: dispossession, blocked development and dependency on the Palestinian side. Kollek's legacy is a city whose distinctive Palestinian identity has been significantly erased.

Creating Space

Israeli justifications for an exclusive claim to Jerusalem combine references to history, religion and politics, with allusions to the fate of the Jews in modern times, and emphasize the merits of the Jewish claim relative to those of contenders. "Israel's claim to Jerusalem goes back to time immemorial," Kollek wrote in 1990, "bolstered by a continuous Jewish presence, swelling in modern times to a Jewish majority in the population since the middle of the last century, culminating in 1947-48 in a struggle for the very survival of the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem."[8]

Kollek's argument asserts that the only two times that Jerusalem served as a national capital, it did so under the Jews: "the Biblical Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and...the modern-day resurrected State of Israel."[9] In between, even if Jews had surrendered their rule over Jerusalem to others, Jerusalem "has been the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years."[10] The intervening rulers, furthermore, never cared as much for the city as did the Jews. "For whatever reason, the city has only flourished under the Jews," Kollek insists.[11] Jerusalem meant less to the Arabs, he claims, and such significance as it had was derivative: Jerusalem "is the focal point of Judaism and is also sacred to both to Christians and Muslims, owing to the influence exercised by Judaism on these `daughter' religions."[12] One is forced to presume that had there been no Jews and Judaism, the city might well have remained the "overgrown village" or "provincial backwater" that Kollek, Friedman and others have made the pre-1967 town out to be. Former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir carried this line of thinking a bit further, arguing that Jerusalem has a "political, national significance for Muslims and Christians."[13]

By casting contending claims to Jerusalem primarily as religious rather than as political/national claims, Israeli discourse on Jerusalem thus excludes a priori any nationalist-based claims from the agenda. A country such as Jordan, for instance, merely represents "the Muslims." Moreover, according to Kollek, Jordan has "forfeited" any claim to Jerusalem it might have had by "a policy of Arabizing and Islamizing the part of Jerusalem they occupied"; by focusing its initiatives "not on Jerusalem...but on Amman and the East Bank of the Jordan"; and by "time and again publicly subscribing to the general Arab aim of annihilating Israel."[14]

With the Muslims, Christians and Jordanians out of the way, no serious challengers remain--except for the indigenous population of Jerusalem. Here Israeli discourse on Jerusalem runs into trouble. Kollek recognizes that the term "indigenous population" does include "the Arabs" living in Mandate Palestine. He argues that these Arabs forfetied their claim to Jerusalem by rejecting the UN's 1947 partition plan and demanding "Arab sovereignty over all of Palestine." The Jewish leadership reckoned that half a loaf was better that none and accepted the plan.[15] Any further claim these "Arabs" may have is a claim as Muslims, and this, as we have seen above, is a lesser claim.

In this way Kollek has helped to suppress the Palestinian narrative. Any remaining tensions in post-1967 "Greater Israel" are "tensions originating from tthe Arab-Israeli conflict" (in which the Palestinians are submerged), and "tensions within every community, Christian, Muslim and Jewish." Distinctly absent from recognition or articulation are tensions arising from the basic conflict between Palestinian and Jewish nationalism.[16] In other words, by cleansing the discussion over Jerusalem of all references to Palestinian political rights, the hope is that any Palestinian claim to sovereignity in Jerusalem, as in Palestine, will be ignored or forgotten and, with time, simply cease to exist.

Disaffected Taxpayers

In the physical, political and discursive space Kollek thus created, he was able to unfold a plan for the city which sounded practical and reasonable, even generous. Kollek used the platform of Foreign Affairs to insist that "[t]he future of Jerusalem is to remain united and the capital of Israel, under the sovereignty of Israel. There is, however, room for functional sovereignty."[17] Elsewhere he writes that Israel has offered the Palestinians "a number of elements which bear the indicia of sovereignty: the choice of citizenship; the right to travel to hostile countries; the acceptance of their school curriculum; the unqualified recognition of various professional qualifications; unhindered internal autonomy; and freedom of access to all holy places--and above all, the independant administration of the Temple Mount." The municipality has made "all possible efforts to ensure unhindered development of the Arab way of life in the Arab sections of the city," while also "ensuring equal governmental, municipal and social services in all parts of the city." In exchange, the Palestinians pay taxes and, fortuneately, "the Arab inhabitants are good taxpayers."[18]

