By Norman Provizer, Director of the Golda Meir Center for Political Leadership at Metropolitan State College of Denver, and Claire Wright, Research Assistant
In early 1969, 70-year-old Golda Meir became the third woman in the 20th Century to emerge as a leader of a nation. And, unlike the women who proceeded her, the Russian-born/American-bred Meir gained her position as Israel’s Prime Minister without the benefit of family ties to a famous father or an assassinated husband. Beyond that, Meir was also twice an immigrant to new lands. A fact that continually reminds us that leadership often emerges from the most unlikely places. Her extraordinary life was not without pain or controversy. But it was extraordinary. The following represents a comprehensive outline of that life, arranged in chronological fashion.
1898: Meir is born Goldie Mabovitch on May 3, 1898 in Kiev, Ukraine (then part of Russia). She is one of eight children born to Moshe and Blume Mabovitch (or Mabowitz), five of whom (four boys and a girl) died in infancy. She is the middle child of the three surviving girls. Sheyna (or Shana) is the eldest and Zipke (later known as Clara) is the youngest. Her father is a carpenter/cabinet-maker and Golda is named for her maternal great-grandmother Golde who was known for her strong will and stubbornness. Early in life she witnesses the endemic anti-Jewish violence in Czarist Russia (the pogroms). The image of that anti-Semitism would remain with her and greatly influence the course of her life.
1903: Golda and the family move to Pinsk (in what is now Belarus), her mother’s original home. That year, a severe pogrom leads many Jewish communities in Russia to declare a fast in protest. Though not quite five, Golda insists on participating in the fast despite her family’s objections based on her age. Moshe Mabovitch departs for the United States and settles in Milwaukee. The plan is for him to send for his family once he is established in America.
1906: She leaves Russia, with her mother and sisters, to join her father in America. They land in Quebec, Canada and then travel by train to Milwaukee. Because her father had helped a friend reach America by pretending that the friend’s wife and daughters were his, the rest of the Mabovitch family now has to use false names to depart.
1908: While in the fourth grade, Golda and her close friend Regina Hamburger form the American Young Sisters Society to raise money to buy textbooks for students who could not afford them. Their activities include a fundraising effort in a large, rented hall at which Golda speaks.
1912: She begins North Division High School after graduating from the Fourth Street School (now the Golda Meir School) as class valedictorian (despite her frequent tardiness due to working in her mother’s store). Though Golda is excited over high school and the idea of becoming a teacher, her parents are less than thrilled over these developments. After all, teachers in Wisconsin, at the time, could not be married. So Golda plans to runaway from home (and her parents’ talk of her getting married) to stay with her sister Sheyna, who is in Denver for her tuberculosis.
1913: After making her plans, 14-year-old Golda steals out of her house and takes a train to Denver in February. She moves in with her sister, her sister’s husband (Shamai Korngold) and their child (Judith) who live in a small duplex located in West Denver and enrolls at North High School on February 17. She listens to the heated debates that take place among visitors to the Korngold kitchen on a variety of topics ranging from Yiddish literature, Zionism, anarchism and socialism to women’s suffrage, trade unionism and dialectical materialism. In her autobiography Golda writes, “to the extent that my own future convictions were shaped and given form, and ideas were discarded or accepted by me while I was growing up, those talk-filled nights in Denver played a considerable role.” In a different context, she put it this way, “Denver was a turning point because my real education began. In Denver, life really opened up for me.” As part of her life opening up in Denver, Golda meets and dates Morris Myerson (or Meyerson) who has passion for the arts, music and Golda.
1914: Golda ends her stay at North High School on June 5. Disagreements with her sister lead her to move out on her own and to work. She then reconciles with her parents and plans her return to Milwaukee, though Morris talks of marriage.
1915: Golda is back at North Division High School in Milwaukee and graduates the next year.
