Golda Meir

The Zionist Labor leader Golda Meir (1898-1978) served as Israel's foreign minister from 1956 to 1966. In 1969 she became Israel's fourth prime minister.

Golda Meir was born the daughter of Moshe and Bluma Mabovitch in Kiev, Ukraine, on May 3, 1898. She emigrated in 1906 with her family to Milwaukee, Wis. After she attended grammar and high school, she went to the Teachers' Training College in Milwaukee in 1917. In the same year she married Morris Myerson (later she modified her name to Meir). For several years she taught in the local schools and was active in the Labor Zionist party. In 1921 she left for Palestine and joined Kibbutz Merchavia, where after some training she was put in charge of the chicken farm. Because of illness in her family, she moved to Tel Aviv and started to work as treasurer of the Histadruth's Office of Public Works.

From 1928 Golda Meir was the secretary of the Working Women's Council in Palestine, and as such, she was its representative on the executive of the Histadruth. She also represented the council at a number of international labor congresses and was a delegate to its sister organization, the Pioneer Women, in the United States. After 1929 she was elected a delegate to most congresses of the World Zionist Organization. This was the beginning of her Zionist political activity. She was a member of the executive of the Jewish National Council in Palestine and served on the board of directors of a number of the Histadruth mutual aid programs, as well as a number of its industrial affiliates. In 1940 she was appointed head of the political department of the Histadruth. As such, she fought against the British White Paper of 1939 and organized illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine.

When the Palestine Administration interned the leaders of the Jewish Agency on June 29, 1946, Golda Meir was appointed acting head of the Jewish Agency's political department to replace the detained Moshe Shertok-Sharett. She continued in this position until the proclamation of the independence of Israel on May 14, 1948, since, after his release by the British, Shertok-Sharett spent most of his time in the United States. Early in 1948 she visited the United States to organize an emergency fund campaign for Palestine, with very successful results. On May 14 she was, as a member of Israel's Provisional Council of State, among the signers of its declaration of independence.

Golda Meir started her political career in Israel as its minister plenipotentiary to Moscow. During her 6 months' tenure Russian Jewry expressed its pro-Israeli leanings in every possible way and especially during the Jewish high holidays, in spite of the restrictions of 40 years of Russian communism. With her election to the first Israeli Parliament, she returned to Israel and was appointed minister of labor and social insurance. While in this office, she worked to solve the most important internal problems of Israel: housing and employment for the new mass immigration. Still known by her married name, she engineered what became known as the "Myerson Plan," which allowed for the construction of more than 30,000 units of one-room housing. She also oversaw the construction of some 200,000 low-income apartments to house Israel's newly immigrated families.

In 1956, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Meir "the best man" in his cabinet and named her to replace Shertok-Sharett as foreign minister, among the most important government jobs in the nation. It was now, under Ben-Gurion's prodding to have all Israelis bear Hebrew names, that she reluctantly altered her name while keeping it as close as possible to Myerson. In 10 years in this office she established political and economic relations with the majority of the African states. Golda Meir, tired and ill, stepped down as minister of foreign affairs in 1966, but soon after, under pressure of her political party, she agreed to take over the leadership of Israel's Labor party. She succeeded in the next 2 years in reuniting the three main Labor elements: Mapai, Achdut Ha'Avodah, and Rafi. The merger took place on Jan. 2, 1968, and in August she retired from political activity. After the death of Levi Eshkol, to avoid a confrontation between the main rival candidates, Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon, Golda Meir again came out of retirement to assume the post of Israel's prime minister on March 17, 1969.

Though elderly and in faltering health, Meir proved her abilities to the country during her initial nine-month term such that her Labor Party won the 1969 elections. Meir thus gained her own four-year term as prime minister. This period was marked by Meir's efforts to gain United States aid in the form of military and economy assistance. The assurances she won from President Richard Nixon on this helped her and Dayan persuade the Israeli cabinet to agree to a United States proposition for a cease-fire and the opening of peace talks with the United Arab Republic. She sided with Dayan's more radical position that the occupied territories captured during the 1967 war be settled by Israelis, yet she retained the support of moderates who favored trading land for peace. However, in 1973 and 1974, Israel's unpreparedness for the Yom Kippur War brought demands for new leadership. After the 1973 elections, Meir was still able to form a new government, but divisions only increased and on April 10, 1974, she resigned as prime minister.

Even in retirement, Meir remained an important political presence in Israel. She also achieved folk-hero status as one of the first women to head a nation in the modern era. Her autobiography My Life helped cement her place in the public's imagination as the doting grandmother who had risen to greatness in her nation's hour of need. Meir died in Jerusalem on Dec. 8, 1978.

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Further Reading on Golda Meir

See Golda Meir's My Life (1975); Menachem Meir's My Mother: Golda Meir (1983); and Ralph Martin's Golda: The Romantic Years (1988). Marie Syrkin, Golda Meir: Israel's Leader (1969), is a sympathetic biography based on the author's experiences with Zionism and contacts with its leaders. Other biographies are Eliyahu Agress, Golda Meir: Portrait of a Prime Minister (trans. 1969), and Israel and Mary Shenker, eds., As Good as Golda: The Warmth and Wisdom of Israel's Prime Minister (1970).