Born on May 3, 1898 (Kiev, Ukraine)
Died on December 8, 1978 (Jerusalem, Israel)
Prime minister of Israel
Golda Meir (pronounced may-EAR) became the first woman to lead a modern nation when she was elected prime minister of Israel in 1969. Over the previous forty-five years she had steadily risen through the political ranks, proving herself a strong, opinionated leader. The events of her life included the persecution she felt during her childhood in Russia, her active participation in the budding Zionist movement (the movement to create a Jewish homeland) in the United States during her teenage years, and her pioneering move to Palestine in the 1920s. All of these experiences fueled her fervent desire to create a homeland for the Jewish people. Her devotion to nation building took precedence over her marriage, her children, and sometimes her own health. For her efforts she earned a place in the hearts of her people. Known as "the uncrowned queen of Israel" and "Mother Courage," Meir is one of Israel's most beloved leaders.
"We have always said that in our war with the Arabs we had a secret weapon—no alternative."
Born into poverty
Meir was born Golda Mabovitch on May 3, 1898, in Kiev, Ukraine, at the time a part of Russia. (She took the last name Meir in 1956, when Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion [1886–1973; see entry] persuaded her to change her name to a more Hebrew-sounding name as a way of showing allegiance to Israel.) Meir's early childhood was marked by poverty and discrimination. Russians had imposed restrictions against Jews since the 1840s, and Meir's parents, Moshe and Bluma Mabovitch, found it difficult to make a living. Her father was trained as a carpenter, but was unable to find enough work to support his wife and three young daughters. More than their economic stability, the Mabovitchs worried about their safety. In the 1880s Russians began violent attacks on Jews, called pogroms. In the dark of night, Russians would roam the streets, shouting "Death to Jews." Some would break into Jewish homes and rob or harm the inhabitants. When she was four years old Meir remembered her father nailing boards across the entrance of the family's home to guard against attacks. The experience convinced Meir that "this was happening to me because I was Jewish," as she recalled in her autobiography. The feeling of injustice and horror never left her.
In 1903 Moshe Mabovitch sold his tools and immigrated to the United States, promising to send for his wife and children when he had made enough money to pay for their safe passage. Bluma Mabovitch moved with her children to her hometown of Pinsk, in what is now Belarus, where she supported her young family by selling homemade bread. After three years in the United States, Moshe Mabovitch earned enough money to move his entire family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There Bluma Mabovitch opened a grocery store with an attached apartment where the family lived. For the first time, the Mabovitchs had running water, a flush toilet, and an icebox. Although the family remained relatively poor, the Mabovitchs found peace in Wisconsin and delighted in their ability to raise their children free from the anti-Semitism (discrimination against Jews) that they had experienced in Russia. The move also gave the children an opportunity for education. Each morning Meir would open her mother's store and then go on to school.
An early activist
Meir was thrilled with her new experiences, but noticed by the fourth grade that not every student could afford textbooks. School was free, but students were expected to pay a small fee for textbooks. Not all students' families could afford this fee. Meir felt that something should be done, and in 1909 she founded the American Young Sisters Society and led a drive to raise funds for schoolbooks. It was her first experience with activism.
Meir enjoyed school and excelled in every subject. She wanted to earn a high school diploma and become a teacher, but her parents had other plans for their daughter. They wanted her to marry, even knowing that married women were not allowed to teach at the time. Meir could not submit to her parents' wishes. At age fifteen she moved to Denver, Colorado, to live with her married sister, Sheyna. Meir enrolled in high school there and earned money at her brother-in-law's dry-cleaning shop.
Meir soon became involved in politics. In her sister's home, Meir listened to political debates about such ideas as socialism (a political theory about a society in which the control and ownership of industry, land, and profits are held collectively by the government) and Marxism (a political theory created by Karl Marx [1818–1883] that calls for a classless society). She grew especially interested in Zionism, the movement for the creation of a Jewish homeland.
By the time she was seventeen, Meir's parents asked her to move back to Milwaukee. They promised to support her desire to earn her high school and teaching diplomas. Meir did finish school, earning a teaching certificate from the Milwaukee Teachers' Training College. But her first love was now Zionism. In 1917 she took a job with the Poalei Zion, a group that promoted the ideals of Zionism. She passed out pamphlets about pioneers to Palestine, where most Zionists believed the Jewish nation should be formed, and collected donations for the Jewish National Fund, which helped buy land in Palestine for Jewish settlers. After hearing about new pogroms in Poland and Ukraine, Meir organized a protest march that drew thousands and gained national attention. Soon Meir had resolved that she must move to Palestine to carry on her efforts.
Life in Palestine
Since leaving Denver, Meir had never lost contact with Morris Meyerson, a man whom she had met at her sister's house. The couple married on December 24, 1917. Although Meyerson did not share his wife's enthusiasm for life in Palestine, he agreed to move with her. In 1921 they immigrated to Palestine to live on a kibbutz, a communal settlement where settlers share all property and work collaboratively. Meir worked hard on the kibbutz, raising chickens, picking almonds, and planting trees, and she soon took over management of the community kitchen. Within a year, Meir won an elected position on the kibbutz steering committee and became the kibbutz's representative to the Histadrut, the leading organization of Zionist labor unions. Meyerson did not thrive on the kibbutz, however, and the couple moved to the more urban areas of Tel Aviv and later Jerusalem, in order to improve his health. Meir adjusted readily to city life, taking a job with Histadrut. After the birth of her children, Menachem and Sarah, however, Meir quit her job and devoted herself to motherhood.