1916: After finishing North Division High School, Golda attends Wisconsin State Normal School in Milwaukee with the idea of pursuing a teaching career. While she is vice-president of her class, Goldie Mabowehz (as she is then known) attends the teacher-training institution just for one year. She teaches at a Yiddish school in Milwaukee, organizes protest marches and joins the Poalei Zion (Labor Zionists) organization.
1917: On July 9, Golda’s father Moshe becomes an American citizen (the name on the documents is Morris Mabowehz). Under the law in effect, children, who were under 21, received derivative citizenship or citizenship by descent. On December 24, Golda marries Morris Myerson in her parents’ home. Right after the marriage she travels extensively for Poalei Zion, including stays in Chicago and a trip to Canada. Interestingly, given the derivative citizenship idea, she points out that when trying to go to Canada there was a problem because she had no passport. "Morris wasn’t an American citizen yet,” she writes in her autobiography, “and married women couldn’t take out their own citizenship then. My father’s passport would have helped, but he was still angry with me for going and refused to send it to me.” Details on this matter remain in question.
1918: Golda attends the first convention of the American Jewish Congress. She travels to the Philadelphia meeting as a delegate from Milwaukee. She is the youngest of the delegates there and considers the meeting the start of her political career.
1921: Though Morris is not enthusiastic about leaving America for Palestine, Golda is adamant on this point. After four years of saving for the venture, the Myersons, along with Golda’s sister Sheyna (and her daughter), her old friend Regina and others depart New York on the SS Pocahontas for Naples and then on, by ship and train, to Tel Aviv. It is a difficult journey. She is once again an immigrant. And, after fighting her initial rejection (because she was married and an American), Golda is accepted as a member of Kibbutz Merhavia. She and Morris move to the kibbutz to fulfill Golda’s dream. Though Golda expresses the view that she would be happy to remain on the kibbutz for the rest of her life, Morris does not share this sentiment. They leave after three years. But during her stay, Golda becomes an active member in kibbutz affairs beyond Merhavia.
1924: The Myerson’s first child, Menahem, is born in Tel Aviv. The family moves to Jerusalem.
1925: Golda spends a brief period back at Merhavia with her son.
1926: Golda’s parents move from the U.S. to Israel and her daughter Sara (or Sarah) is born in Jerusalem.
1928: She becomes Secretary of the Women’s Labor Council at the suggestion of David Remez. It is her first public position. Her move back to Tel Aviv, with the children, marks her separation from Morris who remains in Jerusalem and comes to Tel Aviv on weekends. Though they are never divorced and continue to have close ties, they are very different people now following very different paths. Remez continues to be one of the men closely connected to Golda. She never discusses such relationships publicly. But she does discuss her guilt over the time spent away from her children as she emerges as an increasingly public figure, frequently traveling abroad.
1930: Golda is one of the founders of Mapai (the Labor Party of the Land of Israel).
1932: She returns to the United States for an extended period with her children in order to get expert medical treatment for Sarah’s kidney illness and travels extensively for the Pioneer Women’s Organization of America speaking and fund raising.
1934: After returning to Palestine, she is elected to the Executive Committee of Histadrut (the General Federation of Jewish Labor).
1938: Golda is named the “Jewish observer from Palestine” to the International Conference on Refugees in Evian-les-Bains, France. She is disappointed with the conference and tells the press at the end, “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.” Despite raising persecution in Europe, the British, the following year, essentially close Palestine to Jewish immigration.
1940: Though Golda and Morris remain married, the formal break in their marriage occurs. She becomes head of Histadrut’s Political Department and actively involves herself in the struggle against restrictive British policy respecting Jewish immigration to Palestine.
1943: The testimony she gives as a witness at the Sirkin-Richlin arms trial conducted by the British adds to her growing reputation.
1944: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization documents state that her father Moshe (Morris) passes away, though Golda’s autobiography gives the year of his death as 1946.
