Meir, Golda (1898–1978)

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Meir, Golda (1898–1978)

Prime minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974, the only woman to hold that position, who was a lifelong worker for the creation and preservation of a secular, socialist Israel . Name variations: Golda Mabovitch (in Russia); Goldie Mabovitch (in America); Goldie Meyerson or Myerson (after marriage); Golda Meir (from 1956). Pronunciation: May-EAR. Born Goldie Mabovitch on May 3, 1898, in Kiev, Russia; died in Jerusalem on December 8, 1978; daughter of Moshe Yitzhak Mabovitch (a carpenter) and Bluma Mabovitch; attended schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Denver, Colorado; married Morris Myerson or Meyerson, on December 24, 1917 (separated, 1940); children: Menachem Meyerson also known as Menachem Meir (b. 1924); Sarah Meyerson Rehabi (b. 1926).

Moved from Kiev, Russia, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1906); was a Zionist and labor activist and organizer in America, then Palestine; arrived in Tel Aviv (1921); elected to the Woman's Labor Council of Histadruth (trade union for Jewish workers in Palestine), and served as secretary of the Moetzet Hapoalot (Women's Labor Council, 1928); elected a delegate of the Ahdut Haavoda faction to the World Zionist Congress (1929); was chosen secretary of Histadruth's executive committee (1934); served as a Mapai (Israeli Workers Party) delegate to the international congresses (1939); named head of Histadruth's political department (1940); became president of the political bureau of the Jewish Agency (1946); signed the Proclamation declaring the creation of Israel, the new Jewish state (May 14, 1948); appointed Israel's minister to Moscow (1948); elected to the first Knesset (Parliament) as a candidate of the Mapai Party, and appointed Israel's minister of labor and development (1949); served as ambassador to Soviet Union for Israel (1948–49); served as minister of labor (1949–56); served as chair of the Israeli delegation to the U.N. General Assembly (1953–66); served as foreign minister (1956–65); served as secretary general of the Mapai Party (1966–69); served as prime minister of Israel (1969–74).

Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel between 1969 and 1974, was one of a small group of women who rose to positions of supreme national leadership in the late 20th century—Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, and Indira Gandhi in India are obvious comparisons. She was, as her son wrote, "a woman whose austere bun, deep voice, orthopedic shoes, and capacious handbags were recognized, literally, around the world, a woman like a movie star who was known everywhere by her first name."

She was born in Kiev in 1898, one of seven children, four of whom died in infancy. The family's life was constantly in danger from pogroms—anti-Jewish attacks from the Russian majority, against which the Jews were powerless to resist. When she was five, her father, a carpenter, emigrated to America, hoping to earn enough money there to improve the family's situation. Golda, her mother, and her two sisters, left behind, moved first to Pinsk, but finding conditions equally hard there decided to reunite the family in America rather than Russia and emigrated in 1906. Golda therefore met her father for the first time in three years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Like many young émigré Jews, she was soon caught up in the Socialist ferment—Milwaukee had a socialist mayor and congressional representative early in the 20th century.

As a teenager, however, she was in frequent conflict with her parents, who did not want her to finish high school and opposed her early ambition to be a teacher. She reacted by running away, at the age of 14, to stay with her older sister Sheyna Mabovitch Korngold in Denver, working in a department store. At Socialist meetings there, she met and fell in love with Morris Meyerson, a sign-painter and aspiring engineer, though she was only 16. A compromise with her parents enabled her to return to Milwaukee to graduate from high school and begin studying for a teaching career at the Normal School.

The Jewish people had been scattered throughout the Western world for centuries. By 1910, there were Jewish communities in all the European countries, a growing population in the United States, in Russia, and in most of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Recurrently persecuted, some Jews regarded their suffering as God's punishment for their sins. But in the secular 19th and early 20th centuries, the possibility of a political movement to return to the ancient land of Israel took form, under the leadership of Theodore Herzl and the first Zionists. Goldie Mabovitch joined Poale Zion, a labor-Zionist group whose members pledged themselves to this cause, in 1915. Her effective organizing and vivid street-corner speaking for the group led its leaders to invite her to move to Chicago the next year. She accepted, gave up her teaching plans, worked in the public library during the afternoons, and volunteered for the Zionist cause each evening and night. In 1917, she married Morris Meyerson, despite her knowledge that he was far less enthusiastic about Zionism than she.