Meir was restless at home, and by 1928 she decided to return to work. She missed being an active participant in the building of the Jewish homeland. She became the secretary of the Moetzet Hapoalot, the Women's Labor Council, where she helped women settling in Palestine. Her position required her to move back to Tel Aviv. She took her children with her, but left her husband behind in Jerusalem. She remained married until Meyerson's death in 1951, but spent little time with him after 1928. Although her job required long hours and much time away from her children, it fulfilled Meir's desire to make an impact on more people's lives. This was the job that set Meir on a course to devote the rest of her life to her Jewish homeland.
Increased political responsibility
Meir quickly rose through the ranks of the labor organizations and obtained various political positions throughout the 1930s. Throughout World War II (1939–45; a war in which France, Great Britain, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Japan, and their allies), Meir worked to bring Jews into Palestine. When the British government imposed a limit on Jewish immigration into Palestine in a White Paper (official document) in 1939, Meir worked to find exceptions to allow more Jews, especially children, to escape the horrors of the concentration camps in Europe, where Jews were being imprisoned and subject to mass extermination. Unable to convince Great Britain, which controlled Palestine during the war, to allow unlimited emigration of Jews from Germany, even in the face of the brutal persecution Jews faced from Adolf Hitler's (1889–1945) Nazi Party, Meir renewed her devotion to a Jewish homeland. In defiance of British regulations, she joined the underground Jewish defense organization called Haganah and smuggled Jews into Palestine during the war.
In 1946 Meir was elected to lead the political department of the Jewish Agency, the governing body of Jews that served as an interim government for the Jewish state. Meir joined a hunger strike in 1947 to protest the British refusal to allow a shipload of Jewish immigrants to enter Palestine. Shortly after the strike, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine voted to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. Meir vigorously opposed this decision, believing that the Jewish people had a right to create their independent state throughout all of Palestine, including Jerusalem, which under the United Nations plan would have resided in Arabic territory. As tensions rose between Arabs and Jews in 1947, Meir disguised herself as an Arab woman in order to travel into Transjordan (now Jordan) to negotiate with the Arab leader King Abdullah (1882–1951; reigned 1921–51). During the trip she had to pass undetected through ten Arab checkpoints. Although her efforts failed to keep Transjordan from joining the other Arab nations in the war against Israel, Meir's trip demonstrated her deep commitment to her country. In January 1948 Meir toured the United States, speaking to various groups in order to raise money for weapons to protect an independent state of Israel. Within six weeks she returned with $50 million.
When Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, Meir was one of the twenty-five signers of the new nation's Proclamation of Independence. The proclamation triggered a war. The next day seven Arab nations, who refused to recognize the Jewish state on land that had been home to Palestinians for generations, began dropping bombs on the new country. Although the United States quickly recognized the new nation and would soon become Israel's closest ally, Israel and its Arab neighbors had just begun a series of conflicts that would remain unresolved nearly six decades later.
The turmoil in her newly formed country did not deter Meir from continuing her efforts. She was elected into the first Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in 1949, as a candidate of the country's strongest political party, the Mapai (which would later become the Labor Party). She remained in the government for the next twenty-five years. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, appointed Meir in 1949 to be the Israeli ambassador to Moscow, Russia, the capital of the Soviet Union. She served at the post for seven months, until Ben-Gurion appointed her to his cabinet as minister of labor and development, a post in which she remained until 1956. As minister of labor, Meir worked to improve the living conditions of Israel's tens of thousands of immigrants, many of whom were living in tents. To do so, she initiated Israel's first national insurance bill; oversaw the development of what is known as the "Meyerson Plan" (at the time Meir was still using her married name), which provided for the building of thirty thousand low-cost housing units; and created a public works program to create jobs for Israelis. During her tenure Meir eliminated Jewish refugee tent cities in Israel and built roads, dubbed "golden roads" in her honor.
Reached top echelons of government
Ben-Gurion appointed Meir to be his foreign minister in 1956. The position of foreign minister is considered the second most important rank in the Israeli government. Showing his respect for the tough Meir, Ben-Gurion declared her "the only man" in his cabinet, according to Robert Slater in Golda. As foreign minister, Meir negotiated cooperative efforts between Israel, Britain, and France. She also began a series of trips to Africa in order to win the support and allegiance from African nations for Israel. She noticed that the emerging African nations were going through the same growing pains that Israel had experienced. She sent Israeli doctors, teachers, and engineers to Africa in order to help these new nations, which had previously been managed by imperial powers such as France and Great Britain. She succeeded masterfully, though many African countries later switched their allegiance from Israel to Arab nations after Meir left her position.
In 1965, at age sixty-seven, Meir retired from some of her government duties. She resigned her cabinet position, but continued to serve in the Knesset and remained active on the executive board of the Mapai Party. She had been diagnosed with cancer two years earlier, and had also suffered a variety of other health problems that required her to make frequent visits to the hospital. Meir kept the true nature of her health problems secret from even her closest friends, and each of her trips to the hospital was dismissed as related to minor problems such as a cold or fatigue. Not until her death would the public learn the severity of Meir's health problems. With fewer government responsibilities, Meir enjoyed spending time with her grandchildren.
