The Golda Meir You Didn’t Know

September 25, 2012  

The Charmer — the Golda Meir you didn’t know

Tough and energetic, but also empathetic and captivating. Though commonly perceived as rigid, Israel’s only woman prime minister to date is revealed as tender and charismatic, having affairs with Zalman Shazar and David Remez simultaneously.
Naama Lansky

During the first days of the Yom Kippur War, Golda Meir smoked 90 cigarettes a day instead of her usual 60. These were more potent cigarettes, with no filter. Together with them, she drank dozens of cups of strong, bitter black coffee. She ate little, and when she got any sleep at all, it was for only minutes at a time. She was 75 years old and had suffered from ill-health for years. Cancer lurked in her blood; aches and pains plagued her exhausted body, so well-versed in disease and hospital stays.

The entire public suffered the shock of the terrible blow that had fallen on the State of Israel on the afternoon of October 6, 1973, as did Golda. She was under terrible mental pressure. Later on, she recalled that she had been close to taking her own life. “On the second day of the war, I decided to kill myself,” she admitted to Brig. Gen. Avner Shalev, who was the bureau chief of the chief of staff, David Elazar (Dado). Her defense minister, Moshe Dayan, saw apocalyptic scenarios and descended into a terrible depression. When he shared the apocalyptic scenarios about the country’s future with Golda, she felt that if they were to come true, her world would be utterly destroyed and there would be no reason for her to go on living.

But Golda fought her despair and kept it from sweeping her away. As always, she was careful to show the world a front of total control and create an atmosphere of confidence in everyone around her. “I can’t imagine a more listening ear, open mind and courageous heart than Golda’s,” Dayan said during the war. Her close friend, Minister Yisrael Galili, described her as having the “force of a fearless combat soldier, with a level head and warm heart.”

When the war ended, Golda succeeded in being elected to the premiership once again, but the populace began to criticize her performance, and the stain on her reputation spread. Above the election victory floated the images of the thousands killed and wounded, the heavy economic and military cost of the war, disappointment and anger.

Among the tens of thousands of people who opposed Golda was Yossi Goldstein, who was studying for his master’s degree at the time. He had served as a paratrooper in the war, been wounded, and now, embittered, saw Golda as the devil. No one was more pleased than he when she withdrew from political life.

“As a historian, I regard Golda with reverence today,” says Goldstein, now a professor. “She was an amazing person, and when I see how she has been demonized, it distresses me terribly. People treat her as the worst prime minister in Israel’s history, and I say that’s not correct. She was excellent. The poison arrows that people shoot at her represent a misguided perception of the results of the war. My students are always amazed when I tell them that except for the War of Independence, the Yom Kippur War was our most splendid victory. It’s a completely amazing victory if we take into account where we were when it started. I don’t accept the idea that it was entirely a fiasco.”

Trusting completely in Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate until the eve of the war, Golda had adopted Dayan’s mantra, that if Egypt even tried to cross the Suez Canal, “we would wipe them out.”

She relied on all the assessments stating that Egypt would not resume fighting against Israel and concentrated on other matters, including the approaching elections. Later on, she regretted not having been more stubborn, not having asked more questions, not having insisted on a wide-scale call-up of the reserves, which could have changed the first, tragic days of the war.

Goldstein says that with all the intelligence Golda received from the defense minister, the chief of staff and the head of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, it is doubtful whether she could have made decisions other than the ones she did. “Beside the prime minister stood the most experienced people the defense establishment had to offer. Their role was to provide assessments, and they failed. What could she do? Think instead of them?

Her job was to ask questions and demand explanations, and the members of the Agranat Commission said unequivocally that she did so.”

Q: But even before the “concept” that Egypt would not start a war, she showed contempt, refusing any hint of a peace initiative that could have prevented the war.

“Golda couldn’t make peace. She was the most loyal representative of Israel’s power-drunk state at the time. To her credit, it must be said that she never deluded anyone into thinking that she believed in the Arabs and believed in peace. It seems that the Yom Kippur War was necessary for creating a dramatic change in public opinion. In any case, I think that even though she made mistakes, Golda won.

“The victory in the Yom Kippur was clearly and unequivocally ours. Our intelligence personnel’s belief that Egypt would not start a war was rational and correct. I don’t want to minimize the extent of the fiasco — intelligence did not take into account the possibility that Egypt would go to war despite its inferiority. But it makes me angry that the intelligence error has been turned into the main thing, and no distinction was made regarding Israel’s great victory. The victory is historical truth.”

Q: How was her performance during the war?

“It was amazing. She was quiet, and didn’t let anything slip through her fingers. She was on top of things all the time, making decisions, approving actions, in a constant state of high alert. Her power was at its most significant in small forums. She called many meetings and told Chief of Staff David Elazar (Dado) and Dayan to report the exact situation to the ministers. All of them were partners, and she made the decisions. The minutes of the meetings show how clear it was to everyone that there was someone up above who was in control of the situation.

