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Sep 7, 2023
Share this: Frank Scherschel, Israel GPO Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion during the signing of the Declaration of Independence at the Tel Aviv Museum, May 14, 1948. Frank Scherschel, Israel GPO September 7, 2023 at 11:34 a.m. The new movie Golda depicts former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s day-by-day decisions during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Viewers watch as Golda – played by Helen Mirren – juggles high-stakes diplomacy and brinkmanship over 19 excruciating days which defined her premiership. Israel ultimately won the war but with a terrible loss of life. Here are 11 lesser-known facts about Golda Meir, one of Israel’s most famous founders. Frank Scherschel, Israel GPO Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion during the signing of the Declaration of Independence at the Tel Aviv Museum, May 14, 1948. Frank Scherschel, Israel GPO 1. Golda’s first memory was fearing for her life. Born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1898, Golda spent her first eight years in the shadow of horrific antisemitism there. Her very first memory was of her father Moshe desperately trying to reinforce the entrance to the little house they shared with another Jewish family while a violent mob brayed for blood outside. Golda later described: I can still recall quite distinctly hearing about a pogrom that was to descend upon us….I knew it had something to do with being Jewish and with the rabble that used to surge through town, brandishing knives and huge sticks, screaming ‘Christ-killers’ as they looked for the Jews and who were now going to do terrible things to me and to my family…to this day I remember how scared I was and how angry that all my father could do to protect me was to nail a few planks together while he waited for the hooligans to come. (Quoted in My Life by Golda Meir: 1975 Golda later described that the fear of that terrible night never left her, and helped motivate her to build a Jewish state where Jews could live freely in safety. 2. Her namesake was a Jewish grandma with a will of steel. Golda was named after her great grandmother, who was known for having a will of iron in the family. When Golda’s father Moshe asked her mother Blume to marry him, Blume’s family opposed the match, claiming that Moshe wasn’t accomplished enough for their daughter. Great grandma Golda intervened, firmly telling the family that the only quality that really mattered was being a “mensch” – a quality that described Moshe to a tee. The marriage went ahead. Great grandma Golda had a curious habit: instead of putting sugar in her tea, she flavored it with salt to remind herself of the bitterness of the Diaspora, when Jews were exiled from their homeland in Israel. 3. Her activism began at age 10. Golda Meir’s family migrated to the United States, settling in Milwaukee. When she was ten years old, Golda’s elementary school suddenly announced that instead of using second-hand textbooks, all students had to purchase new books. Golda’s immigrant family – like many impoverished families in her Jewish neighborhood – couldn’t afford the expense. So Golda swung into action, helping to form a student club to raise money for new books. Golda and her friends rented out a hall and put on a show; Golda recited poems in Yiddish for a paying audience. Afterwards, she described that fundraising experience as her first “public work”. Photo by Teddy Brauner/GPO 4. Golda Meir ran away from home. As she grew into a teenager, Golda repeatedly clashed with her parents. They wanted her to marry young, while Golda wanted to focus on higher education. One day, Golda ran away from home and moved in with her older sister Sheyna, who was living in Denver. There, Golda attended high school and met Sheyna’s passionately Zionist friends who used to fill Sheyna’s apartment every evening, debating how they could best bring about the creation of a Jewish state. Her time in Denver changed Golda’s life: she became a feisty political actor, and met her husband, Morris, who was one of the Zionist intellectuals who used to gather in Sheyna’s home. 5. Golda trained as a Milwaukee schoolteacher. Returning to Milwaukee, Golda enrolled in a teacher training college and taught Yiddish in the evenings at a Yiddish language school to Jewish immigrants and their children. She never worked as a teacher and in 1921 moved to the Land of Israel with her husband Morris. The elementary school that Golda Meir attended in Milwaukee still exists and is now known as the Golda Meir School. 