By Jeffery Kagen
If David ben Gurion is considered the "father" of modern Israel, Golda Meir is close to being the "mother" of the State of Israel. She was a most remarkable women whose life and works embrace pre-State Israel until the mid 1970's. She participated in the emergence of the Jewish "Yishuv" in Palestine as a political and economic entity in the 1920's, serving in many government positions, cumulating as Prime Minister.
Born in 1898 in Kiev, Russia, the daughter of a poor Jewish carpenter, she recalled at the age of three the frightening experience of a pogrom which almost devastated her family. Of her earliest memories was that of her father barricading the door with another frightened Jew, as she stood helpless, trembling in fear of the drunken peasants looking for Jews to kill and plunder.
Although her family would not be considered "orthodox" by today's standards, yet they observed the Sabbath with family coming over for festive meals and singing songs. Like other Jews, they ate strictly kosher, not so much because of religious convictions, but because it was the accepted manner in which Jews in those days lived.
She had a brother, Zipke and sister, Shayna. Shayna was older and like many of the Jewish intelligencia of the time was influenced by the social and political upheavals and the Zionist idea so fertile during those times. It was a time that the intelligent Jewish youth would spend hours arguing the benefits of Socialism versus Communist versus Zionism versus Capitalism. Golda was much in awe of her older sister, who influenced Golda to continue in such ideological pursuits.
After living in abject poverty for several years, her father left for the "golden land" of America to seek a better fortune. Like others, after several years of hard work and saving every penny, he sent for his family who joined him in their new land. Transported to Milwaukee Wisconsin, Golda developed into a socially concerned individual.
Her sister, Shayna, married a man that their father and mother disapproved and were forced to move from Milwaukee to Denver. Golda, who was young and successful wanted to continue in school, but her father and mother wanted her to work to bring in money. Coming to loggerheads with her parents, she left them and moved to Denver to live with Sheyna and her husband. Sheyna's house was always filled with the Jewish intellectuals who discussed every political and social event in light of the various political and social philosophies. Sitting quietly, Golda was in awe again of those assembled and their knowledge. It was there that Golda met Morris Meyerson, a young soft-spoken man who had a love of art, poetry, literature and music. Morris introduced Golda to the arts. Their relationship developed and much later they married.
Golda finally reconciled her differences with her family and returned to Milwaukee. Her family was very active in the Jewish community, and during World War I, her house was a meeting place for young Jews and Zionists. She met many of the Zionist leaders of that time as they passed through Milwaukee: Nachman Syrkin, a fiery ideologist of the Socialist-Zionist cause, Shmaryahu Levine, one of the greatest of the Zionist speakers of the time, Yitzhak ben Zvi, who was destined to become the first President of Israel and David ben Gurion, who was at that time expelled from Palestine by the Turks. They spoke about the Jewish Legion, which was fighting against the brutal Turkish regime. Inspired, Golda even tried to enlist, but was turned down because girls were not accepted.
In the meantime the romance with Morris continued through the mail. She was teaching in the Labor Zionist Yiddish speaking school in Milwaukee. She became a member of the Poale Zion movement at the age of 17 and had begun to formulize plans to come to Palestine.
As World War I was coming to an end, Golda and Morris were married. Although they wanted a civil marriage, they gave in to family pressure to have a religious ceremony. In 1917 the British had announced that they looked with favor upon the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine. Jews greeted this as building the foundations of a Jewish state and the beginnings of the ingathering of the long Jewish exile.
Golda began her long association with the Zionist movement at this point as a sales person selling shares in a Zionist newspaper. Although newlywed, she began traveling from city to city to sell the Zionist idea. This was to characterize her life of giving up her private home life for the benefit of the Zionist-Jewish communal need. Her husband Morris understood her needs to work for the benefit of the Jewish and Zionist needs and encouraged her work. Later, this was to be the downfall of their marriage.
In 1918, she was chosen to be a delegate to the American Jewish Congress in Philadelphia. The main purpose of the conference was the formulation of a program to safeguard the civil rights of the Jews in Europe. She was very proud to be there and was one of the youngest delegates at the conference. This was the real beginning of her long career in politics.
In 1920, she and Morris, together with several friends departed for Palestine. They eventually arrived in Alexandria, Egypt and from there took a train to Tel Aviv and arrived in July of 1921. Tel Aviv, which was founded in 1909, was at that time a growing village with a population of 15,000 Jews. Unfortunately, the friends with whom she hoped to meet, had that day gone to Jerusalem to get visas to depart Palestine, for the living conditions there were too deplorable, even for ardent Zionists.
Hygiene was lacking in Palestine. She discovered that the beds in their hotel were full of bed bugs. Food was covered with flies. Housing was scarce and prices were unreasonably high. Streets were unpaved; many houses lacked electricity and toilet facilities. Cooking was on kerosene stoves.
In spite of all the hardships, being in an all Jewish city was very inspiring to her. On the Sabbath the stores closed and everyone hurried home. They decided that to remain in Tel Aviv was neither economically feasible nor ideological satisfactory. After some investigation, they decided to live on a kibbutz in the north, Merchavia.
