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Who is Golda Meir?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Golda Meir was the fourth Prime Minister of Israel. She lived from 1898 to 1978, was served in office for five years, between 1969 and 1974. She was known as the Iron Lady, a term that would later be used to describe Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain. To date, Golda Meir is the only woman to have served as Prime Minister of Israel, and was the third female Prime Minister in the world, and the first to reach that position without any family influence.

Golda Meir was born in Kiev, in what is now the Ukraine and at the time was part of the Russian Empire. She left for the United States at the age of eight, and her and her family settled in Wisconsin. From an early age Golda Meir was an organizer and a brilliant woman, organizing fund raisers for her classes and graduating as valedictorian from her high school.

By the time she was 16, Golda Meir had been introduced to Zionism, and became active in the Socialist Zionist movement. Golda Meir was married at 19, and hoped to move soon after to Palestine as part of the early Zionist settlement, but the outbreak of World War I interrupted that plan, and she instead set her energies to fundraising in the United States to support the Zionist movement abroad.

Following the war, in 1921 Golda Meir made her way to Palestine with her husband to join a kibbutz. She was soon appointed the kibbutz’ representative to the Federation of Labor, beginning the more political side of her life. A few years later she was elected secretary of the Working Woman’s Council, and after a few more years she became a part of the Executive Committee, eventually rising to be the head of the Political Department.

In 1938 Golda Meir was the representative from Palestine at the meeting called by President Roosevelt to talk about the Nazi persecution of the Jews. After hearing the prevarication and excuses made by representatives of different governments as to why they couldn’t help the Jews, but expressing their sympathy nonetheless, Golda Meir famously remarked, “ There is only one thing I hope to see before I die and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.”

In the lead up to the state of Israel following the war, Golda Meir played an important role both in negotiations and fund raising. She traveled to the United States to raise money, and raised more than eight times as much as most people expected. She also disguised herself as an Arab woman, only a few days before Israel declared itself a state, to visit the King of Transjordan, to encourage him not to join in with other Arab states should they proclaim war on Israel. He requested that she not hurry to declare a Jewish state, to which Golda Meir famously replied, “We've been waiting for 2,000 years. Is that hurrying?”

Golda Meir was one of the twenty-four signers of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, and was the first ambassador to the Soviet Union. The next year she was elected to the Knesset, and served as the Minister of Labor until 1956. In 1956 she became Foreign Minister, under Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who would later be one of her greatest admirers.

In 1969 Golda Meir was elected Prime Minister of Israel, and she served until 1974. In 1973 intelligence began to appear suggesting Syria was planning an attack on Israel. Input was mixed, as were the recommendations given to Golda Meir. One camp desired a pre-emptive strike on Syria, while the other noted that this would surely alienate the United States, and cut off any chance of military aid Israel might expect. In the end, Golda Meir opted to wait at a high level of preparedness, but not initiate an attack. In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, allegations of mishandling the situation flew from all sides.

Ultimately Meir was cleared of any responsibility for mishandling the situation by a probe, and the party she belonged to won in the elections, but she stepped down anyway, citing a feeling that it was the will of the people. Meir continued to play a part in Israeli politics until her death from cancer in 1978 at the age of 80. She remains one of the most monumental and memorable figures in Israeli history, and an iconic figure in politics throughout the world.

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