Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth Prime Minister, was born in Kiev in 1898. Her father was a carpenter. Meir wrote in her autobiography that her earliest memories were of her father boarding up the front door in response to rumors of an imminent pogrom. She had two sisters, Sheyna (1889-1972) and Tzipke (1901-1981), as well as five other siblings who died in childhood. She was especially close to Sheyna.
Her father, Moshe Mabovitch left to find work in New York City in 1903. In his absence, the rest of the family moved to Pinsk to join her mother’s family. In 1905, Moshe moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in search of higher-paying work and found employment in the workshops of the local railroad yard. The following year, he had saved up enough money to bring his family to the United States.
Her mother, Blume Neiditch, ran a grocery store on Milwaukee’s north side, where by age eight Golda had been put in charge of watching the store when her mother went to the market for supplies. Golda attended the Fourth Street Grade School (now Golda Meir School) from 1906 to 1912.
At 14, she studied at North Division High School and worked part-time. Her mother wanted her to leave school and marry, but she demurred. She bought a train ticket to Denver, Colorado, and went to live with her married sister, Sheyna Korngold. The Korngolds held intellectual evenings at their home, where Meir was exposed to debates on Zionism, literature, women’s suffrage, trade unionism. In Denver, she also met Morris Meyerson, a sign painter, whom she later married on December 24, 1917. When Golda and Morris married in 1917, settling in Palestine was her precondition for the marriage. The couple moved to Palestine in 1921 together with her sister Sheyna. In 1924 the Meyersons moved to Jerusalem.
Golda Meir was active in the Histadrut, first in trade union and welfare programs, then in Zionist labor organization and fund-raising abroad, and later still in political roles. She was appointed chief of the Histadrut’s political section – designed to use the Histadrut’s growing power to advance Zionist aims such as unrestricted Jewish immigration. In 1946 became acting head of the political department of the Jewish Agency until the establishment of the state in 1948.
Golda Meir was one of 24 signatories of the Israeli Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948. She later recalled, “After I signed, I cried. When I studied American history as a schoolgirl and I read about those who signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence, I couldn’t imagine these were real people doing something real. And there I was sitting down and signing a declaration of establishment.”
In June 1948 Golda Meir was appointed Israel’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union, a position she filled for less than a year. She was elected as a Member of Knesset in the 1949 elections, and served as Minister of Labor and National Insurance from 1949 to 1956. She enacted enlightened social welfare policies, provided subsidized housing for immigrants and orchestrated their integration into the workforce.
Between 1956 and 1966, Golda Meir served as Minister of Foreign Affairs. She initiated Israel’s policy of cooperation with the newly independent nations of Africa, introducing a cooperation program based on Israel’s development experience, which continues to this day. At the same time, she endeavored to cement relations with the United States and established extensive bilateral ties with Latin American countries.
Between 1966 and 1968 she served as Secretary-General first of Mapai and then of the newly formed “Alignment” (made up of three Labor factions). Upon the death of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in 1969, Golda Meir – the “consensus candidate” – was chosen to succeed him. Meir came out of retirement to take office on March 17, 1969, serving as prime minister until 1974. Meir maintained the national unity government formed in 1967, after the Six-Day War, in which Mapai merged with two other parties (Rafi and Ahdut HaAvoda) to form the Israeli Labor party. Six months after taking office, Meir led the reconfigured Alignment, comprising Labor and Mapam, into the 1969 general election. The Alignment managed what is still the best showing for a single party or faction in Israeli history, winning 56 seats—the only time a party or faction has even approached winning an outright majority in an election. The national unity government was retained.
In 1969 and the early 1970s, Meir met with many world leaders to promote her vision of peace in the Middle East, including Richard Nixon (1969),Nicolae Ceaușescu (1972) and Pope Paul VI (1973). In 1973, she hosted the chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt, in Israel. In August 1970, Meir accepted a U.S. peace initiative that called for an end to the War of Attrition and an Israeli pledge to withdraw to “secure and recognized boundaries” in the framework of a comprehensive peace settlement. The Gahal party quit the national unity government in protest, but Meir continued to lead the remaining coalition.
In the wake of the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics, Meir appealed to the world to “save our citizens and condemn the unspeakable criminal acts committed”. Outraged at the perceived lack of global action, she ordered the Mossad to hunt down and assassinate suspected leaders and operatives of Black September and PFLP.
As Prime Minister, Golda Meir concentrated much of her energies on the diplomatic front – artfully mixing personal diplomacy with skillful use of the mass media. Armed with an iron will, a warm personality and grandmotherly image, simple but highly-effective rhetoric and a “shopping list,” Golda Meir successfully solicited financial and military aid in unprecedented measure.
In the days leading up to the Yom Kippur War, Israeli intelligence could not conclusively determine that an attack was imminent. However, on October 5, 1973, Meir received official news that Syrian forces were massing on the Golan Heights. The prime minister was alarmed by the reports. Her advisers, however, assured her not to worry, saying that they would have adequate notice before a war broke out. Meir did not mobilize Israel’s forces early. Soon, though, war became very clear. Six hours before the outbreak of hostilities, Meir met with Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan and general David Elazar. While Dayan continued to argue that war was unlikely and thus was in favor of calling up the air force and only two divisions, Elazar advocated full scale army mobilization and the launch of a full-scale preemptive strike on Syrian forces. Meir approved full scale mobilizing but sided with Dayan against a preemptive strike, citing Israel’s need for foreign aid. She believed that Israel could not depend on European countries to supply Israel with military equipment, and the only country that might come to Israel’s assistance was the United States. Fearing that the United States would be wary of intervening if Israel were perceived as initiating the hostilities, Meir decided early on October 6 against a preemptive strike. She made it a priority to inform Washington of her decision. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger later confirmed Meir’s assessment by stating that if Israel had launched a preemptive strike, Israel would not have received “so much as a nail”.
Golda Meir showed strong leadership during the surprise attack of the Yom Kippur War, securing an American airlift of arms while standing firm on the terms of disengagement-of-forces negotiations and rapid return of POWs. Although the Agranat Commission of Inquiry had exonerated her from direct responsibility for Israel’s unpreparedness for the war, and she had led her party to victory in the December 1973 elections, Golda Meir bowed to what she felt was the “will of the people” and resigned in mid-1974. She withdrew from public life and began to write her memoirs, but was present in the Knesset to greet Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on his historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977. Golda Meir died in December 1978, at the age of 80.
Golda Meir’s Quotes:
- We Jews have a secret weapon in our struggle with the Arabs; we have no place to go.
- I must govern the clock, not be governed by it.
- One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present.
- Whether women are better than men I cannot say – but I can say they are certainly no worse.
Click on link for A rare interview with Golda Meir in English
Golda Meir with President Kennedy
Israeli PM Golda Meir meets U.S. President Richard Nixon in Washington, March 1, 1973. Also in the photo: Yitzhak Rabin, Henry Kissinger and Simcha Dimitz.
Golda Meir with Anwar Sadat in 1977