Work on the kibbutz was physically hard. Financially, the kibbutz did not posses many resources and every member was given hard work. Yet in the evenings, they would gather and debate the various socialist ideologies late into the night. Golda threw herself into the work with full force. She revitalized the kitchen and improved the standards. She worked with vigor in the chicken coops. Morris, being a more sensitive sort, soon felt the lacking of the arts he so enjoyed and were not part of the kibbutz program. Eventually he fell ill and upon doctor's orders had to leave the kibbutz. Golda, left with him, but took with her cherished memories of the early beginnings of the "labor of the land".
Life was very difficult for everyone in Palestine in those days. Morris worked for Sollel Boneh, the Histadrut (Labor Federation) organized company for land development. His salary was small and often they were unable to make ends meet. Golda worked for a short while at Sollel Boneh, but she was soon blessed with a child, Menachem and several years later with a daughter, Sarah.
Instead of being the happy mother, Golda felt a prisoner to poverty and housework. Living in Jerusalem, separated from her Labor-Zionist friends, she felt intellectually stagnant. Live seemed like an endless search for cures to children's illnesses and material needs.
At this time she was offered a new job in the Histadrut. She had known many of the people from Sollel Boneh, and she took the job. It was in Tel Aviv and involved travel. She accepted the job and began her career anew. The Histadrut was a national labor union established for the betterment of the land and the worker. It used its monies to build vital industries in the land, at the same time employing its workers and re investing the profits in industry. It was vital to the Zionist Socialist concept and Golda began work with the same vitality that she worked on the kibbutz.
When much later in life living is Israel, Golda became a mother she found it impossible to live the dull life of a housewife. She never blamed her husband, Morris, for their eventual divorce, rather she blamed herself saying that she could not remain a house wife - she needed the work of supporting the Jewish and Zionist causes for which she worked so hard.
It was at this point in 1928, that her separation from Morris began. It was ten years later that they divorced. She nevertheless maintained good relations with him, yet felt that she must do her work in developing the country. She lived with the typical Jewish mother "guilt" feelings in relation to her children whom she tried to compensate for her long absences.
It was in these early years that she made friendships with those Zionist leaders who were later destined to become the leaders of the new Jewish State. She was known for her hard work and being given over to her various projects. She would never say no when the good of the Zionist interests were at stake. She was known to work from early morning to late night. She, together with many of the early Zionist leaders, formulated the early socialist policy of the Histadrut, always trying to give the Jewish pioneers more and more benefits.
She was sent back to the states on behalf of the Zionist Organizations on many occasions. She was very well received in the States and was successful in her many trips.
During the Hitler years when the British administered Palestine, she worked helping the tiny not yet country absorb immigrants and refugees, both legally and illegally. She was concerned with providing them housing and jobs. Those were the dreadful years that the British policy had changed to favor the Arabs by limiting Jewish immigration into Palestine. Although the Palestine Arabs' living level had risen due to the influx of Jewish funds and availability of work, the Arabs' envy of the new Jewish enclave also increased. It was a time of increased Arab attacks on the Jewish settlements. The British actively ignored these attacks to appease the Arabs in order to advance their own interests in the Middle East.
She managed to get on well with David ben Gurion, even though others had difficulties with this outspoken man. In 1936, the British Peel commission visited Palestine and interviewed many of the important personages in the area. The recommended a partition in Palestine to solve the problem of the Arab-Jewish violence. Ben Gurion was against the plan, but the other Zionists were for it. However, before the Zionists had their chance to reject it, the Arabs rejected it. Golda Meir later reflected on the Arab rejection of a dual state, "The Arabs do not make a decision on what is good for them, but rather, they decided based on what is bad for us." Here was the first of many times that they lost the opportunity to have their own Palestinian state.
During the years of World War II, she, together with the Histadrut, worked to enable refugees to reach British blockaded Palestine. At this time the Haganah and the Palmach, which were the Histadrut affiliated defense groups, were operating defending settlements against Arab attackers. Several small airdrops of Jewish underground volunteers were trained to help lead those Jews out of Hitler's inferno. Many would come into Golda Meir's office to say good bye before leaving. Golda was a warm and receptive person to whom all could relate. Unfortunately, there were few successes.
With the conclusion of the Second World War, the immense problem of DP's plagued Europe. The DP's were de-possessed persons - basically the multitudes of Jews, victims of not only Nazi horror, but also anti-Semitism from their home town neighbors. They were unable to go back to what was once their homes in Europe and they had no place to go to. America and the West did not want them. Only the Jewish homeland beckoned for them, yet the British stood close guard lest these forlorn displaced Jews enter and upset the Arabs. During this time, Golda Meir occupied much of her time with trying to help those wretched survivors, now living in refugee camps in Europe. Many of these were captured by the British as they tried unsuccessfully to enter Israel and were incarcerated in refugee camps in various areas around the Mediterranean.
