During the nearly 30 years he ran Jerusalem’s municipal government, every visiting American official, including both of us, was brought to see Mayor Teddy Kollek. Initially elected in 1965 to administer Jewish West Jerusalem, after Israel’s victory in 1967’s Six Day War, he found himself leading a pluralistic city of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and many others. He believed that, no matter how much Jerusalem’s various subgroups disliked one another, they were all citizens of the holy city of Jerusalem. As mayor, his mission was to ensure that each community felt respected—that each shared in Jerusalem’s common destiny.
Teddy Kollek was very popular among American visitors and we think that was because his leadership embraced the pluralistic vision that is the foundation of America’s story. He was, in some ways, molding Jerusalem in America’s image, a governing philosophy born from the belief that the equal rights of every person come not from the generosity of the state but from, in President Kennedy’s words, “the hand of God.”
Since then, America has changed, and with it our view of our government. A generation ago, Republicans and Democrats could be adversaries, but they ultimately viewed themselves as neighbors in what President Reagan described as the “shining city on the hill,” a phrase incidentally first used to describe Jerusalem. When leaders saw opportunities to work collaboratively toward common goals, they joined arms in the nation’s interest.
Today, across America, it seems to us that same ethos still prevails—but it obviously no longer does in our government in Washington. We are more diverse than most other nations, but our people are more accepting of that diversity today than ever before. Americans remain remarkably hardworking and resilient. Entrepreneurialism is thriving not only in Silicon Valley, but from Boston to Austin and beyond. Our universities are the world’s best. And so even as other countries have become more prosperous, the U.S. continues to possess all the ingredients to remain the global superpower we have been during the last 100 years. We understand that we are all Americans—and we’re all grateful that we are.
But we and our leaders also have the capacity to divide and diminish ourselves—and our international adversaries would like nothing better. If we fail to remember Teddy Kollek’s approach to governing a diverse society—and both parties continue to put partisan gain above national interest, America will lose both its economic strength and its moral authority. No democracy can survive a dynamic where neither side has an interest in negotiating with the other to solve problems. And yet that’s where we appear to be.
Our adversaries understand this, of course. Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election hinged on a clever strategy of deepening divisions they see in America, turning liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans more deeply against one another by hitting cultural touchpoints. Partisan acrimony thwarts efforts to fix obvious problems like the nation’s decaying infrastructure—something Congress and the White House would surely have agreed to just a generation ago.
We don’t want to suggest that the political debates of previous decades were entirely genteel or civil—they weren’t. But something fundamental has changed. If America’s strength, like Jerusalem’s, is born of its diversity, then our politics must be fueled by an embrace of the ideals, interests, and mission we all share. Our elected leaders must debate their differences, but the mutual antipathy on constant display can’t be allowed to erode the bonds of shared citizenship that tie the American people together.
Washington must bring back home the American ethos that Teddy Kollek brought to Jerusalem’s public life. That would be a good way to make Washington, once again, a “shining city on the hill.”
George P. Shultz, a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was the secretary of state from 1982 to 1989 and secretary of labor, secretary of the treasury and director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Nixon administration. Joseph I. Lieberman, a former Democratic senator from Connecticut, is co-chairman of No Labels, a national movement working to unite our divided country.