Golda Meir

The first and only female prime minister of Israel.

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On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel. Meir was one of the signatories to the proclamation. Shortly thereafter she was dispatched to Moscow as Israel's first diplomatic representative to the USSR, where she was welcomed enthusiastically by Soviet Jews.

Returning from Russia in 1949, Meir was elected to the first Knesset. As Minister of Labor she initiated massive public works programs that provided employment for the hundreds of thousands of new immigrants then flooding the country. From 1956-1965, in her capacity as Foreign Minister (upon appointment to the role, she Hebraized her name from Myerson to Meir), she defended Israel's attack on Egypt in the Sinai Campaign to the international community and initiated relationships with newly independent black African states, offering Israel's technical expertise and assistance.

Prime Minister Levy Eshkol's death in 1969 left a power vacuum at the top of the ruling Labor Party. Meir--then Labor's Secretary General--was floated as a compromise candidate to stave off bitter conflict between prime ministerial contenders Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan. After much deliberation and with great trepidation, Meir accepted the position, becoming Israel's first and--to date--only prime minister, and only the third female head of government in the world.

A Woman, Not a Feminist

Meir's attitude to feminism was perplexing. The four years she spent as a Jerusalem housewife after the birth of her children were the most miserable in her life; she felt isolated and swallowed up by her duty to her family. She wrote articulately about the guilt faced by modern women about their lack of satisfaction with traditional gender roles and their desire to abandon their families in the pursuit of self fulfillment.

Yet Meir was not a feminist. Rather than fighting for women's rights, she simply assumed equality as a fact. She found the atmosphere of women's' organizations constricting, and preferred the challenge of working with men, seeing herself as a leader who happened to be a woman, not a female leader. "Women's liberation is just a lot of foolishness," she said. "It's the men who are discriminated against. They can't bear children. And no one's likely to do anything about that."

Controversy in Office

Meir's premiership was marked by controversy. In 1971 the Israeli Black Panthers--a radical, sometimes violent, social movement protesting the discrimination of Israelis of North African and Middle Eastern origin--emerged. Meir viewed the Panthers as criminals, denying their legitimacy as a movement, and following a meeting with the Panthers' leaders she characterized them as "not nice boys." Over the next six years, most Sephardim bolted from the Labor party, transferring their support to the right-wing Likud and ultimately bringing Menahem Begin to power in 1977.

Golda Meir took office in the aftermath of the Six Day War and at the height of the War of Attrition that simmered along the Israeli-Egyptian frontier, claiming hundreds of Israeli lives. She torpedoed plans to return territories conquered in 1967 in return for peace with the Arabs, and brushed off overtures by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to create an interim accord between Israel and Egypt.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.