1946: Golda is appointed acting head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department (when male leaders of the Jewish community are rounded up). She is then named head of that department. The Jewish Agency was the de facto “government” of the Jewish community in Palestine. At this time, refugees headed to Palestine are detained aboard two ships in Italy. They begin a hunger strike. Golda suggests that leaders of the community in Palestine do the same. Though she has recently been in the hospital from a gall-bladder attack, Golda insist on being one of those conducting the public fast. Throughout her career, she has a number of serious medical conditions that she deals with quietly while carrying on with her duties.
1947: She travels to Cyprus with the unenviable task of convincing detained refugees to give first priority to families with children to fill the small quota of Jewish immigrants allowed into Palestine. Golda largely succeeds in this. The United Nations votes to partition Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state and Golda has her first secret meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan.
1948: Golda, again, meets secretly with King Abdullah. She travels to the early May meeting in Amman, Jordan through hostile territory in Arab dress. When Abdullah suggests that there is no hurry to proclaim the state of Israel, she answers, “We have been waiting for 2,000 years. Is that hurrying?” Conflict between Arabs and Jews continues and, on May 14, Israel’s independence is declared. The ceremony takes place in the Tel Aviv Art Museum and Golda Myerson is one of those signing the document. She travels again to America to raise funds. Golda is enormously successful generating pledges of some $50 million. Her talk in Chicago is often referred to as “the speech that made possible a Jewish state.” David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first leader, would comment that when the history of Israel is written it will say, “there was a Jewish woman who got the money to make the state possible.” While in New York, Golda’s taxi is in an accident and she emerges with a badly fractured leg. Golda also arrives in Moscow as Israel’s first minister to the Soviet Union. While she receives much acclaim, she is not happy about leaving Israel at this time. But she writes, “One’s duty was one duty – and it had nothing to do with justice.” This idea of duty is a constant theme throughout her life. When she gets a passport from now independent Israel, according to several sources, she turns back her American passport. She, however, never turns her back on her positive experience with American democracy and freedom.
1949: Golda is elected to the first Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) from the Mapai party which organizes the government. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion invites her to be Deputy Prime Minister. She declines and is named Minister of Labor. Despite her qualifications, there are members of the religious block who are not happy with the appointment of a woman to the position. As Labor Minister, she creates large infrastructure projects (including housing) to deal with the absorption of the vast number of new immigrants to Israel. She is also involved in initiating social legislation such as the National Insurance Act.
1951: Her husband Morris dies of a heart attack in Golda’s Tel Aviv apartment while she is out of the country. She flies back for the funeral. Her mother Blume (or Bluma) also passes away.
1955: She is asked by Ben-Gurion to run for mayor of Tel Aviv. Though reluctant, she takes on the task. She does not receive a majority vote from the city council. Her selection depended on the votes of two men from the religious block and one of them simply refused to support a woman. Golda (who is not particularly religious) continues as Minister of Labor until 1956. Also, Pinchas Lavon resigns as Israel’s Defence Minister. The entire Lavon Affair, which starts in 1954 and resurfaces in 1960, has a major impact on Israeli politics and adds to the existing strains between Golda and her mentor Ben-Gurion. Prior to this, Golda looked at Ben-Gurion as a hero. After this and Ben-Gurion’s 1965 split from the Labor party, she has anger over the wounds he causes though still admiring his great achievements.
1956: In line with the idea that Israeli leaders should Hebraicize their names, Golda becomes Golda Meir (which means to illuminate or to burn brightly) rather than Golda Myerson. Since she also spelled her name Meirson, she drops the last part of the name to produce Meir. On her grave, her name in English is given as Golda Meir (Meirson). While the pronunciation of her new name is May-ear many American refer to her as My-ear. She is named to be Israel’s Foreign Minister. She occupies that position during the 1956 Suez crisis (taking charge of the Israeli delegation at the United Nations during debates over Suez) and serves until 1966. Prior to the outbreak of the Suez conflict, she secretly flies to France and is involved in planning the operation. During her tenure as Foreign Minister, Golda greatly expands Israel’s contact with Third World countries especially the sub-Saharan African states with which she believes Jews shared “the memory of centuries of suffering.” Throughout her life, she is particularly proud of her efforts in building these relationships and providing highly effective assistance programs.