“She appeared at every forum and provided a feeling of absolute confidence that we would win, and she did it convincingly. People followed her. The strongest man and the most devoted to security at the time, Moshe Dayan, turned out to be mentally broken. Three times he submitted his resignation and was turned down. But Golda stayed as strong as steel.”

An American girl

The more Goldstein went through the material, the more he saw the image of a woman who said what she meant. Direct, tough, energetic and firm, but soft too, adaptable and empathetic. Modest and captivating. Unlike the prevailing view of her — that she was conservative to a fault, not bright, dogmatic, masculine and racist — a different sort of woman took shape: well-dressed, feminist, smart, charismatic and self-confident. A woman who knew how to charm and enrapture those around her.

“I think that Ben-Gurion was the first to really see her good qualities when he appointed her foreign minister instead of Moshe Sharett,” Goldstein says. “He chose her out of everyone. Sharett writes in his diaries that she didn’t know how to write, minimizes her worth and treats her like an uneducated person of limited intelligence. But Ben-Gurion did not agree with him at all, and saw Golda as head and shoulders above everyone.

“On May 17, 1948, three days after independence was declared, David Ben-Gurion said to Golda, ‘Fly to America. We have no money to keep on fighting.’ He hoped that she would raise five million dollars. She came back with fifty million in suitcases, in one-dollar and five-dollar bills. That was how we bought arms. That was Golda. That was her strength and her expertise. She went to America, organized conferences and swept everyone along with her. Ben-Gurion said then, ‘It will be said that it was a Jewish woman who brought the money that enabled the founding of the state.’”

Golda was born in Russia in 1898 and grew up in a home where want and death were frequent visitors. Her father, Moshe Yitzhak, was an unsuccessful carpenter. His business had failed, and he moved his family from one moldy apartment to another in the poorest quarters of Kiev and Pinsk. Her mother, Bluma, had eight children, five of whom died young. Because of her father’s lack of success, her mother had to go out to work. She worked as a cleaner and baker, sold sewing machines door-to-door, and worked as a wet-nurse for a year. All this hardly fended off starvation.

Golda had very few happy memories of those first years in Russia. The constant poverty shaped her as a person who was content with little and did not seek luxury. The pogroms and acts of anti-Semitism became memories that later served as the justification for her political beliefs.

Her older sister, Shayna, was involved in a Zionist-Socialist group whose members met secretly in the forests of Pinsk and in synagogues. As a young girl, Golda attended several revolutionary conferences, where she began forming her world view.

In an attempt to save his family, Moshe Yitzhak immigrated to America, where after three years he managed to find a job with a company that laid railway tracks in Wisconsin. The women of the family joined him, and Golda quickly metamorphosed into an American girl. She learned English quickly and stopped speaking Yiddish, was an excellent student and continued leading struggles for social justice.

Golda’s love affairs

Golda ran away from home at the age of 15, after her parents forced her into a marriage with a man twice her age, and opposed her attending high school. They preferred that she learn to be a secretary or typist. Golda went to her older sister in Denver, where she met Morris Meyerson. His wisdom and sense of humor compensated for the fact that he was “not particularly good-looking,” as she later admitted in her autobiography, “My Life.” She was 16 and Meyerson was 21. During the romance that developed, Golda was the boss, and he accepted all the rules that she set out. She was energetic and outgoing, while Morris was quiet and introverted.

After they were married, Golda became an emissary of Poalei Zion and an energetic and successful political activist. She would leave Morris for weeks at a time when she went on trips throughout the United States and Canada. She was addicted to activity and earned a good salary from her political work, while Morris spent his time reading and listening to classical music.

At the age of 23, Golda immigrated to Israel. Morris came with her.

Since she considered kibbutz life the Zionist ideal, she insisted on joining Kibbutz Merhavia in the Jezreel Valley. This young American woman, who thought everything was “so very primitive,” quickly adapted to a lifestyle that included getting up at 4:00 a.m., working in the dairy and the poultry run, planting trees and coping every day with the malaria-bearing Anopheles mosquito.

“I insisted on doing all the work that the young men did,” she said later. Still, she was careful to dress well, completely unlike the other girls who lived on the kibbutz, who thought that being a pioneer meant abandoning their femininity.

At the same time, Golda was chosen as a member of the Histadrut council, together with the most prominent members of the workers’ movement, such as Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson. There she was discovered, and she became a well-known and admired public figure, full of joy and a feeling of self-fulfillment.

What about Morris? He felt that his privacy had been stolen from him and that kibbutz life lacked culture. He had a difficult time living in the little room that had been allotted to them, and became unhappy and bitter. Golda had to move with him from Merhavia to Tel Aviv. They later moved to Jerusalem, where their two children, Menahem and Sarah, were born two years apart. Golda was happy with the children, but felt despair over the social isolation and the necessity of staying at home.