Although her health continued to limit her activities, Meir remained a strong force within the Mapai Party. Party members strongly disagreed with each other, and many feared the party would suffer from its internal power struggles. By 1966 it became clear to Meir that she must come out of her semi-retirement to assume the leadership of the party as its secretary-general. It was felt that she was the only person who could hold the party together. She was the one person all sides trusted. "I truly believed that the future of the labor movement was at stake," Meir explained in her autobiography. "And although I could hardly bear the idea of giving up the peace and quiet I had finally attained—even if only for a few months—I couldn't turn my back at this stage of my life either on my principles or on my colleagues. So I said yes and went back to work, to traveling, to incessant meetings and to the bondage of an appointment book."
Became prime minister
As secretary-general, Meir worked hard to unite her party. When Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol (1895–1969; served 1963–69) died on February 26, 1969, his cabinet members selected Meir to be his successor. Meir stepped in as interim prime minister, but in October of that year she was elected to her own four-year term in office. Upon her election as the fourth prime minister of Israel, Meir became one of only a few women to lead a nation at that time. As prime minister Meir spent a great deal of time trying to negotiate peace in the Middle East. Israel had captured territory during the Six-Day War in 1967 that more than doubled its size and created thousands of Arab refugees. Israel had hoped to use the territory as a bargaining tool in peace negotiations with neighboring Arab nations. No nation would negotiate, however, and Israel remained in a state of alert while fending off periodic attacks along its borders.
As prime minister Meir kept in daily contact with her advisors and ministers. She often met with influential members of her political party around her kitchen table the Saturday night before official Sunday meetings of her cabinet members. Doing so kept her abreast of all the issues facing her country.
The struggle between Israel and its Arab neighbors has been a constant source of debate since the formation of Israel in 1948. Israel's occupation of territories after the Six-Day War of 1967, including the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Sinai Peninsula, poured fuel on the fire of the struggle between Israelis and Arabs. Thousands of Arab refugees lived in the occupied territories. These people had either lived for years on the land that was now occupied by Israel or had fled there after Israel declared its independence. Calling themselves Palestinians, after the name of the former British territory, these Arabic people sought recognition of their right to their own nation of Palestine.
When Golda Meir assumed her position as Israeli prime minister in 1969, Palestinians were becoming more organized and vocal about their desire to create their own homeland. In an attempt to stop the growing momentum of the Palestinian movement, Meir declared in an interview with the Sunday Times of London on June 15, 1969, that "there was no such thing as Palestinians." She went on to say in Robert Slater's book Golda, "When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people and we [Jews] came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist."
Meir's words infuriated those who considered themselves Palestinians, uniting them in their desire for their own homeland. Many of them had lived on the land that was now Israel for generations. Arabs felt that Palestinians had been evicted from their homes and had an equal, if not greater, right to that land. One of the most powerful groups to emerge from this situation was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which committed itself not only to the creation of an independent Palestinian state but also to the destruction of Israel. As tensions between Israelis and Palestinians grew, according to Slater, Meir later tried to soften the meaning of her earlier statement, saying, "I am a Palestinian. From 1921 to 1948 I held a Palestinian passport. And I was aware that there were Arabs and Jews in Palestine and that all were Palestinians." Her words did little to lessen Arab outrage. Decades later, the conflict has yet to be resolved.
Peace was the most pressing issue in Israel during Meir's tenure as prime minister. On October 6, 1973, Syria and Egypt launched the Yom Kippur War (Arab countries refer to this war as the Arab-Israeli War) to win back some of the territories lost to Israel during the Six-Day War six years earlier. Although Meir and other Israeli officials secured aid from the United States, the war, which ended in late October, resulted in heavy losses of Israeli soldiers, though no loss of territory. Meir's popularity in Israel suffered. An investigation was conducted to discover who in the Israeli government was responsible for the country's lack of readiness at the onset of the war. As tensions within Israel rose, Meir declared her desire to retire, but members of her Labor Party convinced her to remain in office through the next elections.
When Meir won reelection on December 31, 1973, she was unsure of her ability to continue in the role of prime minister. She was tired and uncertain of her ability to successfully form a government. Although party members convinced her to stay in office for awhile, Meir's feelings did not change. On April 10, 1974, Meir announced her final retirement, and according to her autobiography said, "Five years are sufficient. It is beyond my strength to continue carrying this burden... . I beg of you not to try to persuade me to change my mind for any reason at all. It will not help."
Meir lived quietly in Jerusalem for another four years. She died of cancer on December 8, 1978. Only upon her death did even her closest friends learn of her struggle with the disease. Her funeral ceremony was attended by almost one hundred thousand mourners from around the world.
For More Information
Adler, David A. Our Golda: The Story of Golda Meir. New York: Viking, 1984.
Hitzeroth, Deborah. The Importance of Golda Meir. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1998.
McAuley, Karen. Golda Meir. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.
Meir, Golda. A Land of Our Own. New York: Putnam, 1973.
——. My Life. New York: Putnam, 1975.
Meir, Menahem. My Mother, Golda Meir: A Son's Evocation of Life with Golda Meir. New York: Arbor House, 1983.
Pasachoff, Naomi. Links in the Chain. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Slater, Robert. Golda, The Uncrowned Queen of Israel: A Pictorial Biography. Middle Village, NY: J. David, 1981.