Palestine, as it was then known, was part of the decaying Turkish Empire. However, the Turks were on the losing side in the First World War (1914–1918) and their empire was broken up at the Treaty of Versailles. The British, one of the war's victors, took over the government of Palestine with a mandate from the League of Nations. During the war, one British agent, T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"), had promised the land to Arab leaders in return for their help, whereas the "Balfour Declaration," made at the same time by the British government, had contradicted Lawrence by stating that Britain would work towards the formation of a Jewish homeland-state. Golda and her husband emigrated to Palestine in 1921, at a time when its future was uncertain. Earlier she had struggled to learn English—Yiddish was her first language—now she had to struggle to learn Hebrew, the official language of Zionists returning to Palestine.

In the years between the two world wars (1919–1939), idealistic Zionists like the Meyersons encouraged Jews to emigrate to Israel, to settle there, buy land, and create the foundations of a new nation. After three years of working on a kibbutz at Merhavia, a collective work-farm run on socialist principles in northern Palestine, the couple settled in Tel Aviv, a new settlement on the Mediterranean coast. The move was prompted by Morris' dislike of raising their child, Menachem, on the kibbutz, where he would be in the hands of a child-raising collective. Unlike the ancient cities of Jerusalem and Haifa, Tel Aviv had an all-Jewish population. Golda, after various unsatisfactory jobs, went to work for the Labor movement Histadrut, which was in effect the city's provisional government. She made several trips back to America to spread word of the cause, once staying for two years so that her daughter Sarah might get treatment for a life-threatening kidney disease. Her command of English, her love for the cause, and her skill as a speaker and fund raiser, made her invaluable. It was already clear by 1930 that Golda's passion for politics, and for the ideal of Israel, was greater than Morris' and although the couple remained nominally married until their separation of 1940 they spent increasing periods apart. She had a succession of lovers who shared her ideals, including labor leader David Remez.

In 1934, Meir became a member of the Histadrut leadership and befriended its leader David Ben-Gurion. The British mandate authorities regarded the Zionists with suspicion, fearing that their presence among the Palestinian Arabs would intensify political tensions in the area. Despite the Balfour Declaration, they tried throughout the 1930s and 1940s to restrain immigration, which led most Zionists, including Meir, to regard

them as adversaries. On the other hand, some Britons sympathized with the Zionists, notably an unconventional army officer, Orde Wingate, who helped train and lead Jewish resistance fighters against periodic Arab attacks. Moreover the British government's Peel Commission declared, in 1937, that it favored the partition of Palestine into a Jewish homeland and an Arab state. Histadrut leaders were split—Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weitzmann were delighted; Meir countered that the amount of territory offered to Israel by the Peel Commission was far too small. When the Holocaust began, however, she changed her mind, realizing that any homeland, even a weak one, was better than none.

During the late 1930s and the Second World War, Hitler's persecution of German Jews made the moral case for Zionism stronger than ever before. During the war itself, Meir agreed with the principle that Jews should join the British army to fight Nazism, but that they should simultaneously prepare for armed struggle against the British when Germany was defeated. A worldwide wave of revulsion against the Holocaust brought more international sympathy to Jews in the mid-1940s than ever before, and the new international arbitration organization, the United Nations, debated the question of how to satisfy all the groups in Palestine when the war ended.

With her midwestern American accent and flawless English, she won friends easily. The people of the United States could identify with her. Because other Yishuv leaders could not equal her command of the English language…. Golda was able to reach the Jewish and non-Jewish communities of America better than anyone else. She became the labor movement's apostle to America, bringing the Yishuv's message of pioneering and heroism to all who would listen.

—Robert Slater

With the fighting in Europe finished, Jewish resistance to the British began. Meir's later political antagonist Menachem Begin was among the leaders of Irgun, the anti-British force whose acts of terrorism, such as the bombing of the King David Hotel, increased the pressure on the British to leave. Meir herself joined a hunger strike, trying (like her contemporary, Mohandas Gandhi in India) to use moral pressure against British intransigence, in her case on the continuing sore point of British refusal to admit Jewish refugees. She was appointed provisional head of the Jewish Agency's Political Department when its leaders were imprisoned, and again showed great shrewdness and determination as a negotiator. Britain, its imperial strength dented by the Second World War and now under the leadership of its own Labor Party, finally announced that it would abandon its government of Palestine in May 1948.

In the anxious months between the United Nations decision in favor of a Jewish state, November 1947, and the British departure, Meir again traveled to America in the hope of raising money to help the Yishuv in what she and Ben-Gurion foresaw as the coming war against the Arabs—a war which had already unofficially broken out, making travel between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem hazardous. With her background in the Midwest and her familiarity with the American temperament, she proved phenomenally successful. In her first speech, before the Council of Jewish Federations in Chicago, she declared that the success or failure of the war was in the hands of American Jews, on whose generosity Israel's future depended. She was met with rapturous applause and pledges of over $1 million. By the time she returned to Israel, a month later, she was able to assure Ben-Gurion that an extra $50 million were available to them. On another mission—this one secret—to King Abdallah of Trans-Jordan, she disguised herself as a peasant woman so as not to be recognized, but was unable to convince him not to join in war against Israel.

