Before Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel, there was Golda Meir, Israel’s first woman Prime Minister.
Known as the “Iron Lady” of politics long before the rise of Margaret Thatcher, Meir, who died on December 8, 1978, was known for her strong-willed tenacity.
“In appearance she was tall and austere, with the stresses of a hard life reflected in her face,” penned a writer for BBC News. “In personality, she was honest, straightforward and single-minded. In the eyes of the world, she personified the Israeli spirit.”
Meir was born Golda Mabovitch in 1898 in Kiev, in what is now Ukraine. Her parents, poor and fearful of pogroms, dreamt of leaving for a better life. She would later relate that her first memory as a child was of her father boarding up the front door after hearing rumors of an imminent pogrom.
“If there is any explanation necessary for the direction which my life has taken,” she said years later, “perhaps it is the desire and the determination to save Jewish children from a similar scene and from a similar experience.”
“I have a pogrom complex—I have, I plead guilty,” she has said. Alluding to the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, she added: “There are many Jews who don’t have complexes any more. But we who lived through it have a complex of gas chambers.”
Desperate to find a new life and escape poverty, her father moved to the United States, and saved up money working various jobs at a railroad and as a carpenter. Three years later, in 1906, the family joined him in Milwaukee.
Meir’s mother started a small grocery, which quickly became the bane of little Golda’s existence. Every morning she had to run the store while her mother was out buying supplies. Meir, age 8, was perpetually late to school each morning.
It does seem that Meir had a flair for public work from a young age. At age 11, she gave a public speech to raise money for textbooks at her school. But her mother did not see much value in sending Meir to school; instead, she tried to arrange for her marriage to a much older man.
Meir, true to her strong spirit, fled at age 14 to Denver, where her older sister had moved with her husband. Meir would meet her husband there, Morris Myerson, a Jewish immigrant from Russia.
Four years later, Meir’s father sent a letter to her, pleading for her return. That she did, at age 18, plunging herself “into a confusion of enthusiasms: socialism, teaching, public speaking, Zionism,” according to her obituary in the New York Times. “When there were attacks on Jews in the Ukraine and in Poland, she helped organize a protest march in Milwaukee. Her home became a center for visitors from Palestine.”
“I knew that I was not going to be a parlor Zionist,” she later wrote.
She would, in fact, take Zionist principles truly to heart. She convinced Myerson, her husband-to-be, to move to British Mandate Palestine in 1917. They left in 1921, barely surviving the ship ride across the Atlantic, which included a mutiny and near starvation. Meir’s sister Sheyna, with whom she had stayed in Denver, also accompanied the young couple, along with her children.
Once in Palestine, Meir and her husband applied to work at Kibbutz Merhavia, but were rejected because members suspected that she was not fit for physical labor. Defiant as ever, Meir convinced them that she could work as well as anyone. In turn, she was assigned 18-hour days of labor in caring for the chickens, picking almonds and planting trees.
Meir’s hard work paid off, as she was elected to be the kibbutz’s representative at Histadrut, the General Federation of Labor. But her husband quickly grew tired of communal work, and the couple moved to Tel Aviv. Soon thereafter, Meir gave birth to a son, Menachem, and a daughter, Sarah, “endowing them with the inalienable right to share the family’s poverty,” as the New York Times put it.
In 1928, Meir became secretary to the Histadrut movement, and was asked to frequently travel. Her marriage to Myerson was already on shaky ground, and the decision to take the job solidified the breakup. She moved her children to a tiny apartment in Tel Aviv, where she slept on the couch for four years. She and Myerson never divorced; he died in 1951, while she was away on a trip characteristic of her job.
In 1934 she joined the executive committee of the Histadrut movement, which would give rise to the eventual independent Israeli government. In 1938, during the rise of the Nazis, she attended a conference in Evian-les-Bains, France, on refugees as a “Jewish observer from Palestine.”
“She raged inwardly at the complacent manner in which official representatives expressed sympathy for the plight of Germany’s Jews, then explained that their countries could not offer refuge,” according to the New York Times.