Life (October 3, 1969).
"Golda Meir." BBC Online Network.http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/events/israel_at_50/profiles/81288.stm (accessed on July 7, 2005).
The Golda Meir Center for Political Leadership.http://www.goldameircenter.org (accessed on July 7, 2005).
Golda Meir: CBS News Report. Hosted by Walter Cronkite. CBS, 1978.
A Woman Called Golda. Directed by Alan Gibson. Hollywood, CA: Paramount Home Video, 1982.
BORN: May 3, 1898 • Kiev, Russia
DIED: December 8, 1978 • Jerusalem, Israel
Russian-born prime minister of Israel, feminist
Golda Meir was the fourth prime minister of the State of Israel since its establishment in 1948. At the age of seventy-one, Meir became the third female prime minister of government in modern history. With the establishment of Israel in 1948, Meir was appointed the first ambassador to the Soviet Union. The following year, she was elected to the first parliament (government) of the State of Israel. She was eager to help form the developing nation. In 1956, Meir became Israel's foreign minister, one of the first female foreign ministers in the world. Meir served as Israel's prime minister from 1969 until 1974. Throughout her term of office, Meir focused on the rights of Jewish people to settle in Israel. The major event of her administration was the 1973 Yom Kippur War fought between Israel and an Arab coalition (alliance) led by Egypt and Syria.
"Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us."
The kibbutz of Merhavia
Golda Mabovitch was born in Russia in 1896 to Blume Naiditch and Moshe Yitzhak Mabovitch. Like most Jews living in Eastern Europe, Meir's family celebrated all the Jewish holidays and festivals, although the Mabovitchs were not particularly religious people. Moshe was a skilled carpenter who had moved his family from their hometown in Pinsk to Kiev, the largest city in the Russian Ukraine region, before Golda was born. He won a government contract to make furniture for school libraries. However, the job was canceled soon after they arrived. As a result, the family faced grueling poverty.
The population of Kiev was infamous (had a horrible reputation) for its hostility toward the Jewish people who lived in the city. The Mabovitch family spoke Yiddish in the home and the synagogue (Jewish place of worship), but they spoke Russian when they ventured outside of these safe places. Even as a child, Meir was aware that the fear and hardships her family suffered were because they were Jewish. Meir's parents moved her and her two sisters back to Pinsk in 1903, when rumors began to circulate that a pogrom (organized massacre of a minority group) would soon be coming to Kiev.
When the territories of Poland were divided among several neighboring countries in the eighteenth century, Russia became home for the largest body of Jewish people in the world. The government's response to an anticipated problem of controlling the Jews was to establish a program known as the Pale of Settlement. The Pale mapped out provinces where Jews were allowed to settle. Their movement outside those areas required government approval.
In the early twentieth century, civil war in Russia was dividing the nation. Jews became scapegoats (people blamed unfairly for others' difficulties). The government blamed Jews as the source of many problems afflicting Russia, including its severe economic difficulties. Revolutionists hoping to overthrow the government sought to incite a general uprising among the people. Relying on the anti-Jewish sentiment that existed in the country, they made false accusations against the Jews in order to increase religious prejudice.
Prejudice directed at Jews in Russia resulted in violent pogroms against them. Angry mobs of people attacked the homes, shops, and synagogues of Jewish people with the intent to destroy them. Windows were smashed, doors broken down, and buildings looted of their contents. What was not stolen was destroyed. Civil and military authorities often showed little concern or had insufficient forces to offer protection from the mobs. By the mid-twentieth century, tens of thousands of Jews had been murdered during the pogroms and many thousands more had been wounded.
Leaving prejudice behind
Seeking to escape their extreme poverty, the family immigrated (left their country of origin to reside permanently in another) to the United States in 1906, when Golda was eight years old. They settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and began the process of fitting in to a new country and learning a new language. Golda began school for the first time and also worked behind the counter of her mother's small grocery store. Along with her family, Golda embraced Zionism (see box). In 1915, she joined the Poale Zion (Labor Zionist Organization).
Zionism is the name given to a movement that calls for the reuniting of Jewish people and the resumption of Jewish reign in the Land of Israel. The term Zionism was coined late in the nineteenth century. The idea gathered greater momentum early in the twentieth century. Zionism was especially important in Eastern Europe because of widespread persecution of Jewish people who made their homes there. Inspired by the writings of Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), small groups of Zionists began arriving in the Arab province of Palestine, the spiritual center of Jewry throughout the centuries. Herzl, a Jewish journalist from Austria, was founder of the World Zionist Organization. He is commonly called the father of the State of Israel.
Jews across the globe joined the Zionist movement to work together for the creation of a Jewish state. The social climate in many European countries became increasingly anti-Jewish following World War I (1914–18). Zionist youth movements formed around the world, motivated by the desire for a Jewish homeland. By World War II, they had played an important role in keeping the dream alive through education and political awareness. Following the war and the Holocaust, many survivors settled in Palestine and were instrumental in building the kibbutz movement (a collective farm or settlement in modern Israel).
The large number of Jewish immigrants arriving in Palestine created a great deal of tension. The majority of Palestinian citizens were Arab Muslims. The stage was set for the long-term Arab-Israeli conflict into the twenty-first century. Following the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews became a religious majority of the nation's population. The new state included a Minister of Religions in its cabinet to address the need for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to coexist in Israel. Citizens of the first generation born in Israel were called Sabras. Although intensely proud of their Jewish heritage, many considered themselves to be more Israeli than Jewish.
