Golda Meir

The First Female Prime Minister of Israel

A picture of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir at a London Press Conference. (November 5, 1970). (Photo by Harry Dempster/Express/Getty Images)

Who Was Golda Meir?

Golda Meir's deep commitment to the cause of Zionism determined the course of her life. She moved from Russia to Wisconsin when she was eight; then at age 23, she emigrated to what was then called Palestine with her husband.

Once in Palestine, Golda Meir played key roles in advocating for a Jewish state, including raising money for the cause. When Israel declared independence in 1948, Golda Meir was one of the 25 signers of this historic document.

After serving as Israel’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, minister of labor, and foreign minister, Golda Meir became Israel's fourth prime minister in 1969.

Dates: May 3, 1898 -- December 8, 1978

Also Known As: Golda Mabovitch (born as), Golda Meyerson, "Iron Lady of Israel"

Dates: May 3, 1898 -- December 8, 1978

Golda Meir’s Early Childhood in Russia

Golda Mabovitch (she would later change her surname to Meir in 1956) was born in the Jewish ghetto within Kiev in the Russian Ukraine to Moshe and Blume Mabovitch.

Moshe was a skilled carpenter whose services were in demand, but his wages were not always enough to keep his family fed. This was partly because clients would often refuse to pay him, something Moshe could do nothing about since Jews had no protection under Russian law.

In late 19th century Russia, Czar Nicholas II made life very difficult for the Jewish people. The czar publicly blamed many of Russia's problems on Jews and enacted harsh laws controlling where they could live and when -- even whether -- they could marry.

Mobs of angry Russians often participated in pogroms, which were organized attacks against Jews that included destruction of property, beatings, and murder. Golda's earliest memory was of her father boarding up the windows to defend their home from a violent mob.

By 1903, Golda's father knew that his family was no longer safe in Russia.

He sold his tools to pay for his passage to America by steamship; he then sent for his wife and daughters just over two years later, when he had earned enough money.

A New Life in America

In 1906, Golda, along with her mother (Blume) and sisters (Sheyna and Zipke), began their trip from Kiev to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to join Moshe. Their land journey through Europe included several days crossing Poland, Austria, and Belgium by train, during which they had to use fake passports and bribe a police officer. Then once on board a ship, they suffered through a difficult 14-day journey across the Atlantic.

Once safely ensconced in Milwaukee, eight-year-old Golda was at first overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the bustling city, but soon came to love living there. She was fascinated by the trolleys, skyscrapers, and other novelties, such as ice cream and soft drinks, that she hadn’t experienced back in Russia.

Within weeks of their arrival, Blume started a small grocery store in the front of their house and insisted that Golda open the store every day. It was a duty that Golda resented since it caused her to be chronically late for school. Nevertheless, Golda did well in school, easily learning English and making friends.

There were early signs that Golda Meir was a strong leader. At eleven years old, Golda organized a fundraiser for students who could not afford to buy their textbooks. This event, which included Golda's first foray into public speaking, was a great success. Two years later, Golda Meir graduated from eighth grade, first in her class.

Young Golda Meir Rebels

Golda Meir's parents were proud of her achievements, but considered eighth grade the completion of her education. They believed that a young woman's primary goals were marriage and motherhood. Meir disagreed for she dreamed of becoming a teacher. Defying her parents, she enrolled in a public high school in 1912, paying for her supplies by working various jobs.

Blume tried to force Golda to quit school and began to search for a future husband for the 14-year-old.

Desperate, Meir wrote to her older sister Sheyna, who by then had moved to Denver with her husband. Sheyna convinced her sister to come live with her and sent her money for train fare.

One morning in 1912, Golda Meir left her house, ostensibly headed for school, but instead went to Union Station, where she boarded a train for Denver.

Life in Denver

Although she had hurt her parents deeply, Golda Meir had no regrets about her decision to move to Denver. She attended high school and mingled with members of Denver's Jewish community who met at her sister's apartment. Fellow immigrants, many of them Socialists and anarchists, were among the frequent visitors who came to debate the issues of the day.

Golda Meir listened attentively to discussions about Zionism, a movement whose goal it was to build a Jewish state in Palestine. She admired the passion the Zionists felt for their cause and soon came to adopt their vision of a national homeland for Jews as her own.

Meir found herself drawn to one of the quieter visitors to her sister's home -- soft-spoken 21-year-old Morris Meyerson, a Lithuanian immigrant. The two shyly confessed their love for one another and Meyerson proposed marriage. At 16, Meir was not ready to marry, despite what her parents thought, but promised Meyerson she would one day become his wife.

Golda Meir Returns to Milwaukee

In 1914, Golda Meir received a letter from her father, begging her to return home to Milwaukee; Golda’s mother was ill, apparently partly from the stress of Golda having left home.

