“Pure act.” This was how the nineteenth-century essayist Henry Adams famously described Theodore Roosevelt. It’s also a good description of Israel’s first and, so far, only female prime minister, Golda Meir. Beloved abroad and a figure of controversy at home, Meir was one of a handful of political leaders who helped will the Jewish state into existence more than seventy-five years ago. As Deborah Lipstadt makes clear in her new biography, Golda Meir: Israel’s Matriarch, Israel’s Iron Lady was unafraid to speak her mind, come what may.
Lipstadt, a noted historian of the Holocaust and current U.S. envoy for combating antisemitism, faces the formidable task of reconstructing the life, and legacy, of a woman whose public career spanned nearly half a century in a short, one-volume biography.
Born Golda Mabovitch in Kiev in 1898, the future Israeli premier grew up mired in poverty in the Tsarist Russian empire. She had seven siblings, only two of whom survived into adulthood. One of her earliest memories was of her mother taking food from her plate to give to her baby sister. It was an unlikely beginning for someone who would eventually have audiences with American presidents, the Pope, and Hollywood celebrities.
Another early childhood memory, of her father boarding up the windows and doors as part of a feeble attempt to dissuade Russian Cossacks from attacking his Jewish family, would prove to be both enduring and formative. The threatening prospect of pogroms, Lipstadt observes, “shaped Golda’s evolving worldview,” leaving her with “both a conviction that non-Jews could do terrible things to Jews and with memories of the Jews’ ‘impotence.’”
Meir would later write, “I remember how angry I was that all my father could do to protect me was to nail a few planks together while we waited for the hooligans to come.” That sense of powerlessness would haunt her for the rest of her life.
When Golda was five, her father, unable to find work, went to the United States. Golda and her two sisters and mother would follow three years later. The family eventually settled in Milwaukee. Golda’s adolescent years in the U.S. would be key to her future success, leaving her with an understanding of both the English language and the American people, each of which she would use to her advantage.
Golda’s older sister, Sheyna, introduced her to Zionism, the belief in Jewish self-determination. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, facing growing antisemitism, more and more Jews turned to Zionism, with a growing number emigrating to Jerusalem and surrounding areas in the Ottoman Empire. Yet, it was still a minority movement, bereft of support from any of the major powers.
Years later, recalling her time as a young activist enthralled with Zionism, Golda would remember a key lesson: “It isn’t enough to believe in something: you have to have the stamina to meet obstacles and overcome them, to struggle.” Or, as Teddy Roosevelt once put it: “Take action.”
Indeed, Meir’s critics would later charge that she was more of an activist than an intellectual. Lipstadt notes that there’s truth to the critique. Unlike some other founding figures of Zionism, like David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, and Vladimir Jabotinsky, Golda didn’t author philosophical tracts.
Yet, state building requires both dreamers and doers. History is replete with pamphleteers who failed to make their visions a reality. To be more than a theorist of Zionism, Golda knew that she would have to leave the United States for the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland.
In 1917, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, which called for “a national home for the Jewish people” in the Ottoman region often referred to as “Palestine” or “Southern Syria.” The 1920 San Remo Agreement and 1924 Anglo-American Convention further enshrined Jewish territorial claims into international law.
In 1921, Golda emigrated with her husband, Morris Meyerson, and her sister Sheyna to British-ruled Mandatory Palestine. Morris was lukewarm on both Zionism and emigrating. Nor did he share her enthusiasm for the rough living of the kibbutz, the communal farms that dotted the fledgling Jewish state’s landscape. But he went anyway, perhaps the first, but certainly not the last, person that would bend to Golda’s will.
Meir’s gift for public speaking and her intensity of purpose caught the attention of leading figures in the Yishuv, the Jewish community of pre-state Israel. Her talent as a fundraiser, and ability to serve as a key interlocutor with the American Jewish community, made her an invaluable asset to the Histadrut, an umbrella organization of workers in the Yishuv. Golda would grow close to the Histadrut’s leader, David Ben-Gurion, as they agitated for the statehood that the British had seemingly promised but continually delayed.
Lipstadt pays close attention to these years, documenting Meir’s rise in Maipai, the political party dominated by Ben-Gurion. Golda’s ascension was the result of both her oratory and her ability to get things done. But there remained haunting reminders that, for the Jewish people, absent statehood, true power remained out of reach.
Golda served as the Yishuv’s representative during the 1938 Evian Conference, in which powers like the U.S. and U.K., among others, failed to help the numerous Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. “There is only one thing that I hope to see before I die,” she told the press after the conference, “and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.” Regrettably, such hopes were forlorn.
Even after the Holocaust, the British continued to back away from their pledge. The Jews of the Yishuv would have to fight and die for their independence. In 1948, they did just that, after Arab states rejected a U.N. partition plan that would have created two states, one Arab and the other Jewish, out of Mandate Palestine.
Golda served in key cabinet posts during these years, eventually becoming foreign minister of the Jewish state in 1956. Lipstadt pays welcome attention to Golda’s work as a diplomat, and her important role as Israel’s first labor minister, where she was confronted with the Herculean task of integrating a workforce dominated by refugees.
When Ben-Gurion’s successor as prime minister, Levi Eshkol, died in office in 1969, Golda emerged as a natural choice. Hers would be a premiership dominated by conflict and upheaval, perhaps most infamously during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Israel was caught flat-footed by a joint Egyptian-Syrian attack. The Jewish state suffered horrendous losses in the war’s early days before regaining ground and momentum.
Golda’s critics—which she never lacked—have long held her responsible for Israel being caught unaware. Golda’s stubbornness, they also argue, led her to miss potential opportunities for peace with Egypt. But, as Lipstadt rightly notes, this is too simplistic.
Indeed, subsequent decades have shown that Golda’s skepticism on several issues, including the intentions of the U.N., the willingness of Arab states to fully accept Israel, and a final agreement with the Palestinians, was well deserved.
The establishment of Israel was not a case of “if you build it, they will come,” to use a phrase made famous in the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams. Rather, establishing a Jewish state was, quite literally, a fight. It required will and not a little bit of stubbornness to achieve an idea that Jews had clung to for millennia. And, as Deborah Lipstadt makes clear in her even-handed biography, in the final analysis, Israel was fortunate to have both its dreamers and its doers.