1960: When Argentina complains to the Security Council of the United Nations that Israel violated its sovereignty when it captured Adolph Eichmann on its territory and brought him to Israel for trial, Golda addresses the Council with a powerful speech on the Holocaust. The Council decides that an expression of regret by Israel is sufficient and endorses the idea of bringing the wanted Nazi to trial.
1963: She is diagnosed with cancer (lymphoma).
1965: Expressing the need “to recharge” her emotional batteries and facing on-going health problems, Golda says she is ready to retire and leave the government. She declines Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s offer to become Deputy Prime Minister.
1966: Though retaining her seat in the Knesset, Golda leaves her position as Foreign Minister. Her retirement, however, is short lived. She becomes the Secretary-General of her party, Mapai, in order to help bring the various fragments of the Labor movement together in a unified Labor party alliance/alignment. “It was the one appeal,” she writes, “that I couldn’t turn down.”
1967: The Six-Day War takes place in June. Golda is not in the government at the time and the war shatters the relationships she had developed with African and other Third World nations.
1968: She leaves her position as party Secretary-General and the military exchanges with Egypt across the Suez, called the War of Attrition, begin.
1969: Early in the year, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol dies. There is serious disagreement over his successor. Given the struggle between Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan for the position, Golda is seen as the only person who can hold things together. Faced with the view that “Golda must come back,” she accepts the nomination for the post by the central committee of her party on March 7 and becomes Prime Minister on March 17, seven weeks before her 71st birthday. She is the fourth person to hold the position and she remains in office for just over five years. Her early years are marked by enormously high approval ratings.
1970: A cease-fire takes place in the War of Attrition with Egypt. Golda also begins a series of meeting with King Hussein of Jordan. A little later, there is talk as well of a meeting with President Sadat of Egypt, but nothing materializes. A terrorist attack on a school bus near Avivim leads to the death of nine children and three adults.
1971: She becomes only the second woman from outside the U.S. to be at the top of the list of the most admired woman in America compiled by the Gallup poll. She repeats this achievement in 1973 and 1974.
1972: Golda is elected Deputy Chairman of the worldwide Socialist International; and, as Prime Minister, she faces the September massacre of 11 Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics. After considering alternative responses, she orders the creation of assassination teams to hunt down the perpetrators who belong to the Black September movement. The effort creates its own controversies. Before the Munich attack, terrorists also kill 27 people at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv. Her older sister Sheyna, who was such an influence on Golda, dies.
1973: She announces that she will retire in October following the elections. She says in an interview, “Once they’re over, goodbye.” But on October 6, the Yom Kippur War begins. Change is put aside. The war has an enormous impact on Golda. On the one hand, she could never quite forgive herself for not listening to her heart (her intuition) concerning a possible attack She was, however, informed by military and intelligence sources that no attack was imminent. Though hesitant, she listens to that advice. Once it was clear that an attack would take place almost immediately, she supports significant mobilization while, at the same time, resisting the idea of attacking first. During the conflict, Golda also used great skill in generating desperately needed arms shipments from the U.S. Though her government appears to have discussed the possible use of nuclear weapons during the worst moments of the war, Golda, herself, was not one to panic, as were some others around her. Her determination, composure, strength and common sense proved valuable in the end. The Arab oil embargo follows the conflict. After the war, the Agranat Commission (set up to investigate Israel’s lack of preparedness) praised her conduct during the fight. One Commission member was impressed because “she carried the full burden. There was no attempt to shove responsibility onto someone else. She answered every one of our questions in dignity…It was Golda at her toughest, not stooping.” But the damage had been done. Earlier in the year, before the war, Golda was flying to Italy when Israeli agents discovered and stopped (virtually at the last minute) an effort to bring down her plane with surface-to-air missiles. Additionally, her cancer spreads and Golda has an intensive radiation-treatment schedule that she keeps secret while she carries on her duties. And she is named the most admired woman in England. At the end of the year, the delayed elections take place.