She later recalled that the years in Jerusalem during the 1920s were “the most bitter I had ever known.” The family’s financial situation was terrible, and raising the babies prevented Golda from devoting herself to public activity. She felt like a prisoner, but paid that price in order to protect her marriage and her family.

David Remez, the second most powerful man in the Histadrut after Ben-Gurion, was the one who threw her a lifeline by offering her the position of secretary of the women workers’ council. Her son Menahem was three years old, and her daughter Sarah was one year old. Her marriage to Morris had already failed, and Golda followed her heart back to the Histadrut. This was not the first time Remez created a job for her. She had known him in the Histadrut in the past, and Remez, who was married, gave her sponsorship and became her close friend and also her lover, in a complex, stormy relationship that lasted two decades.

“There is no doubt that Remez helped her and nurtured her at the beginning of her political career,” Goldstein says, “but to say that she got ahead by going to bed with him would be contemptuous of Golda. Remez understood how smart and strong she was, and that was why he promoted her. He had four lovers, and only Golda became what she became. He got her jobs because he admired her character traits, not because he was in love with her. Even without the romance with Remez, she would have succeeded in moving forward.”

Her relationship with Remez, which took place far from the public eye, was full of desire and jealousy, but also of friendship. Using an apartment that belonged to the Histadrut, he secretly turned it into a love nest for himself and Golda.

She never divorced Morris. He refused to give her a divorce to his dying day. Tortured by pangs of conscience, she gave her children to a nanny and devoted all her energy to work. She was absent from home for months at a time, sometimes almost a year, as she went on missions abroad.

Although she was tormented by the separation from her children, Golda could not do otherwise. “I was never free of the feeling that in some way I was hurting them,” she wrote in her memoirs. “There is also the kind of woman who cannot stay at home, that despite the place that her children and family occupy in her life, still her nature and her character demand something more. She cannot cut herself off from a larger social life. She cannot allow her children to narrow her horizons. And a woman like that will never find rest.”

Addicted to political activity

Even though Golda renounced family life to a great extent, she never renounced romance or intimacy. She was surrounded by admirers. According to Goldstein, the most prominent of them was Zalman Shazar, who had an intimate relationship with her for many years even though he was married to Rachel Katznelson, one of the leaders of the Yishuv, and according to rumor also had a stormy love affair with the poet Rachel (Bluwstein).

Golda had affairs with Shazar and David Remez at the same time.

Sometimes she would prefer Shazar, and at other times she would prefer Remez.

She had many other romantic relationships as well. In the Jewish Yishuv, rumors spread about affairs with Zalman Aran, who later became the secretary of Mapai, and later a member of Knesset and a government minister.

Another romantic partner was Yaakov Hazan, the leader of Hashomer Hatzair. But she gave her admirers only a little of her time.

Her days, nights, weekends and holidays were devoted to serving the party and the Histadrut, its institutions and its needs. “She was addicted,” Goldstein writes in his book, “obsessed with the political activity that filled her entire being.”

Later, Golda had an affair with Henry Montor, a good-looking and impressive Canadian, who was the vice president of the United Jewish Appeal and seven years her junior. According to the gossip at the time, she also had a relationship of sorts with Berl Katznelson. At the time, there were also rumors that she might have been involved with Ben-Gurion as well.

“She admired Ben-Gurion a great deal,” Goldstein says. “For her, he was the most admirable man on earth, even when she clashed with him during Eshkol’s term. I read the letters Ben-Gurion wrote to her and find a great deal of feeling and love in them. While he never called her ‘my beloved,’ as he called others, it is obvious that he loved her very much.”

For example, in a letter of condolence that he sent her after her mother’s death, Ben-Gurion wrapped her in words that came from his heart. “A mother is the most intimate thing on earth. There is nothing like her,” the prime minister wrote to his labor minister. “I do not know whether there is anything dearer than a mother to a human being. I lost my mother when I was ten years old, and I feel the loss to this day. And there is no difference between a mother who is young or one who has reached old age. There is a mother only, and when she leaves, a large part of the world, the world of the individual, is left in darkness. That which has no parallel in love, loyalty, the most intimate closeness — is uprooted cruelly from the soul, from the heart, and a precious treasure that can never be replaced or compensated for is lost forever. That is the fate of all the living.”

Tension arose between Golda and Ben-Gurion during Eshkol’s term as prime minister. Ben-Gurion opposed Eshkol, while Golda stood by him loyally and gave him encouragement. From 1965 to her dying day, on December 8, 1978, she never quite forgave Ben-Gurion, though she continued to admire him.

