In October 1973, the State of Israel was caught off-guard by a ruthless surprise assault on two fronts by the Egyptian and Syrian armies, supported by half-a-dozen additional Arab countries. The first lines of defense fell easily, and it seemed like nothing could stop them as they moved inward. On this fateful week 45 years ago, the leader of the Jewish state was Golda Meir, and the fate of the Jewish people rested on her tough shoulders.
She was born in Russia, where life for a Jew was very difficult. Her first memory was of her father nailing boards to the door to protect the family during a pogrom.
The poverty in Russia was unbearable and her family migrated to the United States. She grew up in Milwaukee, where she became a Socialist Zionist. When her parents wanted to block her political activity, she ran away from home.
She married musician Maurice Meyerson, and at the age of 23 immigrated to Israel. She became a pioneer in Kibbutz Merhavia, and later, a mother of two children. Her married life was not happy, as they led a life of poverty. All of this crystallized her iron character and lack of structured indulgence.
Her earnest intensity moved her forward and upward. She was Secretary of the Council of Women Workers, then Secretary of the Histadrut’s (the Labor Union) Executive Committee. Her leadership qualities and knowledge of English made her an ideal candidate for fundraising. First for the Histadrut, then for the Haganah and then finally, the State of Israel.
On the eve of the War of Independence, founding father David Ben-Gurion was considered delusional because he spoke of a regular army, planes and tanks while the Jewish “Yishuv” had no money at its disposal. He sent Golda to the United States to raise funds. She did so with all of her being. “I want you to believe me today that I came … not in order to save 700,000 Jews. We would not be so daring to disturb you for this. … The point is, that if these 700,000 people are massacred, then for generations, the dream of a Jewish people and a Jewish homeland will come to an end. … We fight in any case, with stones if we must, to the end, but only you can decide whether we will win …”
The Jews in the United States melted and opened their pockets. The $50 million she brought led Ben-Gurion to say: “One day it will be told how one small woman saved the Jewish state.“
She was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, what she described as the most moving moment in her life. “… Ben-Gurion proclaimed: ‘We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, the State of Israel’ and with that my eyes filled with tears and my hands trembled. We did the deed. We brought the Jewish state into the world, whatever happens. … Suddenly, Rabbi Fishman stood up and in a trembling voice said the ancient blessing, ‘Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who have given us life and kept us and brought us to this time’ I had never felt the meaning of that blessing as on that day. All I recall from the moment of signing the declaration is that I shed tears in front of all. … A man approached me and asked ‘Why are you crying so Golda?’ Because my heart was broken, I replied, When I think about all those who were supposed to be here today and died.”
So great a woman. So great a human.
She was appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union, and the meeting with Soviet Jewry stunned her: Some 50,000 people came to the Rosh Hashanah prayer services, forbidden by the Soviet authorities. And with that the fear that communism had washed out the Jewish community’s identity faded away: “Thank you for remaining Jewish,” she said to them.
She later served as Minister of Labor, in the period when a million Jews arrived in one year. And she replaced Moshe Sharett as foreign minister. She was of the generation of the Third Aliyah politicians that included Levy Eshkol and Pinhas Sapir. She was always considered more comprehensive and profound than them all. Pinchas Sapir was the most powerful politician in Mapai—a Minister of Trade and Industry, a monumental Minister of Finance, and yet always treated Golda Meir with tremendous deference to the person she was. “Die Malkah,” he would call her in Yiddish. “The Queen.” On general issues, he always consulted with her. When she spoke, everyone listened in silence.
Golda, together with Dayan and Galili, was one of the “hawks” of the Labor Party. A species that has since become extinct. A strong and proud Jewish woman, happy to settle the Land of Israel, always supporting the most daring of operations.
The end of the 1960s finds her ill with leukemia, afflicted with herpes zoster, a debilitating nerve condition and an excessive smoker. Then, with the death of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, she took on the role of her life. Perhaps the hardest job in the world—the prime minister of Israel. Upon taking over the role, she had a resurrection.
The years of her premiership included the War of Attrition in the Suez Canal, the international terrorist war of the PLO and its affiliates, a significant immigration from the Soviet Union, and the daily life of a small country that suddenly became a little bigger after the Six-Day War.
At the end of 1973, she was somewhat stuck in a corner. On matters of security, she relied entirely on Moshe Dayan and Chief of Staff Elazar. Elections were scheduled for year’s end and there was an interest in maintaining quiet. Europe and the United States were pressing for a withdrawal without peace from the territories occupied in 1967, and anyone who hinted at the danger of a possible war was suspected of being their collaborator.
Even when she learned of the possibility of an Arab attack—in contrast to her position in the past—she was very concerned that a preemptive strike, out of the blue, would unleash a terrible rage and an international embargo against Israel.
In the Cabinet meetings with the General Staff from the first to the fifth of October 1973, a paradoxical situation ensued. Golda, the “old woman,” referred to the generals and some of the ministers, who said there was no indication of war being imminent, as the “experts” on security matters, while they looked upon her as the “Tsarina,” who was all knowing.
This is what she wrote about the war: “For me, the fact cannot be erased, and I will never be comforted, and I cannot console myself with anything. … On Friday morning I had to listen to my own warnings and to mobilize [the reserve units] … and this terrible knowledge will accompany me for the rest of my life. I will never be the person I was before the Yom Kippur War.”
One of the funniest things of progressive feminism is, that figures like Golda do not count for them, while one-dimensional caricatures, women who are not able to even manage flowerpot displays, are considered heroines. The reason is that everything is judged according to the progressive context. You contributed to “Progress,” even as an extra in a Supreme Court production, and you are a god. On the other hand, were you an impressive woman by any standard but did not challenge the existing order, you do not exist as far as progressive feminists are concerned. They disparaged her memory, blamed her for the deaths of Yom Kippur soldiers.
Today, 45 years later, it should be remembered that there was once a sane left. There were great women on the left; there was love for Judaism, for the Jewish people and for Eretz Israel
May she rest in peace.
Igal Canaan is a retired Lt. Colonel who served as a navigator in the Israel Air Force.
You can find more in-depth articles on Israel and the Middle East @en.mida.org.il.