Meir honored her parents' wishes, even though it meant leaving Meyerson behind. The couple wrote each other frequently and Meyerson made plans to move to Milwaukee.

Meir's parents had softened somewhat in the interim; this time, they allowed Meir to attend high school. Shortly after graduating in 1916, Meir registered at the Milwaukee Teachers' Training College. During this time, Meir also became involved with the Zionist group Poale Zion, a radical political organization. Full membership in the group required a commitment to emigrate to Palestine.

Meir made the commitment in 1915 that she would one day immigrate to Palestine. She was 17 years old.

World War I and the Balfour Declaration

As World War I progressed, violence against European Jews escalated. Working for the Jewish Relief Society, Meir and her family helped raise money for European war victims. The Mabovitch home also became a gathering place for prominent members of the Jewish community.

In 1917, news arrived from Europe that a wave of deadly pogroms had been carried out against Jews in Poland and the Ukraine. Meir responded by organizing a protest march. The event, well-attended by both Jewish and Christian participants, received national publicity.

More determined than ever to make the Jewish homeland a reality, Meir left school and moved to Chicago to work for the Poale Zion. Meyerson, who had moved to Milwaukee to be with Meir, later joined her in Chicago.

In November 1917, the Zionist cause gained credibility when Great Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, announcing its support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Within weeks, British troops entered Jerusalem and took control of the city from Turkish forces.

Marriage and the Move to Palestine

Passionate about her cause, Golda Meir, now 19 years old, finally agreed to marry Meyerson on the condition that he move with her to Palestine. Although he did not share her zeal for Zionism and didn't want to live in Palestine, Meyerson agreed to go because he loved her.

The couple was married on December 24, 1917 in Milwaukee. Since they didn’t yet have the funds to emigrate, Meir continued her work for the Zionist cause, traveling by train across the United States to organize new chapters of the Poale Zion.

Finally, in the spring of 1921, they had saved enough money for their trip. After bidding a tearful farewell to their families, Meir and Meyerson, accompanied by Meir's sister Sheyna and her two children, set sail from New York in May 1921.

After a grueling two-month voyage, they arrived in Tel Aviv. The city, built in the suburbs of Arab Jaffa, had been founded in 1909 by a group of Jewish families. At the time of Meir's arrival, the population had grown to 15,000.

Life on a Kibbutz

Meir and Meyerson applied to live on Kibbutz Merhavia in northern Palestine, but had difficulty getting accepted. Americans (although Russian-born, Meir was considered American) were believed too "soft" to endure the hard life of working on a kibbutz (a communal farm).

Meir insisted on a trial period and proved the kibbutz committee wrong. She thrived on the hours of hard physical labor, often under primitive conditions. Meyerson, on the other hand, was miserable on the kibbutz.

Admired for her powerful speeches, Meir was chosen by members of her community as their representative at the first kibbutz convention in 1922. Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion, present at the convention, also took notice of Meir's intelligence and competence. She quickly earned a place on the governing committee of her kibbutz.

Meir's rise to leadership in the Zionist movement came to a halt in 1924 when Meyerson contracted malaria. Weakened, he could no longer tolerate the difficult life on the kibbutz. To Meir's great disappointment, they moved back to Tel Aviv.

Parenthood and Domestic Life

Once Meyerson recuperated, he and Meir moved to Jerusalem, where he'd found a job. Meir gave birth to son Menachem in 1924 and daughter Sarah in 1926. Although she loved her family, Golda Meir found the job of caring for children and keeping house very unfulfilling. Meir longed to be involved again in political affairs.

In 1928, Meir ran into a friend in Jerusalem who offered her the position of secretary of the Women's Labor Council for the Histadrut (the Labor Federation for Jewish workers in Palestine). She readily accepted. Meir created a program for teaching women to farm the barren land of Palestine and set up child care that would enable women to work.

Her job required that she travel to the United States and England, leaving her children for weeks at a time. The children missed their mother and wept when she left, while Meir struggled with guilt for leaving them. It was the final blow to her marriage. She and Meyerson became estranged, separating permanently in the late 1930s. They never divorced; Meyerson died in 1951.

When her daughter became seriously ill with kidney disease in 1932, Golda Meir took her (along with son Menachem) to New York City for treatment. During their two years in the U.S., Meir worked as the national secretary of Pioneer Women in America, giving speeches and winning support for the Zionist cause.

World War II and Rebellion

Following Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933, the Nazis began to target Jews -- at first for persecution and later for annihilation. Meir and other Jewish leaders pleaded with heads of state to allow Palestine to accept unlimited numbers of Jews. They received no support for that proposal, nor would any country commit to helping the Jews escape Hitler.

The British in Palestine further tightened restrictions on Jewish immigration in an effort to appease Arab Palestinians, who resented the flood of Jewish immigrants. Meir and other Jewish leaders began a covert resistance movement against the British.