Following graduation from high school, Golda enrolled at the Teachers' Training College that was part of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Golda married Morris Myerson in 1917 and they immigrated to Palestine in 1921. After nearly two months aboard the SS Pocahontas, the couple arrived in Palestine and settled in the kibbutz of Merhavia. A kibbutz is a large commune based mainly on agriculture, but which relies somewhat on industry.
A declaration of independence
Golda Myerson soon became involved in political and social activities. She joined those that favored the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine-Eretz Israel (Land of Israel). Being a gifted orator (public speaker) in both English and Yiddish, Golda rose rapidly in leadership positions. She and Morris had two children after they left the kibbutz and moved to Jerusalem. In 1934, Golda was invited to join the Executive Committee of the Histadrut (Jewish Labor Federation), becoming the Secretary of its Council for Women Workers.
The German Nazi Holocaust (1933–45) dominated European Jewish lives from the late 1930s to the mid-1940s and thereafter. Approximately six million Jews and millions in other targeted groups, such as Gypsies and homosexuals, were murdered in mass killings that often involved gas chambers in specially constructed concentration camps. The camps were designed to kill as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. The escalation of anti-Jewish sentiment was fostered to some degree by the earlier pogroms. During the Holocaust, Meir lost all but one of her extended family members. They had remained in Pinsk after she and her family fled.
Immediately following the war, Golda was chosen president of the political bureau of Jewish Agency in 1946. The British held a mandate over the territory of Palestine, meaning they had been assigned the responsibility by the League of Nations, an international organization formed after World War I, to administer the government of territories formerly ruled by the defeated Turkish Ottoman Empire. British authorities had arrested most of the Jewish community's senior male leadership for seeking independence from Britain. These important posts placed Meir at the negotiating table with the British. This experience gave her invaluable training as a statesman (a person with experience in administering governmental affairs).
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the resolution to partition (divide) Palestine. The UN is an international organization formed in 1946 following the end of World War II (1939–45) to help resolve disputes between nations when necessary and maintain peacekeeping efforts at all times.
On May 14, 1948, Jewish leaders in Palestine signed a declaration of independence and the new State of Israel was proclaimed. Just days before the state was formally recognized, Meir was sent in disguise as an Arab woman on a dangerous mission to meet with King Abdullah I (1882–1951) of Jordan. Her goal was to persuade him not to join in the anticipated Arab attack on Israel following the British withdrawal. Arab Palestinians, with the help of other Arabs, planned to drive the Jews out of the region before the land could be subdivided. Meir was unsuccessful in her mission because the King had already decided his army would join other Arab nations and invade the Jewish state. In the months following the UN decision to partition Palestine, the country was plunged into war. Israel prevailed in defending its new state. The war of 1948–1949 is often called the Israeli War of Independence.
With the establishment of Israel, Meir was appointed as its first ambassador to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union and the United States were left as the two world superpowers following World War II. She was elected to the first Knesset (parliament of the State of Israel) in the elections of 1949 on behalf of the Israeli Labor Party known as the Mapai. Morris Myerson died in 1951. Several years later Golda took the Hebrew version of her name, Meir, in 1956. That same year, she became Israel's Foreign Minister. Meir was well known on the international political scene and spoke frequently at the United Nations, especially following the Sinai Campaign. The Sinai Campaign occurred when the Israeli army occupied the Sinai Peninsula in eastern Egypt in October and November 1956, in response to Egyptian terrorist attacks and blockades. Meir retired from the Foreign Ministry in 1965 after serving almost a decade in that position. She became a leader of Mapai.
The Six-Day War
Between June 5 and June 10, 1967, Israel participated in another war. This time, the fighting was against the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. The Israelis quickly defeated the Arab forces.
At this time, Meir was able to use her growing political popularity to unite several labor political parties in Israel. In 1968, the Mapai, Rafi, and Ahdut ha-Avodah parties joined together as the new unified Israel Labor Party. Meir was their secretary general. Following the death of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (1895–1969) in March 1969, Meir was chosen to become the fourth Prime Minister of Israel. Throughout her tenure as Prime Minister, Meir continued to focus on the rights of Jewish people to settle in Israel.
On October 6, 1973, Israel was once again found itself at war with its Arab neighbors. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Libya forces combined in a massive coordinated assault against Israeli forces along the Suez Canal in the south and at the Golan Heights in the north. Israel was unprepared for the attack, and the Arab forces won a number of initial victories. The United States intervened in the war by supplying military weapons that allowed Israel to resist its enemies and maintain its borders. Because the war began on the Jewish holy day called Yom Kippur, it is often referred to as the Yom Kippur War. A postwar inquiry led to heated debates over who was to blame for Israel being caught off-guard by the attack. Demands for new leadership in the country escalated. Nonetheless, Meir and the Labor Party were reelected at the end of 1973. However, due to the decline in political support, she was unable to get her cabinet members (key governmental advisors) to agree on policies. Meir resigned in April 1974. She died on December 8, 1978, and was buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
For More Information
Claybourne, Anna. Golda Meir. Chicago, IL: Heinemann Library, 2003.
Hertzberg, Arthur. Judaism. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1962.
Mann, Peggy. Golda: The Life of Israel's Prime Minister. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1971.
