(Photo: Marion S. Trikosko/Wikimedia Commons)

Golda Meir: from Failure to Heroism


Oriana Fallaci, an Italian journalist famed for her rigorous, unyielding interviews of world leaders, left her first meeting with Golda Meir in despair. “What am I to do with a woman like that? She reminds me so much of my mother – the same gray curly hair, her tired and wrinkled face, that sweet and energetic look.” In a recent press conference for the upcoming biopic, Golda, actress Helen Mirren called Meir “one of the most extraordinary characters I’ve ever played,” noting “…she was perfectly happy to toddle around in the kitchen making everyone coffee and playing the grandmotherly role. It’s a very different attitude to power… but it’s still immense power.” Still, Golda’s empathy and amiability should not be confused with weakness. “I defy anyone to argue that Zionism is not utterly incompatible with pessimism,” Golda wrote in her memoir. Her relentless determination, coupled with her care and devotion for Israel and its citizens, shaped Golda into a woman who was, in the words of Yehuda Avner, “an epic embodiment of true legends and legendary truths.”

Golda Meir made Aliyah from Milwaukee in 1920 and became increasingly involved in political affairs. In 1948, she flew to the US and defied everyone’s expectations by singlehandedly stirring the hearts of American Jewry with her powerful rhetoric, returning to Israel with fifty million dollars – double the amount hoped for. When she was voted in as prime minister after the sudden death of Levi Eshkol in 1969 – after serving as Israel’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, as Labour Minister, Foreign Minister and Secretary-General of the Labour Party – she buried her face in her hands and cried. “I had planned to come to Palestine, to go to [Kibbutz] Merhavia, to be active in the Labour movement,” she wrote. “But the position I was now to occupy? Never. I only knew that now I would have to make decisions every day that would affect the lives of millions of people.”

The Yom Kippur War broke out under Golda’s watch, taking the lives of over 2,500 Israeli soldiers, and was, in Golda’s own words, “a near disaster.” Heavily criticized for her failure to mobilize troops early enough – despite having acted on the assurances of military intelligence – she resigned from her position after the war and went into retirement. Golda was exonerated by the official commission of enquiry after the war’s end, which praised her for her wisdom, common-sense and speedy decision making. The shrewd foresight she displayed in rejecting the idea of a pre-emptive strike (and the warm relationship she had earlier cultivated with Richard Nixon) allowed for an invaluable airlift of planes and weapons from America that steered the course of victory decisively in Israel’s favor. During the war, she barely left her office, and stayed true to the lesson she learned during the desperate years prior to Israel’s independence: “One can always push oneself a little bit beyond what only yesterday was thought to be the absolute limit of one’s endurance.”

Avner movingly describes Meir’s Sukkot visit to soldiers attempting to celebrate the holiday on a desolate battlefield. She talked to them with the “countenance of a concerned grandmother… [O]n that Sukkot day, this indefatigable and implacable old woman represented the very essence of Jewish self-defense; she was the fervent agent of the view that it was infinitely preferable to deal with power’s confounding implications than to be powerless again.” Her stoic leadership steered Israel to victory at a time when it faced the greatest threat to its existence. Yet for Golda herself, none of this mattered. “It matters only that I, who was so accustomed to making decisions – and who did make them throughout the war – failed to make that one decision [insist on an earlier call-up]. I shall live with that terrible knowledge for the rest of my life. I will never again be the person I was before the Yom Kippur War.”

Later in life, she visited her old school in Milwaukee. She told students that far more important than deciding on their career was deciding the way they want to live: “If you are going to be honest with yourself and honest with your friends, if you are going to get involved with causes that are good for others, not only for yourselves, then it seems to me that that is sufficient, and maybe what you will be is only a matter of chance.” Golda Meir became the great leader that she was precisely because she did not seek out power. Her “immense power” lay in her rejection of power’s trappings, in her empathy, her idealism and her tireless action on behalf of her country and its citizens.


Odelia Glausiusz recently moved to Jerusalem where she works as a freelance writer and content curator.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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