Golda Meir

Born in Ukraine and raised in America, she became Israel's first and only female prime minister.

Golda Meir — nee Mabovitch — was born in 1898 in Kiev. In 1903 her father, driven to destitution, left Russia for the United States. Golda, together with her mother and siblings, moved to Pinsk and waited for her father to send for them. Pinsk was one of the centers of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, and Golda grew up amid the threat of pogroms (organized anti-Semitic riots) and in the subversive atmosphere of pre-revolutionary Russia.

Early Years

In 1906, the family moved to the United States and was reunited with Golda’s father in Milwaukee. Golda excelled in her studies and, upon graduating high school, trained as an educator and became a teacher. In 1915 she joined the local branch of the socialist Zionist party Poalei Zion and in 1921, together with her husband Morris Myerson, immigrated to Palestine.

The couple joined Kibbutz Merhavya in the northern Jezreel valley. Overcoming the grueling conditions on the kibbutz as well as the widespread prejudice that American girls were not tough enough for a life of manual labor, Golda began to fulfill her ambition of being a pioneer. “Not being beautiful,” she wrote, “was the true blessing. Not being beautiful forced me to develop my inner resources. The pretty girl has a handicap to overcome.”

Rise to Power

Almost immediately, Meir took on positions of responsibility in the Histadrut, the workers’ federation responsible for the lion’s share of pre-1948 economic development, social services, and political leadership. In 1928 she was appointed as executive secretary of the Women Workers’ Council, and served as emissary to the Pioneer Women’s Organization in the United States from 1932-34. Upon her return to Palestine, Meir was invited to join the executive committee of the Histadrut and, two years later, was appointed as head of its Political Department. In June 1946, Meir replaced Moshe Shertok (later Sharett) as head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, the quasi-foreign ministry of the state-in-waiting.

In 1947, the British announced their intention to leave Palestine, and turned the question of the country’s future over to the United Nations. As the UN General Assembly prepared to vote on the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, Meir was sent on a clandestine mission to negotiate in person with King Abdullah of Transjordan. In a November 1947 meeting with Meir at Naharayim, in the Jordan Valley, the king declared himself an ally of the Zionists and promised to abstain from hostilities against the Jewish state. Yet six months later, rumors reached the Yishuv’s leadership that Abdullah had joined the Arab League and was planning to join the coming attack on Israel.

On May 10, 1948, Meir set out again, this time for a meeting in Amman. She traveled disguised as an Arab woman, changing cars several times to preserve the meeting’s secrecy. This time the king was less forthcoming. He admitted the Jews were his only allies in the region, but said that his hands were tied. He argued against the declaration of statehood and offered the Jews the status of a protected minority in an enlarged Jordanian state. Meir, unsurprisingly, rejected the offer.

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 Soviet Union, 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 Levi 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 female prime minister, and only the third female head of government in the world.

A Woman, Not a Feminist

Golda Meir with future British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Tel Aviv in 1976.
Golda Meir with future British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Tel Aviv in 1976.

Meir’s attitude to feminism was perplexing. She said 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 Menachem 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 from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to create an interim accord between Israel and Egypt.

The Yom Kippur War

Meir subscribed to the konseptzia (conception), the strategic assumption that following the Six Day War’s demonstration of Israel’s military superiority the Arabs had abandoned any hope of military offensives against the Jewish state. In this political atmosphere, and in light of her belief that Palestinian nationalism was no more than a ruse designed to delegitimize and ultimately destroy Israel, Meir preferred concrete territorial assets over uncertain diplomacy.

The konseptzia collapsed on Yom Kippur, Oct. 6, 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack. The assault was unforeseen by Israeli intelligence, despite clear signs that Egypt and Syria were making military preparations and had made unambiguous declarations of hostile intent. In the hours before the war, faced with the assurances of her intelligence chiefs that no attack was imminent, Meir deliberated whether to order a full-scale mobilization; her failure to do so was a cause of regret for the rest of her life.

During the war — at the height of the enemy onslaught and in the shadow of defeat — Meir resisted pressure from the army and Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan to deploy Israel’s secret nuclear arsenal against Egypt. Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president, recalled that Meir had no trouble making decisions: “Once the war began she showed great strength of character and enormous composure…her inflexibility proved to be an enormous asset in the war. She used common sense to make military decisions, often opposing the choices made by lifelong military men — and her choices were usually correct.”

She negotiated assertively with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, convincing the US government to airlift crucial military supplies to Israel’s strapped forces.

The war ended with 2,656 Israeli soldiers killed and 7,250 wounded. Despite the ultimate victory over the Arab forces, the war brought about the collapse of Israel’s post-1967 self-confidence and was perceived by many Israelis as an existential breaking point. Although the Agranat Commission of Inquiry pinned the blame for the war on the army and military intelligence, clearing the political echelon of any direct responsibility for the failure, in April 1974 Meir resigned from the premiership and from the Knesset.

After presiding over the separation-of-forces agreements between Israel, Syria, and Egypt — thereby setting a precedent for future territorial compromise — Meir retired to private life and wrote her memoirs.

Golda Meir died on Dec. 8, 1978, having requested no eulogy and that no institutions be named after her. “Many leaders,” noted US President Richard Nixon, “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.”

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