Welcome to 70 Faces of Israel. To celebrate 70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, we’re looking at 70 people whose remarkable stories have changed our country and the world.
Name: Golda Meir (born Golda Mabovich)
Date of Birth: 3rd May 1898, Kiev, Russian Empire (now Ukraine)
Date of Death: 8th December 1978, Jerusalem, Israel
Claim to Fame: Israel’s first and only female Prime Minister
In 1969… Golda became the fourth Prime Minister of Israel
Born in the Russian Empire to working-class Jewish parents, Golda spent most of her early years in Milwaukee, USA. By her mid-teens, Meir’s parents wanted her to leave school and marry; instead, she defiantly moved to live with her sister and continue her education. Her social activism began early: Meir organised a fundraiser to help pay for her classmates’ books.
While living with her sister in Colorado, Meir experienced intellectual debates on a broad range of topics. Additionally, exposure to Zionism, literature, women’s suffrage and liberation, trade unionism and other subjects helped shaped her future socialist convictions.
In 1913, Meir returned to Milwaukee and completed her high school education. She also joined Habonim, embracing Socialist Zionism and eventually planning to emigrate to Palestine. Meir trained at a teaching college and accepted a post at a Yiddish-speaking adult education centre. She married in 1917, and in 1921, moved to Israel with her husband and sister.
Golda and her husband settled on a kibbutz where she worked in the fields, chicken coops, and kitchens. The kibbutz management recognised her leadership skills and nominated her to represent them at the Histadrut (labour union).
Later, Meir served as the secretary of the working women’s council. She spent two years as an emissary in the United States. When she returned, she joined the Histadrut’s Executive Committee, rising to become head of its Political Department. She also represented Jewish Palestine at the 1938 Evian Conference.
Before the establishment of the State of Israel, Meir replaced Mosher Sharett as the head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department. In this capacity, she travelled to America and raised $50,000,000. The soon-to-be-state used this money to purchase weapons from Europe. She even undertook secret missions in disguise to plead Israel’s case to neighbouring Arab leaders.
Golda was one of just two women who signed the Declaration of Independence. She then acted as Israel’s minister plenipotentiary to the Soviet Union, drawing love and respect from Russian Jews. Meir joined the Knesset as a Mapai member in 1949 and held several important portfolios, including Minister of Labour and Foreign Minister. She also oversaw huge changes to Israel as a welfare state, including housing and construction projects, agricultural developments, and maternity leave.
After Levi Eshkol’s death, the party elected Meir as his successor. She came out of retirement to pull a united government through the new elections. Her tenure oversaw the Suez Canal operations and the 1973 Yom Kippur war. She made lasting, permanent changes to Israel, and created much of the country’s current social and welfare policy.
The grade school Meir attended is now named the Golda Meir School. Dozens of roads, squares, and public buildings across Israel and America share this great woman’s name. Her remarkable life story is portrayed in several films and television series. She received the Israel Prize in 1975 as well as several other prestigious awards.
Despite – or because of – her reputation as a hard woman with an iron will, the Israeli people loved Golda. She was the “strong-willed, straight-talking, grey-bunned grandmother of the Jewish people”. Meir died of lymphatic cancer, aged 80. She is buried on Her Herzl.
Previously: 1968: Zalman Shazar
Up next: 1970: Shai Agnon