The Golda years

A fair, frank portrait of the girl from Kiev who became a formidable leader.

Golda Meir, Ariel Sharon walk in Sinai in 1973 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout )
Golda Meir, Ariel Sharon walk in Sinai in 1973 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Handout )
If you ask an average Israeli youth today who Golda Meir was, he may remember that she was the fourth (but the first woman) prime minister of Israel. He might also comment that she was responsible for the “mehdal,” the Yom Kippur catastrophe, which ultimately became an Israeli victory, but at the cost of over 2,500 Jewish lives. It was against this popular calumny that Prof. Yossi Goldstein, an author and historian, wrote a most extensive biography in defense of Golda, beginning with her birth in a small Ukrainian village near Kiev on May 3, 1898, daughter of Moshe and Bluma (Neiditz) Mabovitch, and ending with her death in Jerusalem on December 8, 1978.
Throughout her life, Golda, Israel’s “iron lady,” was totally devoted to Israel, Zionism, socialism and David Ben-Gurion, her political boss and partner, even if there were occasional differences of opinion. Brought by her parents as a young girl to Milwaukee, Golda remembered her native Russia as a nightmare of unspeakable poverty. It was in America that her father, a carpenter, found a steady job, while her mother opened a small store. Golda loved her American school, and from an early age showed extraordinary leadership abilities. She was attracted by the Zionist vision, joined the Poalei Zion movement and planned to settle in Palestine. At 22 she represented Milwaukee at the Jewish Congress in Philadelphia.
Golda’s Zionism was heavily tested after her suitor, Morris Meyerson (1893- 1951), refused to leave the US. It was only after the Balfour Declaration in November 1917 that they married and left for Palestine. Golda, a born activist, would not subscribe to any idea unless it offered a practical solution.
Their journey took 56 days. During their short stay in Tel Aviv, they were rejected twice by Kibbutz Merhavia.
“They wanted girls, not a married couple,” Golda quipped. Merhavia members didn’t believe that “Americans” would be able to live under the primitive local conditions. Finally, they were accepted for a month-long trial, and tested with tough assignments. But Golda succeeded and despite daily exhaustion participated in all kibbutz communal activities. It was only after two years, when Morris got sick, that they moved to Tel Aviv.
This was the beginning of Golda’s prolonged struggle to support herself and her two children, Menachem and Sarah, while continuing to become more deeply involved in the Labor movement.
Slowly she made her way up in the party’s hierarchy through Moetzet Hapoalot (Working Women’s Council), and later the Histadrut labor federation.
Golda’s marriage broke up, but she was never divorced. She continued to keep Meyerson’s picture on her dresser, but her love affairs were known in political circles.
She cultivated deep friendships with David Remez and other important Yishuv personalities. They secured her work at Solel Boneh (1924-26) and in the Working Women’s Council (1928). In 1934 Golda became the chairman of the board of Kupat Holim and of the political department of the Histadrut. In 1936 she was Mapai delegate to the Actions Committee of the World Zionist Organization and at the outbreak of World War II joined the War Advisory Council of the Palestine Government.
Golda supported Ben-Gurion, Berl Katznelson and Aharon Remez when “Faction B” of Hakibbutz Hameuhad embraced a pro-Soviet orientation and left Mapai. Grateful, Ben-Gurion appointed her to head the political department of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.
During all those years Golda found additional employment as a fund-raiser in the US for Poalei Zion and other organizations. Her fluent English and Yiddish, erudition and personal example served her well.
Her experiences in Eretz Yisrael gave her a special hold on American Jews, who admired her, unable to make the sacrifice themselves. Many Americans felt guilty for their silence during the Holocaust and were ready to assist the beleaguered Yishuv. Golda knew that her stay in America meant prolonged separation from her children, but this just couldn’t be helped.
The spring of 1948 was Golda’s finest hour, when she was sent by Ben-Gurion to America and was successful in sending over a hundred million dollars, a fantastic sum in those days, for the Yishuv’s muchneeded defense, as well as Czech arms and ships for “illegal” immigration.
GOLDA WAS hurt when in her absence she was not elected, as she had hoped to be, as one of the four Mapai members of the Israeli Provisional Government.
A coalition of Moshe Sharett and Eliezer Kaplan chose Aharon Remez instead. Ben-Gurion accepted their choice, but tried to involve Golda in other various important activities, like a peace mission to the King Abdullah of Jordan. An angry Golda suffered a heart attack and spent a few days in hospital.
With the inauguration of the Provisional Government, with Sharett as foreign minister, Golda’s political department in Jerusalem lost its importance.
