The POSTman knocks twice: The several faces of Golda Meir

"There are many human beings, but there are many more faces, for each person has several." – Rainer Maria Rilke.

PRIME MINISTER Golda Meir (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
If that is true of any person, it is all the more so of political figures. Add to that the component of being a woman who rose to the top in a man’s world, and you understand how many faces there were of Golda Meir.
Not the first in importance, but a key trait nonetheless, was her humor. And often that humor was quite barbed. US secretary of state Henry Kissinger made countless trips to Egypt, Syria and Jordan between 1969 and 1975. A photo of him embracing Egyptian president Anwar Sadat went front-page in Israel. Golda, in her nasal Midwestern American accent, twisted the knife with a smile when Kissinger, arriving back in Israel, kissed her on both cheeks. “Why Henry, I didn’t know you kissed women too.”
Golda came by her Midwestern accent from her early life in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and in Denver, Colorado. But she was born in Kiev, then in the Russian Empire, in 1898. An early memory was of her father, Moshe Mabowitz, who was a carpenter, boarding up their windows as a pogrom roiled up about them.
“Take care of the children of the poor, for from them will come forth the Teaching.” This early sociological comment from the Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) would apply to Golda Mabowitz. It took her father three years to earn the shifskarte – the steamship fare to bring over his wife and children to Milwaukee.
Golda’s mother opened a grocery store. Though she only began speaking English at age eight, the young girl’s capacity for leadership and organization already showed itself in school.
Later, Golda became a staunch Labor Zionist, and after a brief career as a teacher in both public and Yiddish schools, she and her husband, Morris Meyerson, did what was totally unusual at that time: they joined a kibbutz in “Palestine.”
She was a natural leader. Within a few years, Golda was selected for important positions in the Histadrut, the General Federation of Workers.
The two pillars for building the state-to-be, still a distant dream in the early 1920s, were the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency, led by Dr. Chaim Weizmann, and the Histadrut, led by David Ben-Gurion. In 1930s she became head of the Political Department in the Histadrut Executive.
Photographs of Golda from those years show a beautiful young woman, whose strong nose was softened by rather dreamy eyes. Her marriage never ended in divorce, but she lived apart from Morris most of their lives. They did have a son, Menachem, a talented cellist, and a daughter, Sarah, who was an early member of Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev. There were other women leaders in the Histadrut, but Golda rapidly overshadowed them and many of the men, to become one of the inside circle.
Thus we already see some of the several faces she wore: ambition, ability, drive, oratory, charm, feminine attractiveness, idealism and political astuteness. And motherhood. The outsider with the American accent had within a decade-and-a-half become a leader of the Women’s Labor Council, then of the over-all labor federation and one of the most recognizable political figures in the pre-state Yishuv.
(Now, a digression to explain, gentle reader, why there is so much detail about her early life.
At the end of her public career, Golda Meir bore responsibility for significant and painful failures.
Therefore out of fairness and objectivity I am striving to present her unique and major contribution to Israel’s creation and life. This is especially important since today’s so-called New Historians are flawed in that they see the past in terms of the realities and values of today.
We must see things as they were at the time, and understand them in terms of the period and its values.) From sectoral leader, Meir moved onto the national and international scene. As World War II loomed, she was sent to represent the Zionist Movement at the abortive conference at Evian, France, on the banks of placid Lake Geneva.
Thirty-two nations gathered to see what could be done about the clearly endangered Jews of Europe. One, the Dominican Republic, was ready to accept 100,000 Jews. One. Thirty-one others, including the great democracies of their era, offered nothing but fine words. This was in June 1938. A year later was already too late.
Meir said, with her remarkable ability to put things simply and to the point: “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.”
By 1946, Meir was acting head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, which made her the effective “foreign minister” for the state in the making, while the head, Moshe Sharett, was leading the battle for the creation of the Jewish state at the UN.
Probably one of her most important roles in the creation of the state came in early 1948.
Using her native English, the wide networks of Zionists she had connected over the years, and the outstanding efforts of United Jewish Appeal leaders like Sam Rothberg, she was instrumental in raising the then huge and unparalleled sum of $50 million. Ben-Gurion called her the “Jewish woman who got the money which made the state possible.”
Two more faces: the diplomat, and the spokeswoman for Zionism and Israel to the organized Jewish world. And then, one of the crowning glories of her life. She was among the original 24 signatories to Israel’s declaration of Independence, and one of only two women.
(Later 13 signatures were added: the 12 members marooned in besieged Jerusalem and one who was abroad.) Golda Meyerson (she changed her name to Meir in 1956) then said, ““After I signed, I cried. When... as a schoolgirl I read about those who signed the US Declaration of Independence, I couldn’t imagine these were real people doing something real. And there I was sitting down and signing [our] declaration.”
Another face. The woman who later dealt with the life and death of thousands, the woman who a few days before the declaration had been smuggled in disguise to the palace of King Abdullah of Jordan to urge him not attack Israel once it would be proclaimed – this woman of many faces wept.
Avraham Avi-hai first met Golda Meir in the early ‘50s, when from a cabinet meeting she sent Teddy Kollek an SOS to get her a few packages of cigarettes. The next few columns will deal with her role in the State, her rise and tragic fall. Avi-hai is the author of the novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams.