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Golda Meir: The girl from Milwaukee who became prime minister

Can you be a good liberal and a good Zionist?

Well, given the increasingly “either-or” world in which we live, many assume the answer to be no. You must choose: You can either have a universal commitment to healing the world—or a particular loyalty to a specific group.

And in fact, because of this supposed choice, Zionists have been caricatured as too nationalist and illiberal, neither altruistic nor universalistic. But as it turns out—that choice is a false one. And to see that, we needn’t look further than Golda Meir.

Golda was a force. On the one hand, she was a proud Jewish nationalist – a tough, witty Zionist who was tired of seeing Jews get pushed around and helped build the state of Israel.

The story of modern Israel is essentially the story of the return to the ancestral homeland of exiles from persecution, insecurity and fear.

And Golda Meir was an equally proud universally-minded socialist trying to make the world a better place.

Here was a Zionist who chose to live in a community where everybody was equal, who defended workers’ rights, who helped found a powerful labor union, and who championed national health care as part of an elaborate social welfare package for all. And here was a Zionist who insisted that, even as a young, poor, and primitive country, Israel should extend itself to help the rest of the world, so much so that she was hailed in Africa by Africans as the “mother of Africa.” And yet none of these activities ever weakened her full-time commitment to the Jewish people and the Jewish democratic state, Israel.

There’s no one in the world that wants peace more than we do.

Golda Golda Mabovitch, 1914, in Milwaukee.

So how did a Milwaukee schoolgirl end up being the world’s most famous Progressive Zionist?
Born in 1898 in Kiev, Ukraine her earliest memory was her father boarding up their front door against rumored pogroms – Jew-hating riots.

Remembering that fear, she would say about Israel: “Above all, this country is our own. Nobody has to get up in the morning and worry what his neighbors think of him.” And in 1943, as the Nazis murdered six million Jews, she defined the Jewish nationalist movement – Zionism – at its most basic, saying: “There is no Zionism except the rescue of Jews.”

Golda Mabovitch as a child.

But for Golda Meir, merely surviving was never enough – yes, Zionism was about defending Jews after centuries of homelessness and persecution, but it was also about redefining the role of the Jew in the world. “When Jews would return to their homeland,” she imagined, “they would make a better society.”
But, back to her story. Golda Mabovitch’s family moved from Russia to the safety of Milwaukee in 1906. When she graduated as valedictorian of the Fourth Street School in 1912, she became the first person in her family to graduate… elementary school. Today, it is the Golda Meir School for Gifted and Talented Youth.

Golda Meir with husband Morris Meyerson. (Courtesy: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries)

Rebelling against her mother, who insisted she would only be a housewife, young Golda ran away to Denver, following her sister Sheyna. In Denver, the 14-year-old joined the great debates her sister had with others about how to gain equality, for women, for workers, for Jews. They believed in Socialist Zionism’s promise to use the new Jewish State to create an ideal egalitarian, cooperative society.
In 1917 Golda married a socialist dreamer, Morris Myerson.

Golda Meir working working in kibbutz Merhavia.

The two moved to Kibbutz Merhavia in Israel in 1921.

But the couple drifted apart, as Golda, who eventually Hebraized her last name to Meir – became one of the most important Zionist leaders in the pre-state period. She helped found Mapai, the Labor Party of the Land of Israel in 1930.

Sometimes, her two young children had to attend Labor party meetings to see their mother, who only noticed them when counting up the votes. It wasn’t easy. Golda Meir once wrote an essay “Borrowed Mothers,” describing her “inner struggles” and “the despair of the mother who goes to work as being without parallel in human experience.”

David Ben-Gurion with Golda Meir at the Knesset in Jerusalem. (Photo: Fritz Cohen, Israel Government Press Office.)

As the Zionist leaders prepared to declare their independence tin 1948, David Ben-Gurion sent Golda Meir to America to raise money for the new state. Some hoped she would raise $7 million – she aimed for $25 million – and — she returned with nearly $50 million, legend has it in suitcases – mostly in $1 and $5 dollar bills. When the history of Israel is written one day,” Ben-Gurion proclaimed, “it will say ‘there was a Jewish woman who got the money to make the state.’”

King Abdullah I bin Al-Hussein of Jordan. (Photo: Cecil Beaton)

In early May, 1948, Golda Meir dressed up as an Arab woman and traveled to Jordan, to meet King Abdullah secretly. She was hoping for peace, he was preparing for war. When the King suggested that there was no hurry to proclaim the State of Israel as soon as Great Britain left Palestine, as the UN decided it should do, she responded: “We have been waiting for 2000 years. Is that hurrying?”

Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion during the signing of the Declaration of Independence at the Tel Aviv Museum, May 14, 1948. (Photo: Frank Scherschel, Israel GPO)

A few days later, when she was one of two women and 22 men to sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence, this tough, no-nonsense woman cried. “When I studied American history as a schoolgirl and I read about those who signed the Declaration of Independence,” she explained, “I couldn’t imagine these were real people doing something real. And there I was sitting down and signing a declaration of establishment.”

Golda Meir at first session of the third government in 1951.

As the state grew, so did Golda Meir’s responsibilities. As Labor Minister from 1949 to 1956, she supervised the building of 200,000 apartments, 30,000 houses, hundreds of new businesses and dozens of new roads. She also helped develop Israel’s National Insurance Act of 1954, which remains the centerpiece of Israel’s social welfare system. Remembering the social and religious debates of her youth, she was still trying to make every Jew safe, proud, free – and economically secure too.

In those days, Golda Meir also got used to dismissing all kinds of sexist remarks with her sharp wit.
When a Cabinet colleague suggested a curfew to keep women home after dark to protect them from rapists, she retorted: “But it’s the men who are attacking the women. If there’s to be a curfew, let the men stay at home.”

Golda Meir with U.S. President John F. Kennedy, December 27, 1962.

This kind of sharpness helped Golda Meir as Foreign Minister become the face of Israel – tough, modern, yet also old-fashioned, wise, funny, and deeply Jewish. When she took the job in 1956, Israel was poor and struggling. Nevertheless, she launched a special Israeli initiative to work with developing countries, primarily in Africa.

Since then, Israel’s agriculture experts at MaShaV have trained over 230,000 farmers and technical experts in 140 different developing countries!

Amazed by her generosity and impact, the legendary Tanzanian president – and anti-colonialist fighter — Julius Nyerere called Golda Meir “the mother of Africa.”

In 1966, feeling sick and tired, Golda Meir retired from the Foreign Ministry.

Within months, she came back, becoming Secretary-General of the Socialist-Zionist Mapai party, to support her friend, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. During the tense days before the 1967 war, people criticized Eshkol for not knowing what to do as Israel’s Arab neighbors threatened to “throw the Jews into the sea.” But Golda insisted: “A leader who doesn’t hesitate before he sends his nation into battle is not fit to be a leader.”

Golda Meir hated war, but understood the Zionist imperative: when the enemy threatens you and your children. “Ein Breira” – there is no choice.

We’ll have to protect ourselves.

That sensibility shaped two of her most famous quips about the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1957 she predicted that “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” And in 1969, she added that “When peace comes we will perhaps, in time, be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”

Levi Eshkol died suddenly in 1969 – and the Labor Party chose Golda Meir to replace him. “Being 70,” she sighed, “is no sin, but it’s not a joke either.”

Golda Meir in 1969. (Photo by Louis GOLDMAN /Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Her five years as Prime Minister were rocky. Historians criticize her for not being sufficiently sensitive to the rights of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, for not acknowledging Palestinian nationhood, and most problematic of all, for listening to those generals who ignored signs of an impending Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack before Yom Kippur in 1973 and mobilizing the troops too late.

Others note the leadership she offered throughout the 1973 War – which Israel eventually won inspired by her toughness.

“The very existence, the future of the Jewish people depends upon Israel being free and safe – or not,” she said.

Regardless of her political legacy as prime minister, Golda Meir’s Zionist and liberal legacy is far more golden. Her love of her country and her people, combined with her love of humanity, made her not only Mother of Africa, not only Israel’s Jewish grandmother, but one of the main symbols of the kind of nationalist and egalitarian liberalism that gave birth to Zionism. Golda Meir wasn’t perfect – but she is a perfect example of a liberal Zionist who refused to live in the land of false choices – -of either/or – but was happy to live in the messier but more fulfilling world of the “and” the juggler, the balancer, redeeming the Jewish people – and the world.

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