1974: The controversy over the war continues; and, while Golda is returned to office, she struggles to form a government and is ready to move back to private life. On April 10, she tells party leaders she has had enough. She stays on, heading a caretaker government, until leaving office on June 4. She also ends her 25-year stay in the Knesset. Before Golda leaves office, a terrorist attack on a school in Ma’alot kills 21 children, while another attack at Kiryat Shmona kills 19 people including nine children.
1975: Golda, now a private citizen, publishes her autobiography My Life. During negotiations with British publisher George Weidenfeld, she says, “I will not write about my private life. I will not settle political or other scores with anyone. I will not take advantage of the high office have just left, or of anything I learned there.” While the book remained well within those guidelines, it still became an international best seller. Rinna Samuels works with her on writing the book. And, according to publisher Weidenfeld, during the process of producing the book Golda would say, “I need this book like a hole in my head. I hate indiscretion. I hate memoirs.”
1977: The play Golda by William Gibson opens on Broadway at the Morosco Theater with Ann Bancroft playing Golda Meir. Golda attends the play and is not overly happy with the results. While in America, she is called back to be in Jerusalem for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat historic visit. Later, Sadat would say he preferred to deal with Golda. In his words, “The Old Lady. She has guts, really.”
1978: She is hospitalized in Jerusalem’s Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center’s Hematology Ward and falls into a coma on December 7. On December 8, Golda Meir dies at 4:30 p.m. On December 12, she is buried at Mount Herzl National Cemetery in Jerusalem. There are numerous tributes to her from across the globe. Yet, as much as anything said, Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci’s words, written after a 1972 interview with Golda, ring true. While not at all pro-Israel in her sentiments, the journalist writes “even if one is not at all in agreement with her, with her politics, her ideology, one cannot help but respect her, admire her, even love her.” A decade earlier, in the Foreword to a book of Golda’s papers, Eleanor Roosevelt also described Meir as “a woman one cannot help but deeply respect and deeply love.” Such was the nature of her unique life.
1981: Golda’s younger sister Clara (Stern) dies.
1982: Ingrid Bergman plays Golda in a two-part, four-hour television movie by Paramount Pictures titled A Woman Called Golda. Leonard Nimoy plays her husband Morris and Judy Davis plays Golda as a young woman.
2001: Renee Taylor, playing the role of Golda, begins a one-woman touring show called An Evening with Golda Meir.
2002: William Gibson’s new play Golda’s Balcony is performed in Massachusetts. Unlike his earlier work, this has only one person on stage. Annette Miller plays Golda. 2003: Golda’s Balcony opens in New York with Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir. Following a highly acclaimed run off-Broadway, the play moves to the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway.
For additional discussions of Golda Meir, you can also see other articles on the Center’s website (www.goldameircenter.org) by Norman Provizer. The first is “In the Shadow of Washington: Golda Meir, Duty and the Call to Power” (which also appears in Kevin Cope, editor, George Washington In and As Culture, New York: AMS Press, 2001). The second is “The Return of Golda Meir” (published as “Golda Meir 25 Years Later: Unique on Stage, Unique in Life” in the May 16, 2003 issue of the Intermountain Jewish News). The Golda Meir Center for Political Leadership will continue to provide additional articles and information about Meir’s leadership, including debates concerning her policies on Arab-Israeli relations and the Palestinians, as well as domestic Israeli affairs and gender issues.
Golda often spoke, after all, with deep conviction about the need for peace, while pursuing hard-line policies based on commonly held perceptions of security. She could be intransigent and compromising, hard-nosed and prudent. And, while clearly shaped by ideas, she could tell a friend in 1948, “The thing that mattered most in my life was that if a thing has to be done, you don’t waste time with theories and debates. You just do it.” Those words were spoken decades before Nike commercials were born.