As prime minister, Golda befriended the Jewish-American millionaire Louis (Lou) Boyer. Golda did not bother to deny the rumors of a romance between them. She even held a birthday party for Boyer that her close associates and relatives attended. According to the book written by the French-Jewish author Selim Nassib, “The Palestinian Lover,” Golda also had a romantic relationship with Albert Pharaon, a Lebanese Christian banker and aristocrat who lived in Haifa. In light of her complete mistrust of Arabs, a romance of this kind shows that her desire overcame her ideology — a trait unsuited to Golda’s tough character. Nassib claimed in the past that while most of the love affair came from his imagination, it was based on a solid grain of truth that is difficult to prove today.

Beauty and chicken soup

“Many people consider Golda an ugly woman,” Goldstein says. “So in order to compensate for her lack of beauty and still charm everyone around her, she had to have a lot of soul and strong charisma, much more than a beautiful woman had. So here comes an ugly woman with an arsenal of 300 words, and charms everybody. The fact that men such as David Remez and Zalman Shazar, people for whom intellect was the most important thing, were among her admirers, explains her power. They appreciated her wisdom.

“To me, she was beautiful. During my work on her biography, I went to Ora, my wife, showed her photographs of Golda as a young woman and said, ‘Look how beautiful she is.’ My wife practically fell off her chair, and she laughs at me to this day. Maybe I have no taste, but the greatest people of Israel were captivated by her, just like I was.

“She was called ‘the man of the government,’ and maybe she found it convenient to be thought of as masculine, but she was not. During crucial meetings that she held in the small kitchen of her home (that is also the source of the phrase ‘kitchen cabinet’ as a forum where fateful decisions are made), she would feed everybody gefilte fish that she had prepared herself, blintzes and chicken soup.” The recipe for her chicken soup, “Golda’s Meir’s Chicken Soup,” can be found to this day on American recipe websites.

Q: Yet still, the collective memory of her is not exactly flattering.

“I can explain things only from a historical perspective. As labor minister and foreign minister, as the secretary of the Labor Party and prime minister, the public loved and admired her. She was an excellent labor minister.

“The situation was an impossible one. Thirty thousand immigrants were being absorbed every month on scorched earth, with no money and with no food. She succeeded under extremely tough restrictions. She also pushed for a system of social-justice laws, with the National Insurance Institute law at their center.”

Three car bombs

Golda seemed to be the perfect answer to the rightward shift in public opinion after the Six Day War. She maintained her opposition to withdrawal from the territories that had been occupied, claiming that Israel must never return to its previous borders and be exposed to existential dangers. She ordered her ministers to avoid using the word “withdraw” and never responded to American peace proposals because she considered them “a return to the geography of 1967 and the demography of 1947.” It is not that she was an adherent of the Greater Israel ideology or saw the territories as sacred in any way. She simply did not accept the idea that returning territory would bring peace. Her political motto until her dying day was that the Arab peoples desired the destruction of Israel, so their leaders would never want peace.

Shortly after she was elected prime minister in 1969, Golda became very popular. Public-opinion polls indicated that more than 60 percent of the population supported her. The more the public learned of her uncompromising political stance, the more they loved her. Goldstein found that for four and a half years, more than 50 percent of the public was pleased with almost every aspect of Golda’s performance in office.

At times, she received support of 70 and even 90 percent. Unlike Eshkol before her and Rabin and Begin after her, she did not suffer from the mid-term syndrome — a decrease in public support halfway through her term, a phenomenon that occurs in almost every democracy.

At the same time, she was also very popular in the U.S. In a public opinion poll conducted by the New York Times, she was chosen as the most admired woman by Americans for the year 1973, the year of the Yom Kippur War.

Paradoxically, another expression of her ‘popularity’ were the plots by terrorist groups to assassinate her. One group almost succeeded on Golda’s visit to Washington in March 1973. A member of the Black September group prepared three car bombs along her convoy’s route and planned to detonate them.

For many people, the peace treaty with Egypt, which was signed by Menachem Begin at Camp David, was proof of Golda’s failure and guilt.

They felt that Golda could have prevented that war by making peace. But Golda maintained her position. In an interview, she said of the peace talks, “We all dream about it, but it is serious? Is it possible? Is there a minister or citizen of normal intelligence who believes in it? It’s not a serious thing.”

After the treaties were signed, she tried not to spoil the joyous atmosphere, but continued to believe that the Arabs were not willing to have peace, and that Israel could not live within the borders that had preceded the Six Day War.

“It is possible that the memory of the war and the criticism afterward have blurred matters, but Golda Meir was the most popular prime minister in Israel’s history,” says Professor Goldstein. “Ben-Gurion was maybe more popular than she, but only at certain times. It saddens me, as a historian, that she is seen as one of the worst prime ministers in Israel’s history. It’s not fair to her.”

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  1. By maccabette, October 8, 2012

    Golda meir is my heroine! She is one tough lady!
    I look forward to the day The US has a female president!


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