6. Golda was one of two women to sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence. On May 14, 1948, Golda Meir became one of the signatories of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. She was one of only two women who signed the document (the other was Rachel Cohen-Kagan, president of WIZO, the Women’s International Zionist Organization). As the declaration founding the new State of Israel was read, Golda later recalled thinking: The State of Israel! My eyes filled with tears, and my hands shook. We had done it. We had brought the Jewish state into existence – and I, Golda Mobovitch Meyerson, had lived to see the day. Whatever happened now, whatever price any of us would have to pay for it, we had re-created the Jewish national home…As Ben-Gurion read, I thought again about my children and the children they would have, how different their lives would be from mine and how different my own life would be from what it had been in the past…” (Quoted in My Life by Golda Meir: 1975) 7. She helped double Israel’s population in just a few years. Between 1949, when Golda Meir was appointed Israel’s Minister of Labor, and by 1951, Israel’s population doubled, surging from 800,000 to 1,600,000 as Jewish refugees poured into Israel from around the world, many from Arab and Middle Eastern countries which in some cases attacked and expelled their centuries-old Jewish communities once Israel was established. As Minister of Labor, Golda was charged with building housing and employment opportunities for these penniless immigrants. It was nearly an impossible task, but Golda never backed down from Israel’s essential promise of providing a home and a haven for every Jew. 8. As ambassador to the USSR, Golda Meir ran her embassy like a kibbutz. Golda Meir was Israel’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union. Representing the Jewish state, she was determined to build a model that would express the essence of her new country. As ambassador, Golda eschewed all luxury and lavish entertainment. She’d lived on a kibbutz when she first moved to the Land of Israel and loved that uniquely Israeli experiment in communal living. In Moscow, she instituted a kibbutz-like structure among Israel’s diplomats. “We would work together,” she later described, “eat together, get the same amount of pocket money and take turns doing whatever chores had to be done.” 9. Golda Meir electrified Soviet Jewry. When she became Israel’s ambassador to the USSR in 1948, Russia’s Jews lived under the constant threat of arrest or murder any time they expressed their Jewish identity. The previous year, Soviet Authorities declared that Yom Kippur was an ordinary working day in Moscow, even though it fell on a Saturday that year, in order to prevent Jews from attending synagogue. Teaching Hebrew was banned; it was even against the law for Soviet Jews to keep Hebrew books in their homes. Soviet officials told Golda Meir that Soviet Jews felt no connection to the State of Israel. On Rosh Hashanah 1948, Golda Meir made her way to the Choral Synagogue as Ambassador of the State of Israel. She didn’t know what to expect, and the scene in front of the synagogue took her breath away. 50,000 of Moscow’s Jews had turned out to see her, the living embodiment of the Jewish homeland. “Within seconds,” Golda later recorded in her memoirs, “they had surrounded me, almost lifting me bodily, almost crushing me, saying my name over and over again.” Deprived of the ability to learn Hebrew, tens of thousands of Jews called out Shalom! “I knew that the Soviet Union had not succeeded in breaking their spirit,” Golda realized; “The Jews had remained Jews.” 10. Despite early Israel’s poverty, Golda Meir insisted they aid Africa. In 1958, Golda Meir was serving as Israel’s Foreign Minister (the sole female foreign minister in the world at that time), and delivered a major pledge to African states: that Israel would help solve problems of food and water security, healthcare, sanitation, economic development, and education. She helped establish MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, which coordinates and funds development projects with African nations to this day. Israeli politician Yehuda Avner was a young aide in the 1950s, and recalled Golda Meir explaining her goals: Golda Meir’s matriarchal features wore an earnest and dedicated expression, and her voice went husky as she avowed, ‘It has fallen to me to carry out Dr. Theodor Herzl’s vision (of founding a Jewish state). Each year, more and more African States are gaining national independence. Like us, their freedom was won only after years of struggle. Like us, they had to fight for their statehood. And like us, nobody handed them their sovereignty on a silver platter… Israel’s national-building experience is uniquely placed to lend a helping hand to the new African States. We have a vast amount of expertise to offer… We are going to send out to the new African states scores, even hundreds, thousands of Israeli experts of every sort – technologists, scientists, doctors, engineers, teachers, agronomists, irrigation experts. They will all have but one task – to unselfishly share their know-how with the African people. (Quoted in The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership by Yehuda Avner: 2010) 11. Golda Meir was the first female leader in the Middle East – and the 4th in the world. When she became Prime Minister of Israel in 1969, Golda Meir was the first female head of state in the Middle East – and only the fourth female national leader in modern history. Her premiership was dominated by the Yom Kippur War, sparked by the coordinated surprise attack on Israel by Syria and Egypt on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Lasting 19 days, the grueling war is shown in searing detail in the movie Golda. Israel repelled the invaders, but at a cost of over 2,700 Israeli lives. For the rest of her life, Golda Meir bitterly regretted her decision not to call up reserve troops sooner. This article is adapted from Portraits of Valor: Remarkable Jewish Women You Should Know by Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D.