When Israel officially became an independent state, in accordance with the U.N. Declaration, the British army evacuated Palestine, and the Arab states attacked. Meir expected, and felt she deserved, to be made a Cabinet minister in the new government of Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. In the event, however, she was made ambassador to the Soviet Union, an important post since it was one of the world's two superpowers and had been one of the first nations to recognize Israel diplomatically. Her arrival was delayed when, on another tour of America, she was involved in a taxicab crash in New York and broke her leg. Recovered sufficiently to travel to Moscow in 1948, she soon found her new job vexatious. The dictator Stalin rarely met any diplomats and refused to see her, and she found that information pamphlets her embassy tried to distribute about the new state of Israel were forbidden by the repressive Soviet government.

Recalled to Israel in early 1949, she became minister of labor in Ben-Gurion's Mapai Party government—its only woman member. To Meir, it was a vital post, from which she strove to carry out the principles of her lifelong devotion to Socialism. Creation of adequate housing and full employment were two of the highest priorities of the government, and she played a central role in both—tasks made formidable by the very rapid rate of immigration of Jews from all around the world, averaging more than 1,000 per day in 1949. Again with American financial help, she set up an ambitious public works road-building scheme and an accelerated building program to get refugee-immigrants out of tent encampments and into real housing. One of the policy conflicts within the government was whether to permit continued free immigration of Jews to Israel. In her view, this was a point which must not be compromised—the Holocaust had shown the imperative need, she believed, of a safe haven for Jews from anywhere in the world.

In 1956 during a Cabinet shake-up, Ben-Gurion promoted her to the job of foreign minister, and in accordance with a government regulation she took the occasion to Hebraicize her name, changing it from Meyerson to Meir (which means "illumination"). Although the first war between Israel and the Arabs had ended in a series of truces in 1949, tensions remained very high and Israel went to war against Egypt once more in 1956. Allied with Britain and France, who resented the Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser's seizure of the Suez Canal, Israel's army advanced successfully and seized the Sinai peninsula. The military success, however, was a diplomatic failure. America's president, Dwight Eisenhower, and secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, insisted that Israel stop its provocative advances and return the over-run territories, in the interest of Middle East peace and stability. It was Meir's humiliating job to accept these terms at the United Nations—she understood perfectly well that Israel's well-being depended on the support of the American government.

The Suez Crisis was the low point of American-Israeli relations, and marked a period of feuding within the Israeli government between three of its strongest and most argumentative personalities, Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Defense Minister Shimon Peres. After Eisenhower's retirement in 1961, Meir set about mending fences in America, and in the ensuing years befriended presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, so that Israel could be assured of whole-hearted American aid if Israel went to war again. (In 1969, just after she had become prime minister, she would make an emotional visit to Milwaukee and to her old school, renamed in her honor.) Meir, now in her mid-60s, discovered that she had cancer of the lymph nodes in 1963. Exhausted by sickness and decades of overwork, she retired from the Foreign Ministry in 1965, soon after Ben-Gurion's decision to create his own splinter political party.

Within a year, however, she was back, trying to heal Mapai, the old party, of which she now took command. Despite her illness (which was kept a closely guarded secret), her moral authority was by now so great that her real power equaled that of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, a former agricultural economist whom she regarded as unworthy of the job. Mapai put aside its divisions in a new war emergency in 1967. In this conflict (unlike the events of 1956), there could be no doubt that Israel was not the aggressor, and that its survival was in jeopardy. The conflict against an Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian alliance, soon nicknamed the Six-Day War, witnessed an astonishing victory for Israel's armed forces. They rapidly destroyed enemy air power and, attacking by land, advanced Israel's borders to the banks of the Jordan in the east and the banks of the Suez Canal in the west. These victories gave Israel a greater reputation for power than ever, and increased the possibility that it might find a way to make a lasting settlement with its enemies. It also enhanced the reputation of Moshe Dayan, minister of defense and one of Meir's long-time political opponents. In the wake of the war, and in a mood of national euphoria, she was able to bring together the scattered fragments of the Old Guard and the Ben-Gurionites, to create a new coalition Labor Party.