If Jerusalem's "disaffected minority" does not receive an equal share in services, the Palestinians themselves are to blame. Since 1967, Palestinians have been able to vote in municipal elections, but only some 30 percent have done so, and none have put themselves forward as candidates for election.[19] "This sorry situation means that either I or a colleague in my `One Jerusalem' coaltion must represent the Arab population and look after its interests," Kollek laments.[20] "Why did they turn me into the sword of Islam?" he exclaims on another occasion. "Why must I argue, time after time, for their slice of the pie?"[21]

Kollek sees no need to mention his crude dismissal of East Jerusalem mayor Ruhi al-Khatib and the East Jerusalem city council on June 29, 1967, despite the cooperation of these Palestinian leaders in restoring services after the war. In the absence of "Arabs" on his city council, Kollek has conducted no negotiations with Palestinians recognized as leaders in their own community over the modalities of Israeli rule over East Jerusalem. The reason, said Kollek in 1988, is that "[a]t present no leaders can be said to represent the Jerusalem Arabs." True, Palestinians have set up a number of political bodies in East Jerusalem over the years, including the Supreme Muslim Council, but they were formed "in opposition to Israel, not in cooperation," and are therefore not legitimate negotiating partners.[22] Palestinian national leaders are even worse, in Kollek's eyes, but fortuneately, though the Palestinians of East Jerusalem "do not desire Israeli rule,...neither do they particularly like King Hussein...They like Yassir Arafat even less, because they remember his forerunner, the mufti of Jerusalem...In an ironic fashion, therefore, Israeli rule in East Jerusalem is almost a convenience for its Arab inhabitants--at least inasmuch as none of the other alternatives appear to be particularly attractive."[23]

Kollek's strategy is based on three key elements. First, in any future comprehensive peace negotiations the question of Jerusalem can only be dealt with "at the end of the negotiating process, not the beginning," since "Jerusalem will not be an easy subject to tackle and, taken first, might...[sabotage] interim agreements between Israel and the Arabs."[24] "So what do we do in the meantime?" he asks. "We work to improve the quality of life for all Jerusalemites--we take `small steps...'" These "small steps," the second element of Kollek's strategy, include the "unhindered continuation of the various ethnic and religious communities' way of life," "freedom of access to all the Holy Places," and other elements of autonomy, precisely those which Kollek says give the Palestinians "indicia of sovereignty."[25]

The third component of Kollek's strategy of postponement is to create "facts" on the ground while stressing the theme of "peaceful coexistance" in public pronouncements and, if challenged, to observe that all is well in the city except for occasional minor, resolvable problems involving a "dissaffected minority." And to refer, for good measure, to Jewish rights to Jerusalem "from time immemorial." "We Jews are the vast majority," Kollek sums up, "and we must act with wisdom, and then it will take a generation or two until the city is united."[26] At that point, Jeursalem can safely be an agenda item, says Kollek: "It is my expectation that once there is an overall settlement, one that I believe must leave Jerusalem under Israel's sole sovereignty, the Palestinians here will realise that there is no longer any point in fighting for turf."[27]

Whose Jerusalem?

The Palestinian uprising has overturned the status quo in the occupied territories and has placed Jerusalem back on the international agenda. In 1990, for example, the US government pressed Israel to limit the use of housing loan guarantees to "areas inside the Green Line," i.e., excluding East Jerusalem. In 1991, a dispute about the participation of Palestinians from East Jerusalem in the peace negotiations yielded a compromise whereby Jerusalemites were not formal delegates but did serve as advisers and spokespeople for the delegation.

"One Jerusalem" advocates like Kollek were caught off-guard by claims which, though not new, had thus far been effectively suppressed. It is therefore with feigned surprise that Kollek responds to Jerusalemite Sari Nuseibeh's insistence that "our ancestral roots precede the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and they have never been discontinued."[28] This, Kollek says, "is a new claim among Palestinians to be descended from the Canaanites."[29]

