When the newly born state of Israel issued its very first passport in 1948, Golda Meir was the proud recipient.
That was just one of several firsts for the legendary Zionist pioneer. Add “Israel’s first woman prime minister,” “first Israeli ambassador to the USSR” and “first woman foreign minister” to the list.
Meir was Israel’s Iron Lady, the leader of a nation flush with victory in the Six-Day War and, later, of a country traumatized by the Yom Kippur War.
As the play “Golda’s Balcony” makes clear, Meir suffered mightily for her selfless devotion to Zionism.
One theatergoer who saw — and enjoyed — “Golda’s Balcony” is Fred Rosenbaum, Jewish educator and founder of Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica. He caught the show during its long Broadway run.
“I thought it was outstanding,” he says, “and recommend it highly. I have used it in my teaching, reading to the class some of the monologues. It raises key moral questions.”
Questions such as whether to use nuclear weapons during the Yom Kippur War or whether to fire the first shot define not only Meir’s tenure as prime minister but her character as well. As Rosenbaum notes, Meir’s life and career parallel the ascent of the Jewish state and its attending struggles for peace and prosperity.
She was born Golda Mabovitz in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1898, a time when anti-Semitism was at a fever pitch in the old Russian empire. One of her earliest memories is of her father boarding up the house in anticipation of a pogrom.
In 1906, the family relocated to Milwaukee, Wis., where Meir helped out in the family grocery store. By 18, she began working for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, joining the Labor Zionist Organization.
In 1921, she and her husband immigrated to Palestine, where she lived on a kibbutz. In time, she was chosen as a representative at the General Federation of Labor (or Histadrut). In 1928, she was elected secretary of the women’s labor council. This required her to move to Tel Aviv, but her husband stayed in Jerusalem. The two eventually grew apart, but never divorced.
In the 1930s, Meir worked tirelessly to raise money for the future Jewish state. She even made a stop in San Francisco.
“She spoke at Congregation Emanu-El,” says Rosenbaum. “And she raised a huge amount of money. This was no minor thing. In San Francisco, she was able to swing many people to the Zionist cause.”
As independence loomed, Meir took on more responsibility. She negotiated with the British, and along with 24 others, was a signer of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948.
After the War of Independence, Meir was named Israel’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, a momentous homecoming for the former shtetl girl.
“When she arrived, she was mobbed at the Moscow synagogue,” says Rosenbaum. “Fifty-thousand Jews turned out to express their solidarity with the new Jewish state.”
Later she served in the Knesset, and held a variety of posts, including minister of labor and foreign minister under David Ben-Gurion. It was Israel’s venerable founding father who persuaded her to give herself a new Hebrew name. She chose Meir, meaning “to burn brightly.”
After Levi Eshkol died in February 1969, Meir came out of retirement to assume the title of prime minister, a post she held until 1974.
When she took over for Eshkol, Israel was flourishing — having established its military might in the 1967 Six-Day War. But all that changed when combined Arab forces staged a surprise attack on Yom Kippur 1973.
“The war was without question the turning point in her political and personal life,” says Rosenbaum. “It reflected a tragic intelligence blunder. After that, she was deeply depressed. She could never forgive herself. Not that she was the only one to blame.”
According to Rosenbaum, Israel did not anticipate the attack because its military leaders assumed Egypt would deem it suicidal to attack after their loss six years earlier, and that Syria would never attack alone.
“That was the failure,” he says. “Even though it was in almost full view that Egypt was building up tremendous forces, this was assumed to be maneuvers. This was costly because Israel did not mobilize the reserves. So when [Israel] finally mobilized, it took a couple of days, and the Arabs had made gains.”
As prime minister, Meir shouldered much of the blame for that intelligence failure. But Rosenbaum says she deserves credit for a tough decision she made in the first hours of the attack.
“She had to decide whether to do a preemptive strike,” he says. “She could have bombed them on the ground. Most leaders might have done that. She did not because she was wary about jeopardizing the American alliance. She knew Israel’s survival depended on massive military aid from America, and she felt if Israel fired the first shot, this would antagonize Kissinger and Nixon.”
Though Israel suffered terrible losses in the Yom Kippur War (more than 2,000 dead), ultimately the strategic alliance between Israel and the United States improved. Meir’s restraint paid off.
“She took a tremendous gamble,” adds Rosenbaum, “but she was able to get Nixon on her side. In the end, the [military] airlift was a huge component in Israel’s victory. Lives were lost, but many more would have been lost, and Israel’s survival could have been in jeopardy, without this airlift.”
In the play “Golda’s Balcony,” much is made of Meir’s struggle over whether to drop nuclear weapons on Arab capitals. In the first days of the war, Israel was losing, with Syria poised to invade from the north and Egypt making gains from the west. Soviet SAM missiles had downed Israeli fighter planes. Things were not looking good, and Meir pondered the use of nukes.
“This was Golda’s excruciating moral choice,” says Rosenbaum. “It’s a very important lesson in the dilemmas of power. For 2,000 years, Jews were powerless, even in Golda’s lifetime. Now she finds herself making a decision revolving around Jewish power. It became a political choice and an intensely personal choice: ‘Am I going to be the one to use these weapons?’
Of course she opted not to.
Within three weeks, Israel turned the tide, surrounded Egypt’s Third Army and won the war. Meir was returned to power, but she resigned a few months later, in 1974, feeling keenly a loss of popularity.
Golda Meir died of cancer in 1978. Though she remains a respected figure in Israeli history, her centrist views tend to obscure her accomplishments. According to Rosenbaum, she doesn’t arouse the kind of passions one associates with political lightning rods like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin.
But that doesn’t make her less of a heroine to the Jewish people.
“Her life, taken as a whole, has many threads and themes,” says Rosenbaum. “But all revolve around her selflessness and devotion. Her personal life suffered: Her marriage was not good and she didn’t give her children the attention she wished she could have. She was someone who truly gave her life to the Zionist cause.”