The sudden death of Prime Minister Eshkol in 1969 led to Meir's final ascent to the premiership: "I could certainly understand the reservations of people who thought that a seventy-yearold grandmother was hardly … perfect … to head a twenty year old state," she admitted. But as all who knew her recognized, her grandmotherly appearance was offset by her lifetime of political experience, diplomatic skill, and hard-headedness. Her leadership was confirmed later in 1969 when she led her party coalition to victory in national elections. She hoped to achieve a lasting peace but, like her predecessors, believed that it could only be achieved if Israel was militarily strong and vigilant. When the American secretary of state, William Rogers, offered to broker a peace treaty, she cautiously accepted, which led to a split in her fragile government of national unity. Menachem Begin, leader of the right wing Herut Party, refused to consider negotiating over occupied territories and left the Cabinet. Meir, under pressure from Begin on the right but also from a vocal peace faction to her left, also faced the constant threat of Palestinian terrorism. The neighboring countries, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, were all sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and sheltered anti-Israeli terrorist groups. Even so, the events of her lifetime had borne witness to an astonishing series of successes, both for Israel and for herself personally. As Amos Perlmutter, a shrewd historian of the era, remarks: "The mind set of the Meir government was steeped in success despite enormous adversity. Meir's conspicuous self-righteousness was not without political and realistic foundations. The dream had grown greatly beyond its expected proportions." With the aptness of a Greek tragedy, chastisement was to follow.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, October 1973, the holiest holiday of the year, Egypt and Syria launched another surprise attack on Israel. Israeli intelligence was aware of the possibility of attack, but was wrong about the time, and had become complacent after their armies' smashing victories in 1967. For a few hours, Israel's survival was in grave danger, as army units hastened to the war's two fronts (northeast, against Syria and Iraq, and southwest against Egypt) and reserves were called out of synagogues and straight into action. Egyptian soldiers crossed the Suez Canal, outnumbering the reservists there 70 to 1, and captured the defensive "Bar-Lev Line" while Syrian tanks advanced over the Golan Heights.

Within a week, despite these early reversals, the tide had turned. Golda Meir had continued her lifelong policy of close cooperation with American Jews, and she was on friendly terms with President Richard Nixon who, like a majority in Congress, was pro-Israeli. Five days after the war began, American transport planes began ferrying supplies and munitions into Israel, ensuring Israel's ability to continue the fight to a successful conclusion. The United Nations and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger intervened to assure a ceasefire and an exchange of prisoners of war. Both sides claimed victory, even though the balance of the military confrontations had gone in favor of Israel, which had sustained 2,500 casualties.

Many Israelis felt angry with Meir, believing that her government had let itself be taken by surprise, with potentially catastrophic effects. Even so, she survived a vote of confidence taken just a month after the war had ended and went on to win the general election of December 1973. She authorized the creation of an independent commission of inquiry, the Agranat Commission, and its report, the following April, recommended that four senior military officers resign or be dismissed. Meir herself, and Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, the charismatic hero of the Six-Day War, were absolved of blame. Ironically, she and Dayan, who had never been friends or mutual admirers and by now cordially detested each other, both understood the need to stand or fall together, and had to give the appearance of unity. Despite the commission's report, Meir recognized that the strength of the opposition to her continued leadership would mar her effectiveness, and later that month she resigned for the last time, now aged 76. Yitzhak Rabin took her place as premier.

Golda Meir spent her retirement writing her memoirs, which were published in 1975 (and turned into a Broadway play, Golda) and remained an influential figure in Israeli politics, able to influence decisions and actions from behind the scenes. She was present for the momentous visit of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977, a prelude to the Camp David Peace Accord which finally normalized relations between Israel and Egypt in 1979. She did not live to see the treaty signed, however, dying from recurrent cancer in 1978. She was mourned by Jews throughout the world and by admiring citizens of other nations for her lifelong dedication to her cause and for her years of effective and powerful leadership.

sources and suggested reading:

Martin, Ralph G. Golda: Golda Meir, the Romantic Years. NY: Scribner, 1988.

Meir, Golda. My Life. NY: Putnam, 1975.

Meir, Menachem. My Mother, Golda Meir. NY: Arbor House, 1983.

Perlmutter, Amos. Israel: The Partitioned State. NY: Scribner, 1985.

Samuel, Rinna. A History of Israel. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989.

Slater, Robert. Golda: The Uncrowned Queen of Israel. NY: Jonathan David, 1981.

related media:

"A Woman Called Golda" (four-hour television miniseries), starring Ingrid Bergman (for which she won an Emmy award), Paramount, 1982.

collections:

Lavon Institute for Labor Research, Tel Aviv.

State Archives of the Prime Minister's Office, Jerusalem.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia