Golda Meir (1898-1978) was a labor leader and Israeli stateswoman, and Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974.

Overview

Meir was born in Kiev, Ukraine. As a young child she emigrated with her family to the United States, and settled in Wisconsin. Meir joined the Zionist Poalei Zion party, and in 1921 immigrated to Eretz Israel.

She served in key roles in the Histadrut Labor Federation and the Jewish Agency, and in 1949 was elected to the Israeli Knesset. From then she held various positions, until her appointment as Prime Minister in 1969. She took a strong line in her foreign policy, opposing Israel’s withdrawal, without a peace treaty, from the territories captured in the Six Day War.

In 1975 she was awarded the Israel Prize for her unique contribution to the State of Israel and its society. Meir wrote an autobiography, My Life, which was translated into numerous languages, and even served as the basis for a film about her life.

Golda Meir died in 1978, aged 80.

Early Life

Golda Meir. From The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Photo: Marion S. Trikosko [LC-DIG-ppmsc-03265] (Wikimedia Commons)

Golda Meir was born in Kiev, in Ukraine, in 1898, to her father, Moshe Yitzhak Mabovitch, a carpenter by trade, and her mother, Bluma. Of eight children born to Moshe and Bluma, only three daughters survived: Shania, Golda and Clara.   Difficulties in making a living and restrictions applying to the Jews led the family to move in 1903 to Minsk, and when Golda was about eight years old, the family emigrated to Milwaukee in the United States.

“When I was fourteen, I finished elementary school. My marks were good and I was chosen to be class valedictorian [...] Obviously I would go on to high school, and then, perhaps, even become a teacher […] My parents however –as I ought to understand but did not, had other plans for me […] Neither my arguments nor my tears were of any avail. My parents were convinced that high school, for me at least, was an unjustifiable luxury, not only unnecessary but also undesirable. In my secret letters to Denver [to her sister Sheyna, who lived there at the time – CET] I wrote in detail about the continuing fights over school, that were making my life at home almost unbearable […] The last straw was my mother’s attempt to find me a husband […] I sent a furious letter to poor Sheyna. The reply came from Denver in return mail: ‘No. You shouldn't stop school. You are too young to work, you have a good chances to become something' Samari wrote. And, with perfect generosity: ‘My advice is that you should get ready and come to us.'   (Golda Meir, My Life, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1975. pp. 25-27).

After living with her sister and brother-in-law in Denver for two years, during which she went to high school and even helped support the family, her father wrote to her asking that she return home. She indeed returned home to Milwaukee.

She completed high school there, and went on to teachers college.

The bitter childhood memories of the Russian pogroms in 1905, and the news of massacres of the Jews that took place during the civil war in Russia in 1917, had an influence on her, and she joined the Zionist-socialist Poalei Zion party.

Within a short time Golda became known as a dedicated activist and as a skilled speaker.

Golda Meir working at Kibbutz Merhavia. (Wikimedia Commons).

While in Denver, when Golda was 16 years old, she met Morris Meyerson, and they fell in love.

“One of the less articulate young men who came to  Sheyna's often was a gentle, soft-spoken friend of theirs, Morris Meyerson […] Morris’s family had immigrated to America  from Lithuania and, like ours, was very poor. His father had died when he was just a boy, and he had gone to work early in life in order to  support his mother and three sisters. At the time we met, he was working sporadically  as a sign painter […] I admired Morris enormously – more than I had ever admired anyone  except Sheyna – not only  for his encyclopedic knowledge, but for  his gentleness, his intelligence and his  wonderful sense of humor […] without  at first being aware of what was happening to me, I fell in love with him and couldn't help realizing  that he  loved me, too, though  for a long time we said nothing to each other about the way we felt. ” (Golda Meir, My Life, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1975. pp. 32-33).

Golda has accepted his marriage proposal, but placed a condition on their marriage – that he agree to immigrate with her to Eretz Israel and live on a kibbutz. The two married, and immigrated to Eretz Israel in 1921, on the  infamous ship "Pocahontas".

When they arrived to Israel, they became members of Kibbutz  Merhavia.

“In those days kibbutz women hated kitchen duty, not because it was hard (compared to other work on the settlement, it was rather easy) but because they felt it to be demeaning. […] All this was at least half a century before anyone invented the unfortunate term ‘women’s liberation,’ but the fact is that the kibbutz women were among the world's first and most successful fighters for true equality. But I didn't feel that way about working in the kitchen. I couldn’t for the life of me understand what all the fuss was about and said so. ‘Why is it so much better,’ I asked the girls who were moping (or storming) about  kitchen duty, ‘to work in the barn and feed the cows, rather than in the kitchen and feed your comrades?’ (Golda Meir, My Life, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1975. pp. 67-68).

But Morris was unhappy in the Kibbutz, the hard physical work, and the community life there did not agree with him, and they had left and moved to Jerusalem. Their two children were born there: Menachem and Sarah.

After a while they moved to Tel-Aviv. From 1924 Golda Meir held important positions in the Histadrut Labor Federation,  as well as the Secretary of the "Council of Working Women", and later in the Jewish Agency.

Politics

In the years 1932-1934, Golda Meir served as an emissary in the United States. When she returned to Palestine, she was elected to the position of Secretary of the Histadrut Executive, and later headed its political department. She was also a delegate to the Zionist Congresses, and a member of the Zionist Executive and the Vaad Haleumi.

Following “Black Saturday,” in June 1946, when the British arrested numerous Zionist leaders, among them the heads of the Jewish Agency, Golda Meir took the place of Moshe Shertok (later Sharett) as director of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department. In this role, she was the most important Jewish representative in negotiations with the British Mandatory authorities.

At the 23rd Zionist Congress, she was elected as director of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, and shortly before the establishment of the State, she worked to raise funds among the Jews of the United States to cover the costs of the State of Israel’s War of Independence. Upon her return to Israel, she was elected to the Provisional State Council, which preceded the establishment of the Knesset and the Israeli government.

On May 10, 1948, four days before Israel’s declaration of statehood, Golda Meir was sent on a secret mission by David Ben-Gurion – she was to meet with Abdullah, King of Trans-Jordan (today Jordan), and attempt to convince him not to go to war against the Jewish state that was about to be declared.

Golda Meir disguised herself as an Arab woman and met with the king, but was not successful. Abdullah and his armies joined the other Arab states in attacking the new-born state.

In June 1948, Golda Meir was appointed as Israel’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union. Her appearance in Moscow caused a great deal of excitement among the Jews there, who for decades had been cut off from their brothers elsewhere in the world. However, as a result of their demonstrations of identification with the State of Israel, the Stalinist regime increased its persecution of them.

In 1949, Golda returned to Israel, and was elected to the Knesset, representing the Mapai party. From 1949 to 1956 she was Minister of Labor and National Insurance. During her tenure, large-scale housing projects were built for the masses of immigrants who arrived in those years in the young State of Israel from around the world, and numerous roads were paved.

In 1956, she was appointed Foreign Minister, and in this role, which she held till January 1966, she worked to develop Israel’s ties with countries in Africa, Asia and South America, and pushed to set up a system of aid for newly-independent states. She led the Israeli delegation to the UN Assembly, and the speeches she made there aroused extensive interest. She showed great skill in explaining Israel’s problems in her meetings with foreign statesmen and representatives, and in her public appearances.

In your opinion, what qualities and characteristics did Golda Meir need to carry out these roles? Which of these qualities would she need later, when she became Prime Minister of Israel?

Prime Minister

In 1969, Golda Meir was appointed as the fourth Prime Minister of the State of Israel. During her term of office, Golda Meir developed strong ties with the United States, and was able to enlist support from the American administration for her government’s policies, and ensure military and economic aid for Israel. She promoted the “open bridges” policy with Jordan, a policy which allows the movement of people and goods between the Kingdom of Jordan and the territories of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, through two bridges over the Jordan – the Allenby Bridge and the Adam Bridge. She also maintained regular contact with King Hussein of Jordan. Following the Yom Kippur War, Golda Meir was forced to resign as Prime Minister, due to criticism over the lack of preparation and intelligence information prior to the war, and the conduct of the first days of the war.

Golda Meir was, and remains, the only Israeli Prime Minister who was a woman. As she said of herself, the fact that she was a woman never prevented her advancement, or caused her to feel inferior. But the main problem that she had to deal with is her feelings of guilt toward her children. Even though her public activity was important and central to her life, she tried to be with her children as much as possible, always taking care of all their needs.

“The fact is that I have lived and worked with men all my life, but being a woman has never hindered me in any way at all. It has never caused me unease or given me gave me an inferiority complex or made me think that men are better off than women – or that it is a disaster to give birth to children […] But what is true, I think, is that women who want and need a life outside as well as inside the home have a much, much harder time than men, because they carry such a heavy, double burden […] To some extent, my own life in Tel Aviv, after we moved from Jerusalem, is itself an illustration of those dilemmas and difficulties. I was always rushing from one place to another – to work, home, to a meeting, to take Menachem to a music lesson, to keep a doctor's appointment with Sarah, to shop, to cook, to work and back home again. And still, to this day, I am not sure that I didn’t harm the children or neglect them, despite the efforts I made not to be away from them even an hour more than was strictly necessary. They grew up to be healthy, productive, talented and good people, and they are both wonderful parents to their own children and wonderful companions to me.

But when they were growing up, I know that they deeply resented my activities outside of our home.” (Golda Meir, My Life, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1975. pp. 89-90).

Following her retirement, Golda Meir went to live on Kibbutz Revivim, where her daughter lived. She wrote an autobiography (My Life), which was published in 1975.

Golda's unique figure has inspired many, and several movies as well as a Broadway play were based on her. Amongst them are "Golda's Balcony" (later made into a movie of the same title), and the television movie "A Woman called Golda".  

Golda Meir died on December 8, 1978.

For more information you can read Golda Meir's Obituary from The Jerusalem Post, and Yuval Elizur's (an Israeli reporter) article about her.

Jewish Agency

First meeting of the Constituent Assembly, at The Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem. Photographer: Hugo Mendelson Ffrom the National Photo Collection (Wikimedia Commons).

The Jewish Agency was established in 1929, and serves as the executive arm of the Zionist Organization.

The Background to the Establishment of the Jewish Agency

Following the Balfour Declaration and the conquest of the Land of Israel by the British Army in 1917, the World Zionist Organization sought to enlist the financial and public support of the world’s Jews for the Zionist enterprise in Eretz Israel. In the Mandate for Palestine, awarded to the British in 1920, it was explicitly stated that a “Jewish Agency” would be set up, to represent the Jewish people before the Mandatory authorities and to cooperate with them in the establishment of the Jewish national home.

The Jewish Agency’s Activities

In the spirit of the decision on the British Mandate, before the establishment of the State, the executive of the Jewish Agency served as the government of the Jewish Yishuv in Eretz Israel, and represented it before the British Mandatory authorities.

In its role as the executive arm of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency was involved in bringing Jews to Eretz Israel, assisting in their absorption within the country, setting up settlements, security, education, health, foreign policy, the economy, and so on.

With the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency transferred many of its functions to the Government of Israel, but the Jewish Agency continues to operate to this day in certain areas.

In your opinion, given that today we have a State of Israel, what functions might an organization such as the Jewish Agency fulfill?