Meir, Golda. A Land of Our Own: An Oral Autobiography. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America., 1973.
Meir, Golda. My Life. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1975.
"Golda Meir." Jewish Virtual Library: A Division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/meir.html (accessed on December 11, 2006).
"Golda Meir (1898–1978). Israel's Third Prime Minister." 2006 Orthodox Union. http://www.ou.org/chagim/yomhaatzmauth/golda.html (accessed on December 11, 2006).
Meir, Golda 1898-1978
Golda Meir was born Golda Mabovitz on May 3, 1898, in Kiev, Russia (now Ukraine). Due to terrible hardship, Golda’s family immigrated in 1906 to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Golda graduated from a teachers’ college and worked as a public-school teacher. She joined the Labor Zionist Party in 1915 and married Morris Meyerson in 1917. In 1921 they immigrated to Palestine, where they joined Kibbutz Merhavia. In 1956 she adopted the Hebrew name Meir (“to burn brightly”).
Believing that Jews should make their “Just Society” through their own physical labor, Meir was a prominent socialist Zionist figure in the Histadrut (the Israeli Trade Union Congress) and the Jewish Agency, a Zionist organization founded in 1929 to provide services for Jewish immigration and assimilation into Palestine. Being proficient in English, Meir was sent to the United States in the 1930s on a mission to raise funds for building the state of Israel.
After the establishment of Israel on May 14, 1948, Meir played a central role in domestic politics as well as on the diplomatic front. In the same year, she paid a secret, yet unsuccessful, visit to Jordan to persuade its king, Abdullah (1882–1951), not to attack Israel. David BenGurion (1886–1973), a leader in the struggle to establish the state of Israel and later the first prime minister of Israel, appointed Meir a member of the Provisional Government and then, in June 1948, ambassador to the Soviet Union. In 1949 she was elected to the first Knesset as a member of Mapai, the Israeli Workers Party. Meir served as minister of labor from 1949 to 1956, a period of high unemployment and social unrest that resulted from mass immigration. She served as foreign minister from 1956 to 1966. While in office, Meir sought to strengthen Israel’s relationship with the United States, create bilateral relationships with Latin American countries, and provide African countries with Israeli know-how in nation building.
Meir became secretary-general of Mapai in 1966, before taking the helm of the newly formed Labor Party. After the death of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (1895–1969), Meir was appointed prime minister; thus becoming the third female prime minister in the world (after Sirimavo Bandaranaike [1916–2000] of Sri Lanka and Indira Gandhi [1917–1984] of India). Reelected prime minister in October 1969, Meir proved highly successful in consolidating American political and financial support for Israel.
Meir took a rigid stance toward the Arabs. She also adopted the so-called open-door immigration policy, which encouraged thousands of people to leave the Soviet Union and other places to settle in Israel and the occupied territories. She believed that Israelis could not return the occupied territories because there was nobody to return them to. In a June 15, 1969, interview with the Sunday Times of London, she said, “There was no such thing as Palestinians … they did not exist,” a statement that Arabs often quote to refer to what they think to be bias. Moreover, she wrote in My Life, her 1975 autobiography, that she did not believe that “the Jews ‘stole’ land from Arabs in Palestine,” since “a lot of good money changed hands, and a lot of Arabs became very rich indeed” (p. 63).
The most critical event during her term was the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israeli forces in Sinai and the Golan Heights. Although she won the elections once more in December 1973, and despite the fact that the Agranant Inquiry Commission did not hold her responsible for the war, Meir’s performance was widely criticized for overestimating Israel’s preparedness and underestimating Arab power. Meir resigned in mid-1974 and withdrew from public life. She died in Jerusalem in December 1978.
SEE ALSO Rabin, Yitzhak; Zionism
Avallone, Michael. 1982. A Woman Called Golda. New York: Leisure Books.
Gelvin, James L. 2005. The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Mann, Peggy. 1971. Golda: The Life of Israel’s Prime Minister. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan.
Meir, Golda. 1962. This Is Our Strength: Selected Papers of Golda Meir. Ed. Henry Cristman. New York: Macmillan.
Meir, Golda. 1969. Interviewed by the Sunday Times, London, June 15.
Meir, Golda. 1973. A Land of Our Own: An Oral Autobiography of Golda Meir. Ed. Marie Syrkin. New York: Putnam.
Meir, Golda. 1975. My Life. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Meir, Menahem. 1983. My Mother Golda Meir: A Son’s Evocation of Life with Golda Meir. New York: Arbor House.
Opfell, Olga. 1993. Golda Meir. In Women Prime Ministers and Presidents, ed. Olga S. Opfell, 33–49. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Pogrebin, Letty Cottin. 1991. Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America. New York: Crown.
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Segev, Tom. 1986. 1949, The First Israelis. New York: Free Press; London: Collier Macmillan.
Slater, Robert. 1981. Golda: The Uncrowned Queen of Israel. Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David.
Syrkin, Marie. 1969. Golda Meir: Israel’s Leader. New York: Putnam.
Syrkin, Marie, ed. 1973. Golda Meir Speaks Out. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Thompson, Seth. 1993. Golda Meir: A Very Public Life. In Women as National Leaders, ed. Michael Genovese, 135–160. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Golda Meir served as Israel's foreign minister from 1956 to 1966 and became its fourth prime minister in 1969. By the end of her life, she had become a hero as one of the first women to head a nation in the modern era. Meir was a leading figure in the movement called Zionism, the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine, the area the Jews regarded as their historical home. The Zionist movement helped lead to the founding of Israel.
