The Female of the Species (1898)
In some instances a single name is intricately associated with a country: Cleopatra with ancient Egypt, Marie Antoinette with France, Victoria with England. The same situation holds true for a nation born in the 20th century that will forever be associated with a force of nature who refused to be defined by her sex or by her age.
A stranger-than-fiction life began with Golda Mabovitch, born in Kiev, in the Russian Empire. Her first memory was of her father, Moshe, nailing boards over the front door during rumor of an imminent pogrom. In addition to the anti-Semitism was poverty; her parents sometimes gave her food to her younger sister Zipke; older sister Sheyna often fainted from hunger. Golda remembered, “I was always a little too cold outside and a little too empty inside.”
In 1906 the family immigrated to the United States where Mr. Mabovitch spent three years saving for shifskarte (the steamship fare.) When he could find employment, he worked as a carpenter; his wife started a dairy store, the bane of Golda’s life. At age 8 she had to work there while her mother bought supplies at the market. Humiliated, she arrived late to school every morning.
At age 11, to raise money for classroom textbooks, Golda organized her first public meeting and delivered her first public speech. A few years later mother Bluma and daughter Golda got into a terrible fight when Golda announced she wanted to become a teacher. This decision did not sit well with her parents as a Wisconsin law did not allow teachers to be married, and they feared their daughter’s destiny would be that of an old maid. Desperate not to become the wife of Mr. Goodman who was twice her age the 14-year-old fled to Denver where Sheyna-a fiery revolutionary-lived. Listening to the young socialists who congregated at her sister’s home solidified her belief in Zionism. After a sibling argument, the 16-year-old Golda moved out with friends and started a job measuring skirt linings. In later years she found herself habitually glancing at hems. Her father poured on the guilt when he wrote that if she valued her mother’s life, she would return to Milwaukee. The prodigal daughter returned home where she worked in her choice of profession. After she heard of attacks on Jews in the Ukraine and Poland, Golda organized a protest march. She turned the Mabovitch home into a Mecca for visitors from Palestine. She recalled, “I knew that I was not going to be a parlor Zionist.”
In 1917 Miss Mabovitch met Morris Myerson, a poetry-loving sign-painter, fellow émigré from Russia. They started dating although they had little in common other than a mutual love of classical music. At age 19, when Morris agreed to be part of the third Aliyah, (wave of immigration to Palestine) she became Mrs. Myerson. In 1921 the couple sailed on the Pocahontas to their second adopted country.
The newlyweds settled in Tel Aviv and joined the Kibbutz Merhavia whose name translates to “God’s wide spaces,” situated a few miles south of Nazareth. The members of the commune grudgingly accepted them, and Golda felt they only agreed because of her phonograph and records. Following disagreements with the other members, she realized Merhavia would gladly have “accepted the dowry without the bride.” Golda raised chickens, worked the land, and studied Hebrew, a language she never felt comfortable in conversing. Regarding her new homeland, she echoed her compatriots’ complaint against Moses with the statement, “He dragged us 40 years through the desert to bring us to the one place in the Middle East where there was no oil.” Although the kibbutz was in a malaria-ridden area and the work difficult, she embraced her new country. The frail Morris did not share her enthusiasm and they moved to Jerusalem where she gave birth to son Menachem and daughter Sarah. Golda admitted the four years they stayed in the capital were grueling as the family could barely subsist on Morris’s income as a bookkeeper. Mrs. Myerson did laundry in exchange for Menachem’s tuition. In 1928 Golda, driven to work outside the confines of home, became the secretary of the women’s labor council of Histadrut, supervising the vocational training of immigrant girls. She put in such long hours Menachem and Sarah were happy when their mother had one of her regular migraine headaches as it meant she would be home. Golda’s less than maternal nature became manifest when she later insisted that one of her grandchildren, born with mild Down’s syndrome, be sent to an institution.
Golda had accepted her position knowing it meant frequent travel and that her absences would put a strain on her marriage that was already on the rocks. Not willing to live a lie, with son and daughter in tow, she moved to a tiny apartment and slept on the living room couch. When not making speeches, working as a laundress, or looking after her family, Golda embarked on affairs, sometimes juggling two lovers at once. The Myersons were still officially married when Morris died six years later. Until the day she passed away, Golda kept a photograph of herself and her husband on her night table.
Despite Golda’s lasting affection for her husband and her passion for her romantic liaisons, her greatest love affair was for her spiritual homeland. After the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine approved the establishment of a Jewish state, the Arab states refused to accept the decision. The Jews realized war was imminent and that they would need arms and money. Golda-few now bothered to use her surname-left for America and returned with $50 million. David Ben-Gurion remarked, ‘She was the Jewish woman who got the money which made the state possible.” Part of her success stemmed from her powerful oratory. As Golda spoke her diminutive stature receded and her audience was left with the image of an imposing woman who radiated strength. When she became Prime Minister of the country she had helped birth and spoke in front of thousands, it seemed she was talking in her living room to a gathering of intimates.