At this time, two groups, the Stern gang, headed by Avraham Stern and the Etzel (Irgun Tzvi Leumi) headed by Menachem Begin, decided that the answer to this problem was to get rid of the British by making their life intolerable. They began attacking their military installations and stealing guns and ammunition. The Haganah, the military wing of the Zionist Labor Union, lead by Ben Gurion, were restrained and limited their activities to the defense of the Jewish yeshuv. They believed in the political settlement of the problem. None the less, all of the country was to suffer from the British frustration of dealing with a Jewish uprising. As the attacks on the British in Israel increased the financial burden of the British government in maintaining troops, public pressure in England built against maintaining troops in Palestine.
Finally the British announced that their intention was to withdraw their troops from Palestine. Hoping for Arab favor, they tried to confiscate Jewish weapons, while selling weapons to the Arab enemy. In addition, they provided training and guidance for the Jordanian Army to attack the small Jewish enclave. The British would inform the Arab armies prior to their pulling out from their fortified forts. This was in order to give the Arabs the first chance at controlling strategic lands in exchange for gaining Arab favor.
As history bears witness, with all the help that the Arabs received both from the British and neighboring Arabs countries, the small Jewish country managed to defend itself and declare statehood. Not only did Israel defend itself against the Arab onslaught, they gained much more land than was to be given to them by the English. The British in return never was able to truly become the influencing power in the Middle East that they so cruely cultivated
It was during this time that Golda Meir was sent to speak with King Abdullah of Jordan. He was considered the most moderate Arab leader at this time. Abdullah gave Golda Meir his word that Jordan would not attack the Jewish State. Yet Jewish intelligence reports said that he had made plans to join in the attack. Golda went disguised as an Arab peasant woman wearing the simple native Arab dress to visit Abdullah in his Jordanian palace. He told her that he was surprised that she did not believe him. After all he gave his word and one, he is a Bedouin, and Bedouins always keep their word, second he is a king and a king must always keep his word, and thirdly, she is a lady and he is a gentlemen, and gentlemen must always keep their words with ladies. Nevertheless with all of this emphasis on keeping his word of honor, he did not keep his word. He told her later, that the Arab pressure was too much for him to ignore, he feared for his life; therefore he must fight along side his fellow Arabs. Ironically, Abdallah was later assassinated by fellow Arabs because they feared that he would make peace with Israel.
Golda Meir was a signer of the declaration of Israel's independence. Immediately after the signing, the Israeli war of independence began. She was sent to the USA to raise monies to help pay for the war effort and supplies. She was very warmly received and highly successful in raising money and influencing people to support Israel.
She was selected to be the first ambassador to Russia. When she came to Russia, she visited the synagogues which caused tremendous numbers of fearful Soviet Jews to brave the vicious KGB secret police just to get a glimpse of the heroic Israeli lady. When the Soviets realized that the Soviet Jews interest in Israel was still vibrant, the KGB began their notorious crackdown on Jewish social expressions such as the Yiddish theater and the Jewish newspapers in order to stifle Jewish identity.
Although she served in many party posts, she was known and respected by all as a hard worker with a balanced judgement. It was for this very reason that she was later chosen by her party to become the Prime Minister.
In 1967, at the age of 70, Golda Meir decided it was time to retire from public office. She looked forward to being a private citizen. However in 1969, Levi Eschol, then the Prime Minister, suffered a heart attack and died. A long personal friend, Golda Meir, was saddened by the news. Her party needed some one that every one respected and could work with. Although in retirement, Golda was selected to lead the party.
She left retirement and was elected Prime Ministert. Her strong points were her ability to work together with diverse personalities and to direct various social and diplomatic agencies. She had no real experience with the military. This was unfortunately her tragic downfall.
In 1973, Egypt and Syria were becoming more belligerent. The Israeli assessment of the situation was that they were merely trying to look good in the Arab eyes, but would not attack. The marched their troops to and from the borders each time as if for an attack but would retreat.
There were many signs that they actually would attack, but the Israeli military establishment, which had won such a sounding victory in 1967 and so totally punished the Arabs were certain that the Arabs were all sound and fury, but would not risk an attack. Just prior to the Yom Kippur fast, Mrs. Meir listened to the various military views. Some wanted to have a large call up of the army reserves with a preemptive strike; others wanted a limited call up to merely fortify the existing border positions. The USA was notified, but maintained a policy that a preemptive strike was politically suicidal and in such an event, they would not support the Israelis.
This was the situation in which a tragic decision was made not to call up the reserves and not to make a preemptive strike. On Yom Kippur, the combined armies of the Egyptian and Syrian armies attacked the poorly protected Israeli border positions and a war ensued which, although eventually, Israel emerged victorious militarily, the country lost large numbers of her best soldiers. The decision not to call up the army reserves was a bad decision and after the war, Golda Meir tended in her resignation.
The country was horrified that such a terrible decision could be made and high level inquires were made into the cause of the errant decision. She was subsequently cleared of wrong doing. Yet this was to mar her life long record of service to her country.
In retrospect, Golda Meir sacrificed her own personal life for the betterment of the Jewish State and its many Jewish inhabitants. She was willing and capable to take on any task that the Zionist party requested of her. He self sacrifice gave birth to a Jewish nation; truly she should be called the mother of modern Israel.
from the November 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine