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Golda Meir: Biography, Facts, & Accomplishments

British Prime Minister of Israel 1969–1974

By Ayesh Perera, Last Updated: July 08, 2021


Key Facts & Summary
  • Golda Meir was born on the 3rd of May 1898, in Kiev, Ukraine, where her family lived before moving to the U.S. in 1906.
  • She would grow up for the most part in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she attended school and worked at multiple jobs.
  • Young Golda’s brief stay at her sister’s house in Colorado would significantly shape her ideological convictions and future commitment to the Zionist cause.
  • Golda would marry Morris Myerson in 1913, and, several years later, the couple would immigrate and join a kibbutz in Palestine.
  • Golda would play prominent roles in various Jewish political groups, and eventually, sign Israel’s declaration of independence.
  • Golda Myerson would take the Hebrew surname ‘Meir’ after becoming Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1956.
  • During her tenure as Foreign Minister, Meir would play a significant role on Israel’s behalf during the Suez Crisis.
  • Golda Meir became Israel’s fourth prime minister, as well as the first woman to hold the post, on the 17th of March 1969.
  • The Munich Massacre would occur during her premiership, and under Meir’s leadership, Israel would respond with the deadly counterassaults of Spring of Youth and Wrath of God.
  • Though Meir would be cleared of direct responsibility for Israel’s losses during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, her coalition would wane, and Meir would retire from office the following year.
  • Golda Meir is celebrated by many Israelis today as Middle East’s Iron Lady who helped found and defend the Jewish nation against many odds.
Photo of Golda Meir

Youth and first political steps

Golda Mabovitch was born on the 3rd of May 1898, to Moshe Mabovitch and Blume Neiditch in Kiev, Ukraine which, at the time, was part of the Russian empire.

Golda’s father, Moshe, was a carpenter, and her earliest memories involved her father’s responding to imminent pogroms by boarding up the entrance to their house. Golda had seven siblings of whom only two, Sheyna and Tzipke, would survive past childhood.

In 1903, Moshe Mabovitch left for New York City to find work, and then two years later, he moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in search of higher paying employment. There, he found work in a railroad yard. By the following year, he had saved enough money to bring his family to the United States.

In 1906, Blume and the three girls, Golda, Sheyna and Tzipke would begin the trip. Their long and difficult journey involved travelling for several days through Poland, Austria and Belgium, and boarding a ship to cross the Atlantic.

In Milwaukee, Golda’s mother ran a grocery store. Eight-year-old Golda was put in charge whenever her mother left for the market to purchase supplies. From 1906 till 1912, Golda would attend the Fourth Street Grade School (which would later be renamed ‘Golda Meir School’) where she excelled as a leader.

TOP QUESTIONS

Meir was the first woman to serve as Israel’s Prime Minister. She played an instrumental role in founding the nation in 1948 as well as defending it in the 1973 Yom Kippur War when its very survival was threatened.

Golda Meir was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, which at the time, was part of the Russian Empire. When she was around 8 years of age, her family would move to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Meir had to overcome many struggles early on in her life. Her family lived under the constant threat of pogroms in Kyiv before moving to the United States. Meir also prevailed over her parents’ attempt to arrange for her an early marriage, and pursued her education. Additionally, she proved to be a strong leader and an ardent advocate of the Zionist cause since her early years.

She organized a fundraiser to pay for the textbooks of her classmates and established the American Young Sisters Society. Following her graduation as the valedictorian, she enrolled at North Division High School while working part-time at the Milwaukee Public Library and Schuster’s department.

Around this time, Golda’s mother Blume was trying to arrange a marriage for her. However, Golda was determined to pursue her education and become a teacher.

As Blume kept insisting that Golda quit school for marriage, Golda wrote to her sister Sheyna, who was now living with her husband in Denver, Colorado. Sheyna invited Golda over to her place, and sent money for the train ticket. Finally, Golda, without informing her parents, boarded a train and moved to her sister’s house.

At her sister’s place, Golda took part in many intellectual evenings which involved discussions on topics such as literature, Zionism and women’s suffrage. Golda would later remark that these nightly debates significantly shaped her convictions.

While in Denver, she also met her future husband Morris Myerson, a shy 21-year-old immigrant from Lithuania. The two fell in love, and would correspond via letters until their marriage several years later.

In the meantime, Blume was ailing partly due to her daughter’s flight from home. Finally, in 1914, Moshe, Golda’s father, wrote to Golda and managed to convince her to come back home. Following her return to Milwaukee and North Division High School, Golda’s ideological convictions blossomed into vigorous action.

She became an active member of Habonim, a Zionist youth movement, and became an ardent proponent of Socialist Zionism. After graduating from high school, Golda attended the University of Wisconsin (then Wisconsin State Normal School). In 1917, Golda started working at a Yiddish Folks Schule.

During this period, she also cultivated a more intimate acquaintance with the vision of Labor Zionism. In the same year, Golda married Morris, whom she had been dating since 1913, under the precondition that the couple would move to Palestine.

Political Career and the birth of Israel

Golda’s initial plans of making Aliyah were thwarted by the entrance of the United States to WWI. However, once the war was over, in 1921, along with Golda’s sister Sheyna, the couple moved to Palestine and joined a kibbutz.

Golda’s duties in the kibbutz included planting trees, picking almonds, running the kitchen, and working in the chicken coops. Soon her leadership skills became manifest, and Golda was appointed as the representative of the kibbutz to the Histadrut, the General Federation of Labour.

In 1924, Golda and Morris left the kibbutz and settled in Jerusalem where they had their two children, Menachem, a son, and Sarah, a daughter. Golda and Morris would gradually grow apart, and eventually separate. However, they would never divorce.

In 1928, Golda was elected as secretary of the Working Women’s Council (Moetzet HaPoalot). As part of her work, Golda would live in the United States as an emissary from 1932 to 1934. Following her return from the United States, she would join the Executive Committee of the Histadrut, of whose Political Department she would eventually become the head.

Her work for the Histadrut would provide crucial training for her future role in Israeli leadership. In 1938, Golda would attend the Evian conference in France, organized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to address the problem of Austrian and German Jews fleeing persecution by the Nazi government.

Except for the Dominican Republic which promised to accept 100,000 refugees, all the other invited nations, while sympathizing with the plight of the Jews, stated that their countries would not be able to admit any refugees. Much disappointed, Meir would remark that she resolved to ensure that her people “should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.”

In 1946, the British began an operation in Mandatory Palestine, making nearly 2,700 arrests. The ostensive objective of the British raids was to halt the violent activities of radical Jewish groups. The British authorities ended up taking into custody many Jewish leaders including Moshe Sharret, then head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department and later Prime Minister of Israel.

Following Sharrett’s incarceration, Golda became the acting head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department and thereby, the chief negotiator between the British Mandatory authorities and the Jews in Palestine. Golda would lead the Political Department until the establishment of the new nation in 1948.

On the Eve of Israel’s Rebirth

Given the hostility of Arabs to a Jewish state, it was becoming increasingly evident that the survival of a future Jewish nation would require a strong military. The Jewish Agency realized the need to tap into the wallets of American Jews, and dispatched Golda to the United States.

Within merely six weeks she managed to raise $ 50,000,000 so Israel could purchase arms from Europe. Exceedingly impressed by Golda’s success, future Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion would remark that one day, history books would extoll Golda as the “Jewish woman who got the money which made the state possible.”

The end of the British Mandate was fast approaching and a simultaneous attack by the surrounding Arab states on the Jewish nation seemed inevitable. Thus, on the 10th of May 1948, just four days before the Declaration of Independence, Golda travelled under cover to Amman, dressed as an Arab woman, for a clandestine meeting with the Transjordanian King, Abdullah I.

Golda urged the monarch not to join the other Arab nations in attacking the Jews. When Abdullah told her not to hurry in proclaiming the Jewish state, Golda responded: “we’ve been waiting for 2,000 years.”

Political role after the proclamation of the State of Israel

On the 14th of May 1948, the Jewish State declared its independence. Golda was one of two women to sign the declaration. Overwhelmed by awe and joy, she cried afterwards. On the 2nd of September the same year, Golda was appointed by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion as Israel’s ambassador to the Soviet Union.

The relationship between the Soviet Union and Israel was complicated. The Soviets had closed down Jewish religious institutions, banned the study of Hebrew and prohibited the promotion of aliya. On the other hand, the Soviets also saw the state of Israel as a potential instrument to advance Russian interests in the region.

Moreover, for Israel, being able to secure weapons from Eastern Europe was essential. Consequently, both countries sought a mutually beneficial relationship with each other. During her stay in the USSR, Golda celebrated Rosh Hashanah and attended a Yom Kippur service at the Moscow Choral Synagogue.

While in Moscow, thousands of Russian Jews mobbed her on one occasion, cheering and chanting her name. The 10,000-shekel note later issued by the Bank of Israel would bear an image of this crowd on one side and an image of Golda on the other. Golda’s work in the USSR, however, was short-lived.

Her attempts to apprise Russian Jews of events in Israel would provoke the anger of the Soviets, and she would end up returning to Israel in March 1949 to serve as Israel’s first Minister of Labor.

From 1949 to 1956, Golda would serve as the Minister of Labor. During her tenure, she would launch a variety of ambitious projects. She orchestrated the assimilation of immigrants into the nation’s workforce, built houses and apartments, initiated large agricultural and industrial developments, constructed roads and built new schools and houses. Golda also helped develop the National Insurance Act of 1954 which introduced a pension system as well as a maternity benefits program.

Minister of Foreign Affairs

In 1956, Golda was appointed as the Foreign Minister, and would serve in this role until 1966. Upon a request by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion that all members of the foreign service take Hebrew surnames, Golda Meyerson would become Golda Meir; ‘Meir,’ in Hebrew, means illuminate.

The Suez Crisis marked the beginning of Golda Meir’s challenges as Foreign Minister. On the 26th of July 1956, the President of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser violated the 1949 Armistice Agreements as well as the Constantinople Convention of 1888, and decided to nationalize the Suez Canal.

He also prohibited the passage of Israeli ships through the Canal. Israel, France and Britain responded by invading Egypt in late 1956. Their objective was to liberate the Suez Canal and permit navigation for Israel through the Straits of Tiran.

Meir was involved in coordinating and planning with the French, prior to the military invasion. Meir also led the Israeli delegation during the United Nations debates over the Suez Crisis. On the 29th of October 1957, Golda Meir would survive a grenade attack by Moshe Dwek, a supposedly psychologically imbalanced Israeli who was agitated by not being able to procure national insurance for his ailing health.

Meir would be slightly wounded on the foot while Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and Rabbi Haim-Moshe Shapira would incur more serious injuries. During her tenure as Foreign Minister, Meir would make a significant statement at the United Nations following the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958.

Though accused by some of supporting the Nazis and promoting anti-Semitism, the late Pope would be praised by Meir. She would point out that “when fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims.”

In January 1966, Golda Meir would retire from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after being diagnosed with lymphoma. However, she was not yet done with politics. Soon after quitting her role as Minister, she would become the Mapai Party’s secretary-general and side with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in various intraparty conflicts.

Prime Minister Meir

Upon the sudden death of Eshkol on the 26th of February 1969, Golda Meir emerged as the compromise candidate. She became Israel’s fourth prime minister on the 17th of March 1969, and also the first woman to hold the office.

She maintained the coalition formed after the Six-Day War, and led it to an outright victory in the 1969 general election several months later. In one of the best showings for a single political faction in the history of Israel, her coalition secured 56 seats in the Knesset.

During her premiership, Meir would meet with prominent world leaders such as U.S. President Richard Nixon, Pope Paul VI, the German Chancellor Willy Brandt and Romania’s Head of State Nicolae Ceausescu in order to promote peace in the Middle East.

In 1970, Meir agreed to a U.S. peace initiative which called for the ceasing of the War of Attrition between Israel, and Jordan, Egypt, the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) and their allies. However, Egypt would break the cease-fire agreement immediately after it was reached by moving SAM batteries into a forbidden zone.

The Munich Massacre

On the 5th of September 1972, during the Munich Olympics, 8 members of the Palestinian terrorist group called Black September, with logistical support from West German neo-Nazis, entered the Olympic Village building which housed the Israeli athletes.

They killed two Israelis and took nine Israelis hostage. The Palestinian terrorists demanded the release of 234 prisoners from Israeli jails as well as two German insurgents prisoned in West Germany. Meir was outraged. She described the demands “as blackmail of the worst kind,” and called the world to “condemn the unspeakable criminal acts.”

Meir also noted that should Israel “give in, then no Israeli anywhere in the world shall feel that his life is safe.” The terrorist demonstrated their resolve by throwing off the building the dead body of the Israeli Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg. Israel’s immediate response was absolute.

According to Israel’s official policy, there would be no negotiations whatsoever with terrorists under any circumstances. Golda Meir, in the meantime, met with the head of Mossad and the head of the Military Intelligence to discuss the possibility of a rescue operation. Israel was prepared to carry out a daring military operation to save the hostages.

However, the Germans refused Israeli assistance. The German authorities ostensibly agreed to give terrorist safe passage out of Germany while planning on rescuing the hostages during the boarding of the aircraft.

However, when the terrorists arrived at the site, they discovered that the Germans had set a trap. During the ensuing firefight, the terrorist ended up killing all the nine hostages.

Operations Spring of Youth and Wrath of God

Israelis had long looked up to Golda Meir as the mother of the Jewish people. She was now more resolute than ever, to ensure that such a tragedy would never befall her children again.

On the 12th of September, Prime Minister Meir appeared before the Knesset, and vowed to respond in defense of the Israeli people. Israel’s retaliation under the leadership of Meir would go down in history as one of the deadliest counterterrorist assaults.

Under Spring of Youth, Israel would launch a massive air assault targeting terrorist strongholds from northern Jordan to southern Lebanon. The precision of the Israeli airstrikes stunned Israel’s Arab enemies into confusion as well as embarrassment.

Not one of them was aimed at a false target, and almost every airstrike was confirmed to be on an encampment posing a threat to Israel or on Arab guerillas. PLO leaders were paralyzed with fear. Yasser Arafat would not even attend the funerals of the killed men.

While the impact of Spring of Youth was immediate, Operation Wrath of God would become the more famous. Soon after the tragedy, Golda Meir assembled the head of the Israeli intelligence to form a secret team, known as Committee X, headed by General Aharon Yariv.

The team was tasked with assassinating every individual involved in the murder of the athletes. Plausible deniability would be essential. Mossad agents would launch their assassination campaign in Rome on the 16th of October 1972.

As Wael Zwaiter, a PLO representative supposedly involved in the logistical organization of the Munich Massacre, was returning home from work, he would be shot and instantly killed. His body was riddle with exactly eleven bullets, one each for each of the slain Israeli athletes. Mossad operatives would carry out many of these targeted killings on European soil.

Additionally, Israel would run obituaries of the Palestinian militants while they were still alive, and hours before each assassination, would send flowers to the family members of each target. These operations would do much to build Mossad’s feared reputation under Golda Meir.

Black September reacted by attempting to assassinate Meir in Rome with a missile strike on her plane in January 1973. However, their plan did not materialize, and the Mossad operatives managed to capture the terrorists.

The Yom Kippur War

On the 5th of October 1973, Golda Meir received news that the Syrian armed forces were assembling on the Golan Heights. She was alarmed by the situation’s resemblance to the events leading up to the Six-Day War.

However, her advisers asked her not to worry, assuring that they would receive sufficient notice prior to an outbreak of hostilities. Thus, Meir chose not to mobilize Israel’s troops, even though the Knesset had already passed a resolution allowing her to require a call-up of the military.

Nearly six hours before war broke out, General David Elazar would advise Meir to mobilize the army and launch a massive preemptive strike on the Syrian armed forces. However, the Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, convinced that war was unlikely, advised against such a decision.

Eventually, Meir decided to mobilize the troops but decided against a preemptive strike. Realizing Israel’s need for foreign assistance, Meir held that Israel must not be seen as the initiator of a potential conflict.

Meir’s decision not to launch a preemptive strike would later be vindicated by the U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s confirmation that had Israel started the war, the United States would not have aided the Jewish state as it did. War erupted as the Egyptian armed forces crossed the Suez Canal and the cease-fire lines in invading the Sinai Peninsula.

Initially, the situation looked dismal for Israel as the coordination between Egypt and Syria enabled the Arab forces to make substantial gains into Israeli territory. However, soon, Israeli forces managed to push the Syrian forces back to the pre-war lines and halt the Egyptians.

Eventually, in an aggressive counterassault, Israel would launch offensives deep into both Syria and Egypt. Israel shelled the outskirts of Damascus, Syria and crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt. The war ended with a salient military victory for Israel.

However, the shocking reversals which occurred at the outset of the war provoked Israelis to protest against their government. Israel’s want of preparation concerned its population. Consequently, a special commission under the supervision of the President of the Israeli Supreme Court, Shimon Agranat, was assigned to investigate into the conflict.

The commission would clear Golda Meir of any direct responsibility for Israel’s setbacks, and would, in fact, note that she performed “a most important service for the defense of the state” by calling for the “full mobilization of the reserves” amidst a myriad of political considerations. Nonetheless, infighting had weakened her coalition and her influence had waned.

Resignation and Final Years

Golda Meir’s party would win the following election in December 1973. However, Meir resigned on the 10th of April 1974, and published her autobiography the following year. In 1975, she would receive the distinguished Israel Prize for her special contribution to the nation.

When the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew to Israel in 1977, and visited the Knesset, Meir spoke on behalf of the Labor Party. She congratulated Sadat for working for his vision of peace and expressed her hopes of a more tranquil Middle East.

On the 8th of December 1978, Israel’s Iron Lady, Golda Meir, died of lymphatic cancer at the age of 80. She passed away in Jerusalem and was buried on Mount Herzl.

While her vision of a peaceful Middle East has yet to come true, her dream of building a strong Jewish nation capable of defending itself is not far remote from reality.

Cite this Article (Chicago Style)

Perera, A.. "Golda Meir." World History Blog, July 08, 2021. https://www.worldhistoryblog.com/Golda-Meir.html.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Bibliography
  • Adwan, S. et al. (2012). Side by Side. Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine. New York: New York Press. P. 158.
  • Burkett, E. (2008). Golda Meir: The Iron Lady of the Middle East. Gibson Square. ISBN 978-1-906142-13-1.
  • Jewish Virtual Library (no date). Golda Meir. Available from: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/golda-meir13-1.
  • Meir, G. (1976). My Life. Milan: Mondadori