In 1946, British authorities interned many senior Zionist leaders due to mounting friction between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine. Meir took a huge step in her career at this point—as a woman, no less—when she replaced Moshe Sharrett as acting head of the political department of the Jewish Agency until the establishment of Israel in 1948.
“From then on she played a part both in internal labor Zionist politics and in diplomatic efforts—including her ultimately unsuccessful secret meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah on the eve of the Arab invasion of Israel in 1948,” according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
For that meeting, she disguised herself, at the bequest of Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, as an Arab woman in order to make her way safely to Amman.
After the establishment of Israel, Meir was appointed as the Israeli diplomat to the Soviet Union, a position she was wary of: She had forgotten most of her Russian and didn’t know much about diplomacy.
“She did know a lot about communal living, however, and when she took up her post she ran the embassy as a kibbutz, with everyone, including the envoy, taking turns at the chores,” relates the New York Times.
Meir left Moscow in 1949 and served in the Israeli Knesset until 1974.
The New York Times relates several other anecdotes that display Meir’s tenacity and capability for sharp comebacks.
When the Cabinet was trying to deal with a series of assaults on women, a minister suggested barring women from the streets after dark. The Minister of Labor protested: “Men are attacking women, not the other way around. If there is going to be a curfew, let the men be locked up, not the women.” People often asked Mrs. Meir if she felt handicapped at being a woman minister. “I don’t know,” she would reply, “I’ve never tried to be a man.”
It is this strength in personality that afforded Meir advancement throughout her career. Ben-Gurion, who had prevailed on Golda Myerson to Hebraize her name to Meir, is also said to have called her the only man in his Cabinet.
In 1956, Meir played a key role, alongside with Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, in organizing Israel’s response to the Suez Crisis. Meir was known to work hard, as well.
“As Foreign Minister she worked an 18-hour day,” according to the New York Times. “After two years her chief of Cabinet suggested she take a vacation. ‘Why?’ she said. ‘Do you think I’m tired?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘but I am.’ She replied: ‘So you take a vacation!’”
Meir was also known to be incredibly stubborn; she once complained that “intransigent” had become her middle name. In one example, she said:
“If we lose a war, that’s the end forever—and we disappear from the earth. If one fails to understand this, then one fails to understand obstinacy. We intend to remain alive. Our neighbors want to see us dead. This is not a question that leaves much room for compromise.”
During the decade following 1957, Meir served as Minister of Foreign Affairs, initiating Israel’s policy of cooperation with the newly independent African nations, and introducing a development program there that continues to this day. She also solidified relations with the Americans and “established extensive bilateral ties with Latin American countries,” according to the Israeli MFA.
She resigned from the Cabinet in 1965 after much illness, in effect turning down an offer to become Deputy Prime Minister. She went back to tasks more suited to women at that time of her age: cooking, cleaning, ironing and shopping.
In 1969, after then-PM Levi Eshkol’s death, the Labor party elected Meir, 70, as its candidate. She was reluctant at first due to her age, but ultimately decided to take the position. Meir was prime minister during the 1972 Munich massacre, in which 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and eventually murdered. There have been disputes ever since as to whether she authorized the Mossad to track down and kill those responsible for the massacre.
Meir also presided over the operations during the Yom Kippur War, for which the Israeli MFA said she provided “strong leadership.” There was, however, public concern that Israel hadn’t been adequately prepared for the Arab attacks during that war. A later government inquiry exonerated her of any wrongdoing, but she stepped down in 1974. She retreated from public life and began writing her memoirs, but was present in the Knesset when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977.
Meir died a year later, aged 80, of leukemia. She is buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
Famous quotes from Golda Meir:
“We hate war. We do not rejoice in victories. We rejoice when a new kind of cotton is grown, and when strawberries bloom in Israel.”
“Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”
“Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great.”
“Forgiveness is the key to action and freedom.”
“Pessimism is a luxury that a Jew can never allow himself.”
“Above all, this country is our own. Nobody has to get up in the morning and worry what his neighbors think of him. Being a Jew is no problem here.”
“Those who don’t know how to weep with their whole heart, don’t know how to laugh either.”
“One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present.”
“Trust yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.”
“We Jews have a secret weapon in our struggle with the Arabs; we have no place to go.”
Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.