Golda Meir may be the world’s most famous grandmother. She served as the first Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union in the late 1940’s, as foreign minister for nine years, then finally at the age of 71, as prime minister of Israel from 1969-1974. Golda Meir was one of the founders of Israel and the most prominent woman politician of her era. In the 1970’s, Golda was as admired as Queen Elizabeth and as well known by her first name as Madonna. But to millions of Jews and Israelis, she was affectionately known as Golda Shelanu, or “Our Golda.”
Golda Meir was born Goldie Mabovitz in Kiev, Ukraine in 1898. She was one of eight children of Moshe and Blume Naidtich Mabovitz, but 5 of her brothers died in early childhood. Her childhood in Russia was a time of severe poverty and terrifying pogroms. She attributes her lifelong commitment to a secure Jewish state to her memories of this anti-Semitic violence. “If there is any logical explanation . . . for the direction which my life has taken,” she noted, “it is the desire and determination to save Jewish children . . . from a similar experience.” Her father left for America to try to make a better life for his family and settled in Milwaukee. Three years later, the rest of the family followed, when Golda was 8 years old.
Golda thrived in her new home. Even as a child, she had an inexhaustible supply of energy and determination. Her mother called her a kochleffl (stirring spoon), because she was always stirring things up. When she was eleven years old she organized a community fund raiser to buy books for poor schoolchildren. When one of her classmates shouted an anti-Semitic remark to her Jewish girlfriend, she organized a demonstration in front of the boy’s house protesting his anti-Semitism. Golda graduated from grammar school as the class valedictorian. She made plans to go to high school, then on to college to become a teacher. But her parents objected, because in Milwaukee in 1913, teachers were not allowed to be married! Golda’s parents arranged to have her apprenticed to a seamstress and even arranged a marriage for her to an older man. “It doesn’t pay to be too clever,” warned her father. “Men don’t like smart girls.” She defied her parents and enrolled in High School anyway, but the fights with her parents became so bad that Golda finally ran away from home. At age 14, she sneaked out of the house in the middle of the night without telling her parents and took a train to Denver to live with her older married sister. While she attended high school in Denver, she spent evenings listing to her sister Shayna’s radical friends, including Socialist Zionists and Labor Zionists. A year later, she reconciled with her parents and returned to Milwaukee, where she graduated from high school and enrolled in a teacher’s training college. However, she became active in the Labor Zionist group, Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion), and dropped out of school to work for the Zionist cause. Golda Meir dreamed of helping to create a Jewish homeland, a place, she said, “where Jews could be masters, not victims, of their fate.”
While she was in Denver, she met and fell in love with an older man, Morris Meyerson, a quiet sign-painter who loved literature, poetry, and music. Although he didn’t share her Zionist passion, Golda agreed to marry him when she was 19 years old on the condition that they emigrate to Palestine and live on a kibbutz. In 1921, they settled in Kibbutz Merhavia, set in a marshy, malaria-ridden region. Golda enjoyed Kibbutz life and became an expert in raising chickens. She also was selected for her first political position, as the kibbutz’s representative to the Histadrut (or General Federation of Labor). But Morris contracted malaria and had difficulty adjusting to the harsh Kibbutz lifestyle. He refused to have any children unless they moved to the city. The Myersons moved to Jerusalem and had 2 children: Menachem, who became a cellist, and Sarah, a future kibbutznik.
But Golda became restless with life as a housewife. In 1928, she was offered the job as secretary of Histadrut’s Council for Women workers. Despite her husband’s disapproval, she took the job and moved to Tel Aviv with her two children. Ten years later, Golda and Morris separated, although they never legally divorced. Golda worked hard at her new political career but always felt guilty about not doing enough to save her marriage and about neglecting her children.
Golda moved quickly up the political ranks, and during World War II she held key posts in the World Zionist Organization and in the Jewish Agency, which functioned as the government of the Jewish yishuv (or Jewish settlement community) in British-administered Palestine. In June, 1946, the British arrested most of the Yishuv’s political leadership for smuggling in refugees, and Meir became acting head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, in effect, the “acting Prime Minister” of the Yishuv.
When the state of Israel was established in 1948, a vast amount of money was needed to equip the army to defend the new Jewish state from attacking Arab nations. Golda volunteered to go to the United States to solicit $25 million dollars from the Jewish community. She was so successful with her speeches in establishing an emotional link between the U.S. Jewish community and Israel that she returned with $50 million dollars. With five Arab armies poised on Israel’s borders, Golda disguised herself as a Moslem woman and traveled to Trans-Jordan for a secret meeting with King Abdullah to try to persuade him to remain neutral in the upcoming war. He received her with respect, but did not agree to her request.
Golda Meir was a signer of the Israeli Proclamation of Independence on May 1948. Her first position was an appointment as the Israeli ambassador to Russia. In her first visit to the Soviet Union in September, 1948, her presence at Rosh Hashanah services in Moscow’s only synagogue sparked a spontaneous pro-Israeli demonstration of 40,000 Russian Jews. In 1949, she became the first woman elected to the Knesset (Israeli parliament), and was appointed by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion as minister of labor. She was responsible for finding housing and jobs for the 700,000 immigrants who arrived in Israel during the first 3 years of statehood.