Childhood and early interests
Golda Meir was born the daughter of Moshe and Bluma Mabovitch in Kiev, Ukraine, on May 3, 1898. She moved with her family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1906. The Mabovitch family had fled their home in part to escape pogroms (mob attacks) that had been carried out against Jews in Russia at the time. Meir later recalled that her childhood terror of anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish) violence strongly influenced her later commitment to establish Israel as a safe, secure Jewish state.
After attending high school, Meir went to the Teachers' Training College in Milwaukee in 1917. She had attained her school-teacher's training over the objections of her parents, who had felt that girls should be married, not pursue a profession. Meir did both, marrying Morris Myerson in 1917 (later she modified her name to Meir). In 1921 they left for Palestine. This Middle Eastern region, which included the territory of modern-day Israel and the West Bank, was at that time under the administration of Great Britain and largely populated by Arabs.
After arriving in Palestine, the Myersons joined a kibbutz (a communal settlement) where after some training they were put in charge of the chicken farm. However, Golda's husband became ill, and the couple decided to move to Tel Aviv. The couple eventually moved to Jerusalem where their two children were born. In Jerusalem, Golda found work as treasurer of the Office of Public Works of the Histadruth, a labor organization that included kibbutz workers and that became the most important economic organization in the Israeli state.
Birth of Israel
From 1928 Golda Meir was the secretary of the Working Women's Council in Palestine and served as its representative on the leadership of the Histadruth. She also represented the council at a number of international labor meetings and was a delegate to its sister organization, the Pioneer Women, in the United States. After 1929 she was elected a delegate to most meetings of the World Zionist Organization. This was the real beginning of her Zionist political activity. In 1940 she was appointed head of the political department of the Histadruth. As such, she fought against the British White Paper of 1939, which limited Jewish immigration to Palestine. Meir organized illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine at this time, when Jews faced danger in Europe because of World War II (1939–45) and persecution by the German Nazi regime.
When the Palestine Administration (the main British governing body) imprisoned the leaders of the Jewish Agency, a Zionist organization, in June 1946, Meir was appointed acting head of the Jewish Agency's political department. Originally picked to replace the arrested Moshe Shertok-Sharett (1894–1965) in this position, she continued in this role until the proclamation of the independence of Israel on May 14, 1948. Early in 1948 she visited the United States to organize an emergency fund campaign for Palestine, with very successful results. On May 14 she was, as a member of Israel's Provisional Council of State, among the signers of its Declaration of Independence.
Meir started her political career in Israel as its representative to the Soviet Union. With her election to the first Israeli Parliament (governing body), she returned to Israel and was appointed minister of labor and social insurance. While in this office, she worked to solve the most important internal problems of Israel: housing and employment for the new mass Jewish immigration. Still known by her married name, she engineered what became known as the "Myerson Plan," which allowed for the construction of more than thirty thousand units of one-room housing. She also oversaw the construction of some two hundred thousand low-income apartments to house Israel's newly immigrated families.
In 1956, Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion (1886–1976) called Meir "the best man" in his cabinet and named her to replace Shertok-Sharett as foreign minister, among the most important government jobs in the nation. It was now, as a result of Ben-Gurion's desire to have all Israelis bear Hebrew names, that she reluctantly altered her name to Meir, while keeping it as close as possible to Myerson.
In 1966, tired and ill, Meir resigned as minister of foreign affairs. However, soon after, under pressure from her political party, she agreed to take over the leadership of Israel's Labor Party. Over the next two years, she succeeded in reuniting three main labor groups that had split, the Mapai, the Achdut Ha'Avodah, and the Rafi, into one political party. The merger took place on January 2, 1968, and in August she retired from political activity. However, after the death of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (1895–1969), when it looked as if conflict might arise within the Labor Party in the effort to find his replacement, Meir again came out of retirement to assume the post of Israel's prime minister on March 17, 1969.
Though elderly and in poor health, Meir proved her abilities to the country during her initial nine-month term. As a result, her Labor Party won the 1969 elections. Meir thus gained her own four-year term as prime minister. This period was marked by Meir's efforts to gain U.S. aid in the form of military and economic assistance. The assurances she won from U.S. president Richard Nixon (1913–1994) helped her open peace talks with the United Arab Republic in 1967, during which one of the several conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors (known as the Arab-Israeli Wars) had occurred.
Meir sided with radicals in her government who felt that the territories captured during the 1967 war should be settled by Israelis, yet she also retained the support of moderates who favored giving up land claims in exchange for peace. However, in 1973 and 1974, Israel's unpreparedness for another of the Arab-Israeli Wars, known as the Yom Kippur War, brought demands for new leadership. After the 1973 elections, Meir was still able to form a new government, but divisions only increased and on April 10, 1974, she resigned as prime minister.
Even in retirement, Meir remained an important political presence in Israel. Her autobiography, My Life, helped assure her place in the public's imagination as the kindly grandmother who had risen to greatness in her nation's hour of need. Meir died in Jerusalem on December 8, 1978.
For More Information
Adler, David A. Our Golda, the Story of Golda Meir. New York: Viking Press, 1984.