Sharett nominated her as ambassador to the Soviet Union, but Ben-Gurion sent Golda to the US again in May 1948, to bring over a much-needed $50m. for Israel’s defense. It was agreed that Golda would first leave for the US to gather funds, and only then go to Moscow. Golda was again most successful, but before she left for Israel, on her way to Moscow, she broke her leg in a taxi accident. This delayed her trip to Moscow.
Golda served as minister of labor and housing from 1949 to 1956, foreign affairs from 1956 to 1966, and was secretary-general of Mapai from 1966 to 1968.
While she remained a socialist in her outlook, patriotism still played a dominant role, and she understood that the harsh realities of Israel demanded compromises.
She introduced labor legislation, directed the herculean task of housing thousands of new immigrants and sought to find them work.
As minister of foreign affairs, she represented Israel at the UN and actively helped new nations in Africa.
Addressing the UN, she stood firm in her conviction that the Palestinian Arab refugee question could be solved only by direct negotiations and the Arab states’ recognition of Israel.
When prime minister Levi Eshkol died in February 1969, Golda became his natural successor, even though she had formally retired from government service a year earlier. She was conscious of her age and her health was failing, but she found herself unable to refuse her party’s call. There was no alternative to Labor, she firmly believed.
Golda was a tough and proud leader who had little time or patience for illusions. She could be charming and very pleasant when she wanted, but very tough and ruthless when facing opposition. She firmly believed that as long as the Arabs stuck to their belligerent attitudes and continued to build their strength, they were not to be trusted.
“Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children even more than they hate us,” she used to say.
She saw the Arab states’ constant perpetuation of the refugee question as a sign that they wanted to destroy Israel. She had little use for or trust in the UN. Golda firmly believed that Judea, Samaria and the Golan, occupied after the Six Day War, were an integral part of Israel, even if she agreed to withdraw our forces from a part of Golan during post-Yom Kippur negotiations.
THE TROUBLE of the 1973 Yom Kippur War debacle was that while she was correct in appreciating Israel’s neighbors’ intentions, she was misled by Israeli intelligence reports, shared by her nearest ministers and military advisers like Moshe Dayan, Yisrael Galili, Yigal Allon and generals who believed in Israel’s ultimate strength, and who failed to assess correctly the joint Arab-Soviet desire and ability to wage a war. The opinion of intelligence and the General Staff was paramount in her opinion, and they all claimed that there would be no war, or a very short one that would end in an Israeli victory. She was not aware that the expensive Bar-Lev defense fortifications on the Suez Canal, separating Egypt and Israel, would crash under a coordinated Egyptian-Syrian Yom Kippur attack.
She was unaware of the extent of the new, deadly Soviet anti-aircraft systems, or the extent of the training the Soviet Union offered Egypt and Syria. There were, from September 1970, some indications that Egypt wanted to negotiate, but nothing serious. Thus she waited, unaware that both Egypt and Syria, under Soviet guidance, were getting ready for a frontal attack on Israel.
Golda’s behavior and guidance during and after the Yom Kippur War were exemplary. This was her finest hour. She didn’t abandon her post, but participated in all deliberations, offering sound advice, keeping the country together. During protracted peace negotiations with Henry Kissinger, Anwar Sadat and Hafez Assad she said: “One of my faults is that I cannot deceive myself. I don’t see peace around the corner.
We are giving Sadat too much credit now, and I hope that he deserves it.”
She realized that the public blamed her for the Yom Kippur debacle, but agreed to continue in office, even though her health was deteriorating. In March 1974, Golda and Dayan stood in drenching rain at the Mount Herzl military cemetery, when one of the anguished parents called out: “Murderers.” This was too much for Golda and on June 1, 1974, she resigned, to be replaced by Yitzhak Rabin. Perhaps she felt that she no longer had the support of her own party. A one-and-a-half room apartment was waiting for her at Kibbutz Revivim, adjoining her daughter’s home.
Following her retirement Golda was still active, despite the fact that she was often ill. She wrote an autobiography, My Life, and was happy when this book became popular in America. She concentrated on encouraging American Jews to settle in Israel.
Despite her failing health she served Israel as best as she could in meeting foreign dignitaries, as well as with young people with whom she could share her experiences.
Golda was not overly enthusiastic about Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and told Menachem Begin: “Hope for peace, but prepare for war.” She had learned her lesson.
The author presents Golda as she really was, day after day, and largely succeeds in presenting to us a girl who had never forgotten her roots and all her life tried to make this world a better place for all of us. We are presented with a fair, frank and intimate description of a great woman who certainly deserves a rightful place in the pantheon of Israeli pioneers and national leaders.
For years Golda was a subject of respect and admiration.
Books were written about her and films and theater presentations cheered audiences in Israel and abroad. The Yom Kippur War threw a heavy shadow over her reputation, ability and vision. Was this fair? There is no doubt that this extensive biography should soon be translated into English to be studied by all interested in Israeli history.