Because of her support for Ben-Gurion’s policy of swift retaliation against Arab attacks, Ben-Gurion claimed that Golda Meir was “the only man in my Cabinet.” Golda was amused that Ben-Gurion felt that this was the greatest possible compliment he could pay to a woman. “I doubt that any man would have been flattered if I had said about him that he as the only woman in the Cabinet,” Golda said. Protecting the state of Israel always was paramount to Golda, who lived through times when the survival of the Jewish state always was in jeopardy. “If we have to have a choice between being dead and pitied, and being alive with a bad image, we’d rather be alive and have the bad image,” she said. “To be or not to be is not a question of compromise. Either you be or you don’t be.”
In 1956, Ben-Gurion appointed Golda Meir Israeli foreign minister, the second-highest position in the government. Ben-Gurion insisted that she adopt the Hebraicized version of Myerson, Meir, as her surname, which means “to illuminate.” Golda was the only woman foreign minister in the world but maintained her simple lifestyle. She flew tourist class, shined her own shoes, and even washed out her own underwear in hotels. Golda frequently entertained foreign dignitaries in her kitchen, and served them homemade pastries while wearing an apron.
In the early 1960’s, Golda Meir became ill with lymph node cancer or lymphoma, and kept it a secret because she feared that others would say she was unfit for her job. She decided she was too old and too tired to hold political office any longer and retired from her cabinet post in 1965. She worked for a few years as the Secretary General of her political party, but resigned from that post due to failing health. Then in 1969 Prime Minister Levi Eshkol suddenly died of a heart attack. To avoid a power struggle between Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon that would have divided the country, the Labor Party chose Golda as a compromise candidate. A short time later, her temporary appointment became permanent as she was chosen to be Prime Minister in national elections, at age 71.
Golda Meir began her term as Prime Minister after Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War of 1967. Yet, as soon as the ink was dry on the cease fire agreement, Abdel Nassar began the Egyptian War of Attrition, constantly firing on Israeli troops and civilians near the negotiated cease fire lines. Not one country pressured Nassar to stop the terrorism and violence against the Israel state. On the contrary, the Soviet Union rushed to arm the Egyptians with a flood of military equipment, including tanks, aircraft, and missiles, along with Soviet instructors to retrain the battered Egyptian army, and European countries, including France and Great Britain, felt that Israel should refrain from retaliation. Golda attempted to contact the Arab leaders to discuss peace negotiations, but Nassar replied: “There is no voice transcending the sounds of war . . . and no call holier than the call to war.” To counter the growing Egyptian military threat, Golda turned to the U.S. for arms. She was warmly received by President Nixon, who agreed to her requests. Despite the tough times, Golda kept her sense of humor. When she met with President Nixon, he told her that he would trade any three American generals for General Moshe Dayan. “Okay,” she said, “I’ll take General Motors, General Electric, and General Dynamics.” Pertinent for Passover, she once said about Moses: “Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses. He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil!”
But like every prominent public figure, she also had failures. She was widely criticized for the country’s lack of preparedness for the surprise attack in the Yom Kippur War. Although the Egyptian and Syrian forces were ultimately defeated, 2,500 Israeli soldiers died and another 3,000 were wounded. Under public pressure, she was forced to step down from office in 1974. Golda Meir said about the Yom Kippur war: “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons. But it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”
Golda Meir was a poster woman for the feminist cause in the 1970’s. Her picture as Prime Minister appeared with the caption: “But can she type?” However, many feminists felt that she could have done more to help other women. Golda overcame many personal hardships because she was a woman: as a child she fought with her parents to continue her education and as a married woman she made a difficult choice between her family and her career. However, she failed to recognize that many of her personal struggles were universal problems faced by most other women of her time. Golda did not use her position of power to address women’s needs (such as child care or equality in the workplace), to promote other women to aspire to public office, or to advance women’s status in Israel. Thus she was an inspiration and source of pride to women, yet, simultaneously, a disappointment and source of frustration to twentieth century women who were fighting for social change.
What was Golda Meir’s secret for success? She possessed a rare mixture of courage and sincerity. While our modern political leaders package themselves for the mass media, Golda Meir achieved fame through hard work and was admired for her simplicity and straight talk. Her trademarks were her prominent nose and a simple black or grey matronly dress. Golda was tough and stubborn and had nerves of steel, yet retained the image of the warm and loving global Jewish mother. Richard Nixon once said: “Many leaders drive to the top by the force of personal ambition. They seek power because they want power. Not Golda Meir. All her life she simply set out to do a job, whatever that might be, and poured into it every ounce of energy and dedication she could summon.” For Golda Meir, the aspiration to lead arose not for the lure of power but through a desire to serve. Golda always was telling people: “Don’t be so humble—you’re not that great!”
Golda Meir died at age 80, in 1978. Walter Cronkite said: “She lived
a life under pressure that we, in this country, would find impossible to understand.
She is the strongest woman to head a government in our time and for a very long
time past.” Golda said: “There is nothing Israel wants so much as
peace. There is nothing Israel needs so much as peace. With all the bleakness
of the desert, the desert of hate around us is even more bleak.”
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