On her return she undertook the diplomatic political negotiations with King Abdullah of Transjordan. Disguising herself as an Arab woman, she travelled to Amman to urge him to keep his promise to her not to join other Arab leaders in an attack. He asked her not to hurry the proclamation of a state, “We have been waiting for 2,000 years,” she replied. “Is that hurrying?” On May 14th, 1948, she was one of 25 signers of Israel’s independence, a woman among Israel’s founding fathers. Golda remembered that after affixing her signature to the document, she wept. By May 15, Israel was under attack by Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Iraq. The 50-year-old Golda showed her mettle when she dug in her orthopedic heels. Bearing what was in effect Israel’s first passport, Mrs. Meir returned to the United States to raise more money. Implacable in her condemnation of those who threatened the existence of Israel, she espoused her contempt, “The Arabs have become so rich they can buy anything-even anti-Semitism.”
Bitten by the political bug, Golda became the Minister of Labor; when asked if she felt handicapped at being a woman minister, she replied, “I don’t know. I’ve never tried to be a man.” She continued in this position until 1956 when she became the Foreign Minister and served under Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. A man of strong ideas-he was the one who had prevailed on Golda Myerson to change her name to the Hebrew equivalent Meir - called her the only man in his Cabinet. In this capacity she put in 18-hour days; she was what the Israelis call a bitzuist-a doer. In 1969 the Labor Party selected her as its candidate for Prime Minister. That was not exactly the retirement she had in mind- “Being 70 is not a sin,” she said, “It’s not a joy either.” Its decision sent seismic shock throughout the country. She looked like a chain-smoking grandmother with a gray bun, stout frame, and Midwestern accent. Golda accepted the nomination thereby traversing the improbable road from pogrom to Prime Minister. Golda would have need of perseverance as her tenure coincided with the Palestinian movement embracing terrorism, hijacking planes, and murdering Olympic athletes.
In 1973, Meir was upset when she did not hear from the Vatican about her plea to help broker a peace; this silence was not surprising as His Holiness had never recognized the legitimacy of Israel. Undaunted, Golda flew to meet Pope Paul VI. “Before we went to the audience,” she recalled, ‘I said to our people: ‘Listen, what’s going on here?’ Me, the daughter of Moshe Mabovitch the carpenter, going to meet the Pope of the Catholics?’ So one of our people said to me, ‘Just a moment, Golda, carpentry is a very respectable profession around here.’” After the head of the Church told her the Jews should be more merciful to the Palestinians, Golda responded, “Your Holiness, do you know what my earliest memory is? A pogrom in Kiev. When we were merciful and when we had no homeland and when we were weak, we were led to the gas chambers.” Of the historic meeting, Golda recalled there were moments of tension-no doubt. She stated of her interior turmoil, “I felt that I was saying what I was saying to the man of the cross, who heads the church whose symbol is the cross, under which Jews were killed for generations........’’ Meir’s position knew no gray area; the situation boiled down to them or us. Her hardline stance was after the Diaspora, the Inquisition, the pogroms, and the Holocaust the world owned the Jews their ancestral homeland.
In 1974, at age 76, Mrs. Meir relinquished the rein of government to Yitzhak Rubin, telling her party she no longer had the stamina to carry the heavy mantle of leadership. Surprisingly, towards the end of her life, the powerhouse revealed she was still nursing guilt about the years during which she neglected her children in her drive to be a mother to her nation. Her mea culpa, “There is a type of woman who does not let her husband narrow her horizons. Despite the place her children and family fill in her life, her nature demands something more; she cannot divorce herself from the larger social life. For such a woman there is no rest.”
Rest finally came for Golda in 1978 when she passed away in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital at age 80. In announcing her death, hospital officials disclosed one of Israel’s best-kept secrets; she had been suffering from cancer since the late 1960s as she was leading Israel through its 1973 war. Ms. Meir did not permit disclosure of her illness even at the end. Ironically, death came for Golda with Israel on the brink of peace with Egypt, a goal she had sought for almost six decades of a Sisyphean struggle. In 1974 she stated, “Someday peace will come but I doubt that I will still be here to see it.” However, Golda came closer to realizing her dream than she had expected. In honor of her selfless devotion the government laid their own iron lady to rest near the visionary of Zionism, Theodor Herzl.
Golda had always downplayed her femininity, perhaps a necessary tactic to scale the ranks in a patriarchy. And yet she was at her core a mother lion who proved the truth of Kipling’s words, “The female of the species is more deadly than the male.”