With former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir
For five years, from 1969 to 1974, Golda Meir held one of the toughest jobs in the world, as Prime Minister of Israel. Her craggy, grandmotherly features dominated news reports around the world. That was the culmination of a career devoted to Zionism, the establishment of a secure Jewish homeland. When she resigned in April 1974, after a debate within her Labor Party over responsibility for Israel’s initial setbacks in the October 1973 war, Meir quickly retired from the world stage. Her autobiography, My Life, published in 1975, was a best seller, but she has persistently refused to grant interviews because they could take up all her time. Last May, the Labor Party that she helped build was defeated at the polls and a right-wing regime led by Prime Minister Menachem Begin came to power, raising concerns in many quarters that war might once again erupt in the Middle East. What follows is a rarity, a post-election interview with the 79-year-old Meir. She spoke with Toronto writer/producer Philip Fleishman in two sessions, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And she told Fleishman this is the final word, the last interview she ever intends to give.
Maclean’s: What has a Jew got to gain by coming to Israel?
Meir: There’s still a lot to do. Any human being, especially young people, can feel that they have contributed something, they have done something, that because of them some place that was a wilderness yesterday is beginning to bloom. And he can be instrumental in absorbing Jews from other countries. We have now become an export country in agriculture. Sometimes I ask myself is this real because during the British mandate and the first few years of the state we had to import everything. We had to ration onions and vegetables and certainly eggs and everything; and we now export. We export fruit and we export vegetables and who are the people that are producing all this? These are people that have come from all over the world, hundreds of thousands of them who have never had any contact with the soil. They never produced anything in agriculture. They were taught how to do it here. There is satisfaction in that certainly. I mean, what does the young person want in his life for satisfaction? Another car? A bigger home? So what? Then when he is about 45 or 50 he can retire. Not everybody becomes a millionaire, by the way. And 1 always wonder what do young people want in their lives.
Maclean’s: Do you think the new generation of Israeli is endowed with the same sort ofZionistic ideal that your generation had? Do you think they are willing to pick up the burden?
Meir: They are doing it. They are doing it. It breaks one’s heart to see that they still have to do it. I don't mind their working hard, developing new areas and we still have a lot of desert and a lot of rocks to take care of. That’s all right. But that they still have to fight in wars. . . . But the way they do it and their heroism and their com-
I’m always surprised that there are still Jews who want to run away from their people
radeship with the soldiers with whom they are fighting and the humanitarian attitude to the Arabs; just seeing over and over again some of these youngsters who come back and they have a double tragedy; they had to shoot and they saw their best friends die in battle.
Maclean’s: What sort of Jew is Israel creating?
Meir: Once upon a time we were agriculturists. We were farmers and we had to fight battles throughout our history. For 2.000 years we were scattered all over. In many, many countries for a long time we were not allowed to buy land, we were not allowed to become farmers. We had to be-
come shopkeepers and money lenders and so on. Now we have come back to our own soil, that’s where our roots are and we’ve come back to what we were.
Maclean’s: What were you trying to accomplish when you first came to Israel in 1921?
Meir: When I came I went to a kibbutz and that’s where I expected to live my life. It was difficult to accustom myself to hard physical labor. The life of a kibbutz at that time was very, very difficult. But my idea was to spend my life there. I’ve always felt sorry that I didn’t.
Maclean’s: You were born in Kiev and you went to Milwaukee and then from Milwaukee you came to Palestine at the age of 23 at a time when only a few people were here.
Meir: About 80,000 Jews were here then. The idea was I was a Zionist. I was a Labor Zionist and since I believed in Zionism, the building up of a Jewish homeland, I couldn’t imagine myself staying in Milwaukee and letting somebody do it, so that was it.
Maclean’s: In your early life, where did that Zionism come from?
Meir: The fact that there should be a solution to the Jewish problem wasn’t an idea that was foreign to me. My home was full of that. My older sister believed in this, so this problem was not something that was sprung on me one morning. I lived with it from childhood.
Maclean’s: What met you in Palestine? Meir: I came by train to Palestine from Egypt. Sand, it was very hot, it was in July and that’s it. We stayed for a while in Tel Aviv, a few months and then we went to the kibbutz.
Maclean’s: You mentioned that it was difficult for women at the time that you first came over to work on the kibbutz.
Meir: Not especially for women. It was difficult for everybody.
Maclean’s: Did you experience any need to be better, to be more than just good, simply because of your sex?
Meir: No. For me personally there was never a problem. To say that the Jews for women have a certain ... that they are supposed to be in the home and so on, that’s true to a large extent but not according to the history of the Jewish people. There were great women in Jewish history. I don’t remember any time except once where being a woman stood in my way, except there are natural limitations. Women give birth to children and I gave birth to two children. Women are more tied to their home when they have children than
men are. Nobody can change it and I, as a woman, wouldn’t want to change it. But I was once heading up the list of my party in the municipality of Tel Aviv and although my party came out first, we didn’t have an outright majority and we had to have the support of other parties in the municipality. The religious party refused to support me because I was a woman. So by one vote I couldn’t become mayor, which didn’t break my heart exactly. I was already a member of the cabinet.
Maclean’s: During the Second World War, the Jews in Palestine were aware of events going on in Europe and yet your hands were tied by the British. Could you talk a little bit about this period?
Meir: That was a very tragic period. We got word of what was happening to Jews in Eastern Europe, in Central Europe, all the countries that were occupied by the Nazis. I don’t know how many we could have saved if there had been a state at that time. And whatever we could do without being a state we did, trying to get some help to them and even sending some of our people to parachute into the various occupied areas behind the lines of the Nazis. Not all of them came back. But then immediately after the war when it was possible to bring people in (there were) the limitations of immigration which were put on us by the British government. That was a cruel thing to do because there were about 250,000 Jews in camps in Germany and Italy. The British Army went into Germany and Italy and immediately worked with them and helped do what they could. But if at that time the mandate had said Jews can come in, as many as want to come in, that would have been the great day. But they had to be brought in illegally. The worst thing is that the British Army, after they had conquered Hitler, felt that this was another war that they were waging, against the illegal boats, and the minute the boats would come into Palestine territorial waters (the British) would get them, most of them.
Maclean’s: Do you think the British were really opposed to Jewish settlement in Palestine simply because they had more to gain from the Arabs?
Meir: Naturally. You can ask yourself now why Israel is not getting the support of the world as it should. Why is there so much consideration with the Arabs who have been waging one war after another against us? You can ask those questions and there is nothing of justice in it, nor was there then. It was simply because the Arabs were more people. They had oil. And that’s it. Maclean’s: Personally, what does an event like the Holocaust mean to you?
Meir: I think what it means to every decent person in the world. A third of our people were killed. Out of 18 million Jews that were in the world before the Second World War, six million were led to gas chambers and buried alive. No Jew, I think, can live with that without feeling that it was really a personal tragedy, not only a national tragedy. Go through Israel or go to the United
States and speak to Jews and almost everybody will tell you, yes, I had a family whether it was in Germany or whether it was in Austria or in Czechoslovakia or in Holland. And you walk around here, in Israel you can see them, people with numbers on their hands and their arms which were stamped by the Nazis and the concentration camps and the ghettos. This isn’t an incident in history that you can forget. I don’t think we should ever forget it. I think that young Jewish generations should know about it.
Maclean’s: What do you think about the Jewish generation living in North America all too ready to say—well, that was the past
We want borders: we are not prepared to depend on anybody else to protect us
generation, 1 am living in the United States now, it’s not my concern?
Meir: I am always surprised that young people ... Look, there’s some that want to run away from the Jewish people. They think they can run away from it. Maclean’s: Do you think they can?
Meir: I don’t. No. Because every once in a while, somebody reminds them that they’re Jewish. I mean there are ridiculous things which really shouldn’t matter. There are certain clubs, country places, country homes and so on that don’t accept Jews. I think that any Jew can live without it. that isn’t the question. But the question is that you are not accepted, not because you are not a nice person; you are not accepted because you are a Jew.
Maclean’s: It’s been speculated that the new Begin government is going to be much less willing to negotiate with the Arabs because it is much more right-wing.
Meir: That’s true to a certain extent and yet
... I didn’t want them to come into power, but I must be honest. I am sure there isn’t one single person among them that wants war. The difference between my party and them is that they think they can have peace in one way and we don’t believe in it. We think we have to compromise in order to get peace.
Maclean’s: Do you think they are going to find that out as they move in the political arena?
Meir: Probably they will see that they can’t have it their way all the time. But they don’t want war. They never said let’s start a war and have territories.
Maclean’s: What sort of thing would the Israeli government consent to in terms of a peace settlement?
Meir: We meet with them and will give up some of the areas. But we do not want territory, that isn’t what we want. We want borders, borders that we can defend ourselves. We are not prepared to depend on anybody to protect us.
Maclean’s: Including the United States. Meir: Including even the United States. In the first place, we don’t want American soldiers or any other soldiers to give their blood for us. That’s our business. In the second place we can’t depend upon anybody to fight for us. What we want is help in arms. Economic aid but not in personnel. And no guarantees. When the time comes they fail.
Maclean’s: What do you mean by that? Meir: People say to us, go back to ’67 borders, there will be international guarantees of these borders. We can’t depend upon it. Maclean’s: Why should the United States have such an investment in Israel?
Meir: I think the people of the United States from the very beginning had sympathy for our effort. People know history, they know where we stemmed from. They know what has happened to us and the fact that we have still remained a people despite everything else is something that intrigues them. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t have in the past, and probably will have in the future, differences of opinion on certain matters. But basically there is a friendship there, and I don’t think any American administration will punish us if we don’t do as they think we should do. After all, it’s our life that is at stake. Maclean’s: Do you think President Carter feels that way when he speaks of needing or wanting a Palestinian homeland?
Meir: I don’t know. I don’t want to say anything against President Carter. I can’t imagine that he would want to do something that would harm Israel but that’s not the problem. There are many people who I am convinced would not want to harm Israel. The difficulty is that they may think at certain times they know what’s good for Israel better than Israel does. All the friendship, we appreciate it but it’s our life that is at stake and after all the decision must be ours.
Maclean’s: Do you ever see a time when there will be peace with the A rabs?
Meir: I am sure there will be. And that will be only when the Arab leaders begin to worry about their own people, not about us because they pay a heavy price for every war. We also pay a price even for winning the war but their price is much heavier and when they begin to worry about their own people and instead of putting all the effort and all the money into war material and means for destruction, they will begin to put that money for reconstruction of their countries and schools and hospitals and so on for their own people, then there must be peace. Butwhenitwillcome. I don'tknow. Maclean’s: Is Israel really in a situation where it’s willing to negotiate?
Meir: We’ve always been willing to negotiate and compromise. We didn’t start the ’67 war. And all these territories that we occupy now were in the hands of the Arab countries. Why did Nasser begin this war when the whole Sinai was his? And the Gaza Strip was his. And the Golan Heights was Syrian. And the Western Bank was Jordanian. So why did they start the war? We didn’t have these territories but they wanted our territory, and that they couldn’t get.
Maclean’s: Do you feel any dis-
appointment that the majority of Jews in the world haven’t flocked to Israel after its creation?
Meir: Look, it would be ridiculous to expect that millions of Jews one bright morning would give up and all of them go to Israel. That happened only in the exodus from Egypt. But 1 expected more, I still expect more Jews to come. If we had about two million more, things would be much better in every way. We would still be a minority among the Arabs in the Middle East, but it would mean a lot to our defense as long as we have to defend ourselves. Maclean’s: I am wondering about the sort of pressures that came to bear when you were prime minister and what were the greatest successes and the greatest failures, the greatest frustrations in that period. The 1973 war, for instance.
Meir: That was a terrible experience because we were taken by surprise because we had begun to believe that the Arabs don't want war anymore. And that's where we fell down. We paid a price for it. The military victory was a fantastic one. Maclean’s: It was one that was robbedfrom you, really, wasn’t it, with the intervention of the super powers that allowed the disentanglement of troops in the desert?