Amdur, Richard. Golda Meir: A Leader in Peace and War. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1990.
Hitzeroth, Deborah. Golda Meir. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998.
Meir, Golda. My Life. New York: Putnam, 1975.
The Zionist Labor leader Golda Meir (1898-1978) served as Israel's foreign minister from 1956 to 1966. In 1969 she became Israel's fourth prime minister.
Golda Meir was born the daughter of Moshe and Bluma Mabovitch in Kiev, Ukraine, on May 3, 1898. She emigrated in 1906 with her family to Milwaukee, Wis. After she attended grammar and high school, she went to the Teachers' Training College in Milwaukee in 1917. In the same year she married Morris Myerson (later she modified her name to Meir). For several years she taught in the local schools and was active in the Labor Zionist party. In 1921 she left for Palestine and joined Kibbutz Merchavia, where after some training she was put in charge of the chicken farm. Because of illness in her family, she moved to Tel Aviv and started to work as treasurer of the Histadruth's Office of Public Works.
From 1928 Golda Meir was the secretary of the Working Women's Council in Palestine, and as such, she was its representative on the executive of the Histadruth. She also represented the council at a number of international labor congresses and was a delegate to its sister organization, the Pioneer Women, in the United States. After 1929 she was elected a delegate to most congresses of the World Zionist Organization. This was the beginning of her Zionist political activity. She was a member of the executive of the Jewish National Council in Palestine and served on the board of directors of a number of the Histadruth mutual aid programs, as well as a number of its industrial affiliates. In 1940 she was appointed head of the political department of the Histadruth. As such, she fought against the British White Paper of 1939 and organized illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine.
When the Palestine Administration interned the leaders of the Jewish Agency on June 29, 1946, Golda Meir was appointed acting head of the Jewish Agency's political department to replace the detained Moshe Shertok-Sharett. She continued in this position until the proclamation of the independence of Israel on May 14, 1948, since, after his release by the British, Shertok-Sharett spent most of his time in the United States. Early in 1948 she visited the United States to organize an emergency fund campaign for Palestine, with very successful results. On May 14 she was, as a member of Israel's Provisional Council of State, among the signers of its declaration of independence.
Golda Meir started her political career in Israel as its minister plenipotentiary to Moscow. During her 6 months' tenure Russian Jewry expressed its pro-Israeli leanings in every possible way and especially during the Jewish high holidays, in spite of the restrictions of 40 years of Russian communism. With her election to the first Israeli Parliament, she returned to Israel and was appointed minister of labor and social insurance. While in this office, she worked to solve the most important internal problems of Israel: housing and employment for the new mass immigration. Still known by her married name, she engineered what became known as the "Myerson Plan," which allowed for the construction of more than 30,000 units of one-room housing. She also oversaw the construction of some 200,000 low-income apartments to house Israel's newly immigrated families.
In 1956, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Meir "the best man" in his cabinet and named her to replace Shertok-Sharett as foreign minister, among the most important government jobs in the nation. It was now, under Ben-Gurion's prodding to have all Israelis bear Hebrew names, that she reluctantly altered her name while keeping it as close as possible to Myerson. In 10 years in this office she established political and economic relations with the majority of the African states. Golda Meir, tired and ill, stepped down as minister of foreign affairs in 1966, but soon after, under pressure of her political party, she agreed to take over the leadership of Israel's Labor party. She succeeded in the next 2 years in reuniting the three main Labor elements: Mapai, Achdut Ha'Avodah, and Rafi. The merger took place on Jan. 2, 1968, and in August she retired from political activity. After the death of Levi Eshkol, to avoid a confrontation between the main rival candidates, Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon, Golda Meir again came out of retirement to assume the post of Israel's prime minister on March 17, 1969.
Though elderly and in faltering health, Meir proved her abilities to the country during her initial nine-month term such that her Labor Party won the 1969 elections. Meir thus gained her own four-year term as prime minister. This period was marked by Meir's efforts to gain United States aid in the form of military and economy assistance. The assurances she won from President Richard Nixon on this helped her and Dayan persuade the Israeli cabinet to agree to a United States proposition for a cease-fire and the opening of peace talks with the United Arab Republic. She sided with Dayan's more radical position that the occupied territories captured during the 1967 war be settled by Israelis, yet she retained the support of moderates who favored trading land for peace. However, in 1973 and 1974, Israel's unpreparedness for the Yom Kippur War brought demands for new leadership. After the 1973 elections, Meir was still able to form a new government, but divisions only increased and on April 10, 1974, she resigned as prime minister.
Even in retirement, Meir remained an important political presence in Israel. She also achieved folk-hero status as one of the first women to head a nation in the modern era. Her autobiography My Life helped cement her place in the public's imagination as the doting grandmother who had risen to greatness in her nation's hour of need. Meir died in Jerusalem on Dec. 8, 1978.
See Golda Meir's My Life (1975); Menachem Meir's My Mother: Golda Meir (1983); and Ralph Martin's Golda: The Romantic Years (1988). Marie Syrkin, Golda Meir: Israel's Leader (1969), is a sympathetic biography based on the author's experiences with Zionism and contacts with its leaders. Other biographies are Eliyahu Agress, Golda Meir: Portrait of a Prime Minister (trans. 1969), and Israel and Mary Shenker, eds., As Good as Golda: The Warmth and Wisdom of Israel's Prime Minister (1970). □