World News

The Golda Years

Michael Clugston December 18 1978
World News

The Golda Years

Michael Clugston December 18 1978

The Golda Years

World News

She was one of the Sabra generation, one of the firstcomers who envisioned an Israeli state where others saw only wind, sand and enemies. She sacrificed her private life, family and comfort to her Zionist dreams, and 48 years after arriving in Palestine she inherited one of the world’s toughest jobs—prime minister of Israel. From that pinnacle, Golda Meir became known to a largely respectful world as a steely-eyed realist with the slow, skeptical smile of long and weighty experience. She also earned a nickname, although she disliked it, as the archetypal Jewish grandmother who would produce a pot of chicken soup at late cabinet meetings.

As her body lay in state last weekend in her second home—the Knesset, Israel’s parliament—it was revealed that for the last decade, including the grinding years as prime minister, she had suffered from leukemia—a secret her doctors were sworn to protect. Her mind was clear and alert until the final few days when viral hepatitis, compounded by jaundice and the cancer, finally won out. As formal delegations from around the world prepared to attend her funeral—Defence Minister Barney Danson heading Canada’s— accolades and epitaphs were expressed by those who had known her as leader, teacher, friend and foe. Egypt’s Presi§ dent Anwar Sadat, who years before « had denounced her as “that old lady,” g called her “an honest foe in the circuma stances of confrontation between us which we all hope have been finished forever.” The two had last parted amicably, in 1977, exchanging small gifts.

Shimon Peres, chairman of the Labor Party for which Meir had worked, called her a “stalwart lioness,” an apt epithet for her Churehillian meld of grit and wit. She did not flinch at dressing down that formidably self-assured statesman, Abba Eban, for breaches of diplomacy, and could just as well approach cabinet disputes by saying, “Let’s be reasonable—do it my way.” Henry Kissinger remembered her as “an idealist without illusions,” expressing her realistic approach to making the Zionist dream come true. She once told Transjordan’s King Abdullah, “You know to what we aspire. If you can offer us nothing more than what you have just done [to rule Israel himself] there will be a war and we will win it.”

Six thousand Jews died in the ensuing battles of 1948.

The city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, remembered her as student, elementaryschool teacher and “our most celebrated international citizen.” Returning to the city in 1969, she recalled: “It was in this city that I learned the first basic things of human behavior . . . the first lessons of freedom and democracy as a Jew.” Those lessons had been years in the coming, and Meir spent the rest of her life seeing that freedom and democracy would supplant those age-old legacies of her race—fear and degradation.

Golda Meir was born Goldie Mabovitz in Kiev in 1898, one of eight children, and from the outset felt the hostility of the old Ukrainian proverb: “It lifts 40

sins from the soul to kill a Jew.” Her first memory, as a trembling child of three, was “the atmosphere in Kiev as a pogrom was brewing. My father nailed planks across the door to barricade us in.” From these beginnings it was a short spiritual step indeed to the heart of her Zionist dream, expressed years later: “We were determined that our children and grandchildren would never know what it means to be defenceless, would never be like my poor father. That’s the real reason for this nation’s [Israel’s] existence.”

Between the cossacks and the credo there were years of school in Milwaukee, where her family moved when Meir was eight. It was as a teen-ager, in Denver, Colorado—listening to the young socialists and Zionists who congregated at her sister’s home—that her political instincts came to life, fleshed out by the

democratie socialist ideas of Eugene Debs. Despite her father’s vow to drag her off the platform “by her braid,” Golda became an eloquent street-corner speaker for the Zionist cause, and joined the Poale Zion, a small, Yiddishspeaking faction of the socialist American Labor Zionist Organization.

She showed her characteristic flair for action when, in 1921, she set sail for Palestine in the third aliyah, or wave of immigration, when there were only 80,000 Jews living there. “Since I believed in Zionism, the building up of a Jewish homeland, I couldn’t imagine myself staying in Milwaukee,” she told Maclean's in a 1977 interview. Less enthusiastic about the move was her husband of four years, Morris Myerson, a Denver sign painter. (She took the name Meir, a Hebraized version of Myerson meaning “illumination,” years after 1928, when the couple separated.)

Their partnership rapidly became a ménage à trois, with Golda’s public life the jealous rival that demanded more and more of her time. To the end she agonized about the two children who

paid so high a price for her political career. “You can get used to anything if you have to, even to feeling perpetually guilty,” she said years later.

After two years at the Kibbutz Merhavia, Morris Myerson decided that he had had enough of picking almonds in the marshy, malaria-infested region, where quinine was served daily with each meal. The family moved to Tel Aviv, where Golda studied Hebrew and Arabic and took a job with the Israel Labor Federation (Histadrut). Her reputation as an able, indefatigable worker soon led to more responsibility.

Her ascendancy had begun at a time when Israel badly needed dedicated workers, for the tiny community faced bitter neighbors despite the League of Nations’ 1920 implementation of the

Balfour Declaration, which supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Arabs were bitterly opposed to the declaration and to Jewish immigration, and outbreaks of violence were particularly common from 1922 to 1929, and again from 1936 until the outbreak of the Second World War.