Meir: That was after the war was over. That was after the cease-fire.
Maclean’s: Israel had trapped the 20,000 Egyptian troops.
Meir: It’s evident that they didn’t want their third army destroyed. We could have destroyed them easily. But still we have to also see the other side. We had an airlift from America, we needed it very much. Maclean’s: You say in your book that the reason that you didn ’t strike the first blow in ’73 was because you felt it would undermine receiving aid from the United States.
Meir: Yes. That was the first day of the war even before they began shooting but it was already clear that in a few hours they would begin. I said to my people, look, we are just beginning this war under very bad conditions. We may need help. We may need arms and we may not get it because the excuse will be, well, you started it. Maclean’s: How did you feel when you realized that by delaying the attack it was certainly going to cost Israeli lives?
Meir: It wasn't a nice decision. It was not an easy decision to take but it’s a decision that I have not regretted.
Maclean’s: How do you view yourself in terms of your significance to Israel? Of what
The United Nations doesn’t have a drop of integrity. It doesn’t carry any moral weight
importance do you think you are in the eyes of the people?
Meir: I never gave a thought to this. All I can say is that the people in Israel are good to me. I have many opponents and they have people that are not in love with me, but I have no complaints about the people of Israel as far as their attitude to me is concerned and I have never tried to put myself into history or think, how will I look in history. All I did was try to do my best. It wasn’t always good but it was the best I could but the people are good to me. that’s all I can say. That I have my opponents, political opponents and people that don’t like me, that’s natural. There are some people even that I don’t like.
Maclean’s: How can you come to terms with the United Nations?
Meir: You don't come to terms with them. You ignore them. There were times early in the game wrhen some resolution the United Nations accepted against us. every-
body was worried and every time there was an assembly annually everybody was worrying what was going to happen. Nobody worries about what is happening in the United Nations any more.
Maclean’s: Because it is becoming
Meir: Not ineffectual. It’s an organization with not a drop of integrity. It doesn’t mean a thing. Look, the Lebanese are killing each other for over two years. The Security Council didn't give five minutes to the Lebanese question. Nothing. And (Yasser) Arafat is accepted and speaks at the United Nations with two guns after he killed our children up north, so we don’t worry about the United Nations any more. It doesn’t mean a thing. It doesn’t carry any moral weight. Nothing is dealt with on its merits. So it doesn’t worry anybody. Maclean’s: Can it still affect Israel?
Meir: No. The United Nations, nothing. Except that the Arabs every year get a few resolutions in their favor and some people still think the United Nations is something that is holy. It doesn’t mean anything to us and it doesn't mean anything, I think, to most people in the world. The Communist bloc plus the Moslem bloc, the Arab bloc, they can pass anything. They can pass a resolution now that it’s midnight; so what? Automatically you will get it voted, accepted.
Maclean’s: What do you think the future holds for Israel, what do you think it holds for world Jewry?
Meir: That's a big question. As far as Israel is concerned people will probably still have to struggle. As far as we are concerned we never should have had wars and after the wars we could have immediately made peace and that’s it. It depends upon our neighbors; we always have to be prepared. But eventually I am convinced there will be peace. I don’t know whether I will live to see it. I am sure that my children and my grandchildren will see it. And I hope a few more million Jews will come to Israel. The Jewish people that are outside of Israel should not assimilate and not run away from the Jewish people. Just because it is difficult to be a Jew is no reason to run away from it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of to be a Jew. It’s a great history and a great culture. These are the two things: the strong, safe Israel and the Jewish people, a good part of it, living in Israel. Those that would live outside of Israel will have cultural connections, spiritual connections and will remain Jews. Those are the only things to wish for. A world that is not decent to Jews has never been a decent world, like any country that acquiesced with discrimination against Jews was never a decent country. Hitler started with a program to exterminate all Jews. It didn’t end with that. It affected millions and millions of other people. We’ve always been some kind of barometer. If people are decent to us. they are decent also to others in different ways. If they are not. eventually it affects their own people and the world.