We've written here many times about Golda Meir, Israel's fourth prime minister, in posts based on the ISA's forthcoming commemorative volume on her life. We're happy to announce that the book (in Hebrew) has finally been published and is available from the Archives.
Last week the book was launched by its editor, Dr. Hagai Tsoref, at the Association of Israel Studies conference in Jerusalem. Dr. Tsoref presented Golda's achievements in setting up the welfare state in Israel and the controversy over her role in the Yom Kippur war. But the hottest debate at the session focused on new research by Professor Pnina Lahav of Boston University on gender issues: male attitudes towards Golda as a female leader and whether she was a feminist.
Golda's stand on these issues displays the duality in her character also found in her attitude towards peace with the Arabs and the social gap between the established classes and poor Mizrachi immigrants. On the one hand she was an "Iron Lady", and on the other a sentimental grandmother. She first came to prominence as an activist in the Council of Women Workers of the Histadrut, the General Federation of Labour in Palestine. As one of its joint secretaries, she supported setting up crèches for working mothers in the cities as well as training and financial help for female workers in agricultural settlements, as you can see in this letter which we found in the Lavon Institute Archives.
In 1931 she came to New York, and raised money for these causes while heading the Pioneer Women's organization. Throughout her life she was deeply concerned with social justice and helping poor families and she frequently quarrelled with economic experts who failed to see the human beings behind the numbers of unemployed or those without a roof over their head.
After her return from the US, Golda moved from women's organizations to the national stage and held important positions in the Histadrut, serving as the head of the Political Department from 1941. Her connections with the Labor movement in the US, her command of English and speaking skills helped her to advance to the leadership, together with her determination and devotion to the cause. In 1946, when the British arrested the heads of the Jewish Agency political department, Moshe Shertok (Sharett) and Bernard (Dov) Joseph, Golda as a woman was spared and took their place.
Golda's path to power was also smoothed by her association with powerful men, such as Zalman Shazar, one of the editors of the "Davar" newspaper, and especially with her mentor and lover David Remez, secretary-general of the Labour Federation in the 1930s and later a government minister.
As Minister of Labour between 1949 and 1956 Golda did little or nothing to promote women to positions of influence. It seems that she distanced herself from any identification with women's issues and felt it was not possible to promote special solutions for employing women who could not be sent to labour on public works, like so many of the immigrants
Professor Lahav showed that her appointment as Foreign Minister in 1956 was met with derision from a journalist who did not believe that a woman could fill this post. But most observers believed that she was chosen instead of Moshe Sharett mainly because Ben-Gurion saw her as a loyal lieutenant and fellow hardliner. Sharett himself (who had deliberately given preference to women in the Foreign Service) wrote bitterly in his "Personal Diary" about her agreement to replace him, which he regarded as a stab in the back from a party colleague, and
added that she was unfit for the post, not because of her gender, but because of her lack of formal education.
Golda became Prime Minister in 1969 when she was already 71 years old, and in poor health. She ruled her cabinet with a rod of iron, but was often presented as a homely figure, holding important consultations in her kitchen and shopping for arms in the US with her capacious handbag and sensible "Golda" shoes.
|"!At last, a man as the Prime Minister''|
Caricature by Yosef Bass, 14 November 1969
Golda Meir and President Nixon in Washington, 1 March 1973
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office
Like many of Israel's prime ministers, the end of her career was a tragic one, and she was forced to resign in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war. The documents in the book show Golda's strength and determination during the war, but afterwards she blamed herself for listening to her generals, and not overruling them to order full mobilization of the reserves when warnings of a possible Arab attack arrived. On 10 April 1974 Golda resigned after the publication of the Agranat Report. But she stayed on to complete the
separation of forces agreement with Syria about which we have already written here. Frightening reports were circulating about the Syrians' treatment of the Israeli POWs,
including rumours about torture and murder of some of them. Golda refused to open negotiations with Syria until the Red Cross had visited the prisoners.
Here we see the message she sent to Sadat (and through him to Hafez al-Assad)
on this issue.
Golda's last act as prime minister was the signing of the agreement which brought
the POWs back to Israel.
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