The 1930s and ’40s were a crucial period, as Israel scrambled toward independence in the face of renewed Arab hostility and British intransigence. Golda Meir fasted in protest for 101 hours and persuaded other leaders to follow suit until the British released the Jewish refugee ship they had delayed in Italy; in 1948 she toured the U.S., collecting $50 million for Israel; and, disguised as an Arab woman, she sneaked into Jordan to meet King Abdullah, but could not allay Arab opposition to the emerging Israeli state.

Her work, and the struggles of her colleagues, paid off when the new nation was proclaimed on May 14,1948. In September, she became Israel’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union, where she ran the embassy like a kibbutz, tak-

ing turns at the dishes with everyone else. She was deeply stirred by the tumultuous welcome given her by 50,000 Soviet Jews when she went to a synagogue on the Jewish New Year—the crowd swarmed around her, as if trying to forget years of Stalinist terror in a celebration of nationalism.

Elected to the first Knesset in 1949, she returned home to the post of minister of labor and social insurance in David Ben-Gurion’s government, a job she held for seven years—“the happy days,” she would say in the mid-American accent she never lost. It was “something to live for,” providing employment and housing for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Romania, Morocco, the Yemen and, of course, from the death camps of Nazi Europe.

Ben-Gurion passed the foreign affairs portfolio to her in 1956 and called her “the only man in my cabinet” when she supported his swift retaliations against Arab attacks. One of her most bitter tasks came with the Suez crisis of

1957 when she had to stand before the United Nations and declare that Israel would follow the great powers’ demand to withdraw her troops after a victorious sweep through the Sinai peninsula.

Golda Meir’s heaviest political burden was yet to come, however. In February, 1969, Levi Eshkol, who had succeeded Ben-Gurion as prime minister in 1963, died of a heart attack, and she accepted the job—but only after long, strong persuasion by her colleagues.

The new prime minister—confirmed

in the 1969 general election—quickly became preoccupied with the tattered, precarious 1967 ceasefire. She visited President Richard Nixon to ask for new armaments, and in 1970 urged her cabinet to accept an American proposal for a limited ceasefire with the United Arab Republic (Egypt).

She was publicly criticized, however, for praising Nixon’s efforts in Southeast Asia in 1969, and a year later for

repudiating direct talks with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Critics claimed she was giving Israel a bad image, to which Meir retorted: “If we have to have a choice between being dead and pitied, and being alive with a bad image, we’d rather be alive and have the bad image.”

Late in 1971, Meir elicited a strong commitment of support from Nixon, so Egypt’s year-end deadline of “peace or war” came and went peacefully even though Cairo’s negotiating demands had not been met. Israeli confidence was further buoyed by successful strikes against Palestinian guerrillas in Syria and Lebanon.

Then came the shocker. Sadat confounded the experts by launching the 1973 Yom Kippur War—closely timed with Syria’s surprise attack—and pushed back the wall of Israeli tanks in the Sinai Peninsula; the clichés of the dauntless Israeli fighters and the dauntable Arabs were smashed for good. The Israelis recovered quickly from their initial setbacks, but the nation was numbed by the high casualties—2,600 dead—and that their vaunted intelligence network had been caught napping.

“We didn’t read our intelligence information right,” said Golda Meir in 1974. However, in 1977 she told Maclean’s: “Even before they began

shooting it was already clear that in a few hours they would begin.” She said

that she delayed getting in the first blow so that her Western allies would not desert her as a warmonger—a decision that cost many Israeli lives. “It wasn’t a nice decision. It was not an easy decision to take; but it’s a decision that I have not regretted.”

The beginnings may have been clouded by confusion, but the result was clear—the war led to Golda Meir’s resignation in 1974. Her Labor Party colleagues demanded the resignation of Defence Minister Moshe Dayan as well, and the backbiting and warring between factions that followed was too much for the 76-year-old leader. She went out with a parting shot at the new generation of politicians: “[In my day] it wasn’t possible to accept a party function and still carry on propaganda against the party. Today, whoever throws stones at the party leadership is considered as being young. For me, movement discipline is a sacred matter.” And then, “I have come to the end of the road. It is beyond my strength to continue carrying the burden.”

The remarkable generation of founding fathers (and mothers) had run its course, the last of “the giants” was gone. And despite Meir’s profound stature, her going was not widely mourned by the new breed of Israelis who found her ways old-fashioned. One comparison making the rounds at the time was, “How would Americans feel if Herbert Hoover were still running the country?”

The old generation was blamed for most of Israel’s ills. After the war prices jumped and services declined, and Meir’s popularity dropped sharply. Her emphasis on foreign policy had left certain domestic problems to fester, such as the dissatisfactions of the Oriental Jews, who complained of being treated as second-class citizens. But for most of her five years as prime minister she was the unquestioned leader, as she opened the way for some Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, strengthened the country’s ties with the U.S. and set up contacts with Jewish communities around the world.

Her strengths . and political instincts—shaped by conflict and the cold threat of the homeland’s obliteration — were those of a fighter, not a diplomat. It was her fate to govern in an age when Jewish factionalism at times seemed as virulent as the enemy the factions had in common. The old, simple, Sabra days were over. She knew that well but in recognizing the fact, like the activist she was, she went too far. “One of the illusions I don’t have is about the important place that I have filled in Israeli history,” she told one interviewer. That may have been one of the least accurate assertions she ever made.

Michael Clugston