Here the native population of Palestine, which Kollek thought the Israelis had purged from historical record, has suddenly remerged. Kollek dismisses "Canaanite-Jerusalem" as "a small city-state" which was subsequently ruled by the Jebusites before King David "united the Israelite tribes" and "selected the ideal site for both a political and religious center."[30] "Selected, after all, sounds more benign than "conquered." To extricate his version of Jerusalem from the unkind facts on the ground, Kollek proposes a bargain: the Palestinians take Hebron as part of the West Bank, while Israel retains Jerusalem: "[A]s I do not expect to get everything I want, neither should the other side. Didn't God promise Hebron to Abraham? Shouldn't it be mine? Yes, but I do not expect to keep it. Nor should the other side expect that we should ever agree to redivide Jerusalem."[31]

Whatever arrangement Palestinians and Israelis will eventually settle for, the issue of Jerusalem is again open to discussion, and not at the end of the negotiating process. The Palestinian delegation to the peace talks insists that Jerusalem be included at every step of the discussion over the Palestinian interim self-governing authority (PISGA). While deliberations over the city's final disposition are being left until the end, the Palestinian delegation has taken the position that in any final arrangement no one should have "exclusive possession" of Jerusalem.

It is doubtful that Teddy Kollek will have much direct influence over the content of the negotiations, since he has announced his intention not to run for re-election later this year due to his advanced age. But Kollek's shadow will be there. The "facts" created under his stewardship of the city will define the starting positions of all sides and do much to preclude an arrangement that might come closer to fulfilling Palestinians' just rights in, and to, Jerusalem.

Joost R. Hiltermann, is an editor of this magazine. This essay is excerpted from "In Pursuit of Herzl's Broom: A Deconstruction of Teddy Kollek's Jerusalem," presented at the Discourse and Palestine conference at the University of Amsterdam, April 1992.


1 Teddy Kollek with Amos Kollek, For Jerusalem: A Life (New York: Random House, 1978), p. 197.

2 This scene is also recounted in Meron Benevenisti, Jerusalem: The Torn City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976).

3 Kollek, A Life, pp. 227-28. Emphasis added.

4 Benevenisti, p. 239.

5 Thomas Friedman, "Teddy Kollek's Jerusalem," New York Times Magazine, August 4, 1985, p. 69.

6 Friedman, p.18.

7 Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem, Policy Paper No.22 (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1990) p.62.

8 Ibid., p. x.

9 Ibid., p. ix.

10 Quoted in Friedman, p. 48.

11 Kollek, A Life, p. 251.

12 Kollek, Jerusalem, p. 2. Emphasis added. Kollek subsequently asserts (p. 4) that "In Islam, Jerusalem--or rather the sanctuary al-Haram al-Sharif--corresponds to the Temple Mount in the city, which is traditionally regarded as third in sanctity after sites in Mecca and Medina, which outrank it by far in religious importance."

13 Jerusalem Post, May 24, 1990.

14 Kollek, Jerusalem, pp. 15-16, 22.

15 Ibid., p. 10.

16 Ibid., p. 57.

17 Teddy Kollek, "Sharing United Jerusalem," Foreign Affairs 67,2 (Winter 1988/89), p. 156-57.

18 Kollek, Jerusalem, pp. 63-66.

19 Friedman, p. 69.

20 Kollek, "Sharing," p. 163.

21 Teddy Kollek, "Whose Jerusalem?" New Outlook (January- February 1990), p. 19.

22 Kollek, "Sharing," p. 166. Kollek makes no mention of the frequent deportation of Palestinian activists from Jerusalem in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or other repressive measures taken against an emergent Palestinian leadership, including frequent and prolonged detentions of Faisal Husseini.

23 Kollek, A Life, p. 241.

24 Ibid., p. 245.

25 Introduction to T. Sawicki, The Jerusalem Handbook (Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, in cooperation with the Anit-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, 1987), p.5.

26 The Guardian, May 24, 1990.

27 Kollek letter to the New York Review of Books, March 5, 1992. Note that in 1992, four years after the beginning of the intifada, Kollek finally began using the term "Palestinian" instead of "Arab."

28 Sari Nusseibeh, "Whose Jerusalem?," New Outlook (January-February 1990), p. 19.

29 Jerusalem, p. 34.

30 Ibid., pp. 1-2. Emphasis added. Avishai Margalit has argued that "Jerusalem, with its changes of rulers and religions, does not belong exclusively to the heritage of any one religion or any community in the city." ("The Myth of Jerusalem," New York Review of Books, December 19, 1991, p. 62.)

31 "Whose Jerusalem?" p. 18.

Middle East Research and Information Project
Last updated 8 July 1997
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