Moscow. October 4, 1948.
Rosh Hashana. Golda Myerson makes her way to the Moscow Choral Synagogue. Fifty thousand Jews pack the streets surrounding the synagogue to catch a glimpse of, to be near to, to welcome the miracle of a Jewish state after the grim years of Communist repression of religion, and Nazi mass murder of their kith and kin. Fifty thousand Jews turn out for Golda Myerson, Israel’s minister to the USSR. Fifty thousand voices chanting, “Golda! Golda! Golda!” The Soviet authorities had not authorized her to go to the synagogue.
Imagine the courage this took.
The secret police agents who reported this explosive demonstration must have known – just as the participants must have – that Stalin, already paranoid and anti-Semitic, would retaliate.
Yet the Jews still came. Golda had made history. This was an indelible turning point for the Jews of the USSR.
Israeli passport No. 1 had been issued to Golda, one of the two women who signed our Declaration of Independence. She was not given this precious first as a token of appreciation, or as a public relations stunt.
She was sent on many diplomatic missions right after the state’s establishment in May.
In September, she arrived in Moscow as minister (very few ambassadors were appointed in those hungry years). Stalin’s USSR was vital for Israel’s ability to survive its cradle months and first years. The West had placed an embargo on selling arms to the new state. From Czechoslovakia came salvation: The Czechs provided us with planes and artillery and rifles.
This was impossible without Russian approval. Having to steer between Israel’s national interest as a state and Israel’s kinship interest as the state of the Jews must have been another reason Golda was a chain smoker.
Barely seven months after arriving in Moscow, Golda was called to join the government. The new immigrants were pouring into Israel as the “displaced persons” – a euphemism for homeless survivors – emptied from their camps and came, mostly penniless, to a penniless country.
Immigrants from Arab countries, from North Africa – hundreds of thousands in the first three years of statehood. Golda was made minister of labor; her brief was to build housing, find employment, create roads.
Soon tall concrete-spewing machines poured cement to throw up thousands of housing units. Yes, they were small, 45 meters or so, many for families of six or more. Yes, they were ugly. Yes – but they gave people a roof over their heads. These giant metal pipes rising across the landscape were called “Golda’s cannons.”
She was a tough person, and not always lovable. Yet charm she had in abundance. A colleague and friend who had interviewed Golda more than once challenged my use of the word “charm.” But a reader in Canada wrote me that her father had never forgotten the greatest speech Golda could have made, under the circumstances. Billed as the major speaker at a Zionist Congress in the 1950s, she was preceded by so many others that they didn’t get to her till close to midnight. “Kinderlach,” she said in Yiddish, “ich bin oich a yiddishe mameh. Si’z shpet. Geyts shlof ’n!” (Children, I am a Yiddish mother, too. It’s late. Go get a night’s sleep!) With a cigarette in one hand and a motherly smile showing through the smoke, of course she had charm.
She was also a magnificent speaker.
Note, I use the work “speaker,” not “orator.” The great orator was Abba Eban, who could perform verbal pyrotechnics in eight or so languages. But Golda spoke to the hearts of her audience.
Moshe Dayan, known for his ability to make bitingly pithy remarks, is reputed to have said, “With a vocabulary of only 200 words, she is an outstanding speaker.” She could hold audiences of thousands spellbound.
Only she could say with utter conviction: “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”
With age, and with lymphoma, she could be cantankerous and often carry a grudge, as someone phrased it, long after she remembered its cause. But now I must lean backward, because I always felt Golda didn’t like me. Perhaps it was that she – a strong anti-religious atheist – had seen me wearing a kippa in my early years here. (Fifty thousand Jews chanting, “Golda!” at a synagogue, perhaps the first she had attended in years, is one of the delicious ironies of Israel.) I interviewed her once for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1958, when she was already foreign minister. Innocently enough, my last question was whether there were Soviet radio transmitters in Syria. I asked because Radio Moscow could be heard so clearly here. Well, did I get a cold shower! In her nasal Hebrew, she pointed to me, and said, accusingly, “You?!? You?!?” Imagine hearing the Hebrew words “ata, ata” nasally assaulting you from a senior minister of state. I must have triggered some reaction to an intelligence report she had received, about which I knew nothing.
Her chain-smoking brought on her cancer, which was diagnosed in the early 1960s, leading to another typically Golda remark. Her friends remonstrated with her, begging her to stop smoking. By then, she could see age 70 approaching. “Why should I stop? Anyway I won’t die young.”
She lived on to become prime minister following Levi Eshkol’s death in 1969. Prophetically she did not die until she was 80. But the years between saw a different Golda, and a changed Middle East. That’s what I’ll write about in a forthcoming column.
Already, though, we have seen a woman of many faces and many facets, even the ability to laugh at herself in the face of death.
The author has been writing about the human face of Israeli prime ministers and other leaders, based on firsthand experience. His novel A Tale of Two Avrahams will be appearing in book stores in Israel and abroad soon, and is also available on Amazon.