Meir officially served during the war as a liaison between the British and the Jewish population of Palestine. She also worked unofficially to help transport immigrants illegally and to supply resistance fighters in Europe with weapons.

Those refugees who made it out brought shocking news of Hitler's concentration camps. In 1945, near the end of World War II, the Allies liberated many of these camps and found evidence that six million Jews had been killed in the Holocaust.

Still, Britain would not change Palestine's immigration policy. The Jewish underground defense organization, Haganah, began to rebel openly, blowing up railroads throughout the country. Meir and others also rebelled by fasting in protest of British policies.

A New Nation

As violence intensified between British troops and the Haganah, Great Britain turned to the United Nations (U.N.) for help. In August 1947, a special U.N. committee recommended that Great Britain end its presence in Palestine and that the country be divided into an Arab state and a Jewish state. The resolution was endorsed by a majority of U.N. members and adopted in November 1947.

Palestinian Jews accepted the plan, but the Arab League denounced it. Fighting broke out between the two groups, threatening to erupt into full-scale war. Meir and other Jewish leaders realized that their new nation would need money to arm itself. Meir, known for her passionate speeches, traveled to the United States on a fund-raising tour; in just six weeks she raised 50 million dollars for Israel.

Amid growing concerns about an impending attack from Arab nations, Meir undertook a daring meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan in May 1948. In an attempt to convince the king not to join forces with the Arab League in attacking Israel, Meir secretly traveled to Jordan to meet with him, disguised as an Arab woman dressed in traditional robes and with her head and face covered. The dangerous journey unfortunately did not succeed.

On May 14, 1948, British control of Palestine expired. The nation of Israel came into being with the signing of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, with Golda Meir as one of the 25 signers. First to formally recognize Israel was the United States. The next day, armies of neighboring Arab nations attacked Israel in the first of many Arab-Israeli wars. The U.N. called for a truce after two weeks of fighting.

Golda Meir's Rise to the Top

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, appointed Meir as ambassador to the Soviet Union (now Russia) in September 1948. She stayed in the position only six months because the Soviets, who had virtually banned Judaism, were angered by Meir's attempts to inform Russian Jews about current events in Israel.

Meir returned to Israel in March 1949, when Ben-Gurion named her Israel's first minister of labor. Meir accomplished a great deal as labor minister, improving conditions for immigrants and armed forces.

In June 1956, Golda Meir was made foreign minister. At that time, Ben-Gurion requested that all foreign service workers take Hebrew names; thus Golda Meyerson became Golda Meir. (“Meir” means “to illuminate” in Hebrew.)

Meir dealt with many difficult situations as foreign minister, beginning in July 1956, when Egypt seized the Suez Canal. Syria and Jordan joined forces with Egypt in their mission to weaken Israel. Despite a victory for the Israelis in the battle that followed, Israel was forced by the U.N.to return the territories they had gained in the conflict.

In addition to her various positions in the Israeli government, Meir was also a member of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) from 1949 to 1974.

Golda Meir Becomes Prime Minister

In 1965, Meir retired from public life at the age of 67, but had only been gone a few months when she was called back to help mend rifts in the Mapai Party. Meir became secretary general of the party, which later merged into a joint Labor Party.

When Prime Minister Levi Eshkol died suddenly on February 26, 1969, Meir's party appointed her to succeed him as prime minister. Meir's five-year term came during some of the most turbulent years in Middle Eastern history.

She dealt with the repercussions of the Six-Day War (1967), during which Israel re-took the lands gained during the Suez-Sinai war. The Israeli victory led to further conflict with Arab nations and resulted in strained relations with other world leaders. Meir was also in charge of Israel’s response to the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre, in which the Palestinian group called Black September took hostage and then killed eleven members of Israel’s Olympic team.

The End of an Era

Meir worked hard to bring peace to the region throughout her term, but to no avail. Her final downfall came during the Yom Kippur War, when Syrian and Egyptian forces waged a surprise attack on Israel in October 1973.

Israeli casualties were high, leading to a call for Meir's resignation by members of the opposition party, who blamed Meir's government for being unprepared for the attack. Meir was nonetheless re-elected, but chose to resign on April 10, 1974. She published her memoir, My Life, in 1975.

Meir, who had been privately battling lymphatic cancer for 15 years, died on December 8, 1978 at the age of 80. Her dream of a peaceful Middle East has not yet been realized.

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Daniels, Patricia, Contributing Writer. "Golda Meir." ThoughtCo, Jul. 1, 2016, thoughtco.com/golda-meir-1779808. Daniels, Patricia, Contributing Writer. (2016, July 1). Golda Meir. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/golda-meir-1779808 Daniels, Patricia, Contributing Writer. "Golda Meir." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/golda-meir-1779808 (accessed December 11, 2017).