Foreign Minister of Israel Golda Meir meets with U.S. President John F. Kennedy on Dec. 27, 1962. (photo by Cecil Stoughton, National Archives and Records Administration, via commons.wikimedia.org)
Few people reach the pinnacle of power in their country of origin. Even fewer born outside their country of residence climb all the way up the political ladder of their adopted country. Finally, almost no women attain the highest positions of any national government. Yet one woman defied all these societal norms to become the fourth prime minister of the state of Israel – Golda Meir.
Meir (1898-1978) was born in Kiev, Ukraine, raised in the United States and lived in Israel for 56 years. Her long Israeli political career began in America in 1918 when she attended a Philadelphia conference. She wrote in her autobiography, My Life (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975), that she “sat for hours listening, completely absorbed … [in] the excitement of the debates and of being able to cast my own vote.”
This American right to voice an opinion was a value she treasured all her political life. Hence, even in her later power-wielding positions as Israeli government minister, ambassador and prime minister, she sought the views of people from all walks of life. She saw it her duty to leave the door open to common citizens and diplomats alike. Life in the United States had given her “an understanding of the meaning of freedom, and awareness of the opportunities offered to the individual in a true democracy.”
At the time of the above conference, she was 20 years old. Though she was already planning to move to Palestine, it is unlikely she envisioned becoming an Israeli prime minister, as no Jewish state existed then. In fact, she believed young people did not need to pick a profession they would follow, so much as they needed to pick the way they would behave. When, in 1971, she met with students from her old Milwaukee, Wisc., elementary school – then called Fourth Street School, today named after her – she advised: “It isn’t really important to decide when you are very young just exactly what you want to become when you grow up. It is much more important to decide on the way you want to live.” She suggested it was enough for a young person “to be honest [and] to get involved with causes which are good for others, not only for yourselves.”
She put words into practice. By age 11, she was already involved in her first public service project. With a friend, she formed the American Young Sisters Society. The group’s goal was to raise money for youngsters who had difficulty paying for schoolbooks. With her school friends, she painted posters, held community meetings and raised the much-needed funds.
This obligation to assist others was a major part of Meir’s life. In Israel, her goal was to achieve social equality for all people, and she insisted that this would not happen unless she had the help of all citizens. She asserted that people of lesser means must not sit back and be “passive,” that they had to speak up for themselves and work to better their life situation. On the other hand, she held that people of greater means had to work to close the social and economic gaps. She believed that, for everyone’s lot to improve, there had to be a sharing of responsibility.
Still, Jewish-American feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin criticizes Meir for not specifically advancing the case of women. On the Jewish Women’s Archive website, Pogrebin writes in the section on Meir: “She was, in current parlance, a ‘queen bee,’ a woman who climbs to the top, then pulls the ladder up behind her. She did not wield the prerogatives of power to address women’s special needs, to promote other women or to advance women’s status in the public sphere. The fact is that, at the end of her tenure, her Israeli sisters were no better off than they had been before she took office.
“Just as some Jews choose not to be Jewish-identified because they think they have the option to behave as if peoplehood doesn’t matter, Golda Meir chose not to be woman-identified and behaved as if gender doesn’t matter. But, of course, when one is Jewish and female, both facts matter.”
Meir’s career came to a relatively inauspicious end. After the Yom Kippur War, which was fought while Meir was prime minister, the government’s actions were questioned. Although the official investigation committee did not blame her for what had happened, she decided to resign. When she announced she was quitting in 1974, she said: “Five years are enough. I have come to the end of the road. It is beyond my strength to continue carrying the burden.” (reprinted in Front Page Israel: Major Events as Reflected in the Front Pages of the Jerusalem Post, edited by Ari Rath and Erwin Frenkel)
She later wrote that, while she did not feel guilty, she felt responsible for not having mobilized troops earlier in that conflict. She came to believe that she should have rejected the assessment of her military and intelligence staff. She writes in My Life: “That Friday morning, I should have listened to the warnings of my own heart and ordered a callup. For me, that fact cannot and never will be erased, and there can be no consolation…. I know that I should have done so, and I shall live with that terrible knowledge for the rest of my life. I will never again be the person I was before the Yom Kippur War.”
After 60-plus years of public service, Meir did what she had been doing since she lived in the United States. She listened to what people in the street were saying about the government’s actions, and she took responsibility for those actions.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
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Looking at the current state of Golda Meir’s former places of residence, one could say they reflect the mixed feelings Israelis harbor toward her. On the one hand, not too long ago, northern Kibbutz Merchavia turned her first apartment into a small museum. Southern Kibbutz Revivim, moreover, established the Golda Meir Cultural Centre and the Golda Meir Memorial Wing, as Meir was a founding member of the kibbutz.
Her later Ramat Aviv apartment, however, stands derelict – a grimy plaque mentions she once lived there and the guard post, which once protected her, stands abandoned. Meir’s home while prime minister – the home that once served as the official residence for
Israel’s prime ministers – has fared a little better, perhaps because this prime piece of real estate is looking for a suitable buyer. While living at 46 Ben Maimon (Rambam) St., Meir customarily invited members of her inner cabinet – what became known as the “Kitchen Cabinet” – for advance briefing. She prepared the coffee and cake.
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Interviewed in 1973 for Ms. Magazine, Meir said: “Fashion is an imposition, a rein on freedom.” She wore sturdy, black, tie shoes with a thick low heel. In the early days of statehood, women soldiers wore similar shoes. They became known as “Golda shoes.”