March 17 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Golda Meir’s selection as Israel’s fourth Prime Minister in 1969. During the summer of 1970, our family spent six weeks living in Jerusalem.
Picking up The Jerusalem Post one morning, my mother spied a small notice indicating Meir would be speaking at Hebrew University that very afternoon. Four hours later I found myself sitting in the second row of a small auditorium with Golda standing only few feet away.
As I recall, the speech marked no special occasion. I figured it would just be to engage with some of the many American tourists in the country at that time of the year. Certainly her remarks weren’t going to include weighty national matters as members of the press were not in visible attendance. No seal of the Prime Minister or even that of the State of Israel adorned the lectern.
This would be a relatively pat talk welcoming us to the country and that would have been fine by me. From my fourteen year-old perspective, just the chance to be in such close proximity to a world figure was enough.
Golda, though, had other ideas. Entering quietly and without introduction she quickly motioned for everyone to remain seated and refrain from clapping. There were no effusive words of greeting. Nor did Meir seek to regale us with triumphant anecdotes extolling Israel’s iron will to survive. On the contrary, her tone was plaintive.
Though she’d labored tirelessly for more than half a century to establish, develop, and defend a Jewish homeland, Golda had not come to wax proudly about the desert dream come true but to acknowledge personal regrets along the pathway to fulfilling its promise.
Over and over she repeated, “I admit, I admit.” She admitted having made mistakes. She admitted sorrow in playing s significant a role in military decisions that resulted in the spilling of both Arab and Jewish blood. She admitted not having done enough to address the growing internal strife threatening the country’s future.
This was no typical political appearance but a confessional outpouring. I was transfixed by her candor and moved by the force of her humility. When she finished, Golda did not remain to receive our applause. She left the podium as humbly as she’d ascended it.
Notwithstanding the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was caught perilously off-guard under Meir’s watch (though her generals did not heed warnings of brewing trouble that she, herself, had recognized), Golda still enjoys an honored status, notably in the Diaspora.
However, some don’t regard her reputation in quite so sterling terms. They point to a 1958 cable she wrote to Israel’s ambassador to Poland about relaying to the Polish government a desire to restrict Jewish emigration from the country to Israel “because we cannot continue accepting sick and handicapped people.” The claim is also made that Meir’s perceived insensitivity to the plight of Israel’s Sephardic community contributed to the rise of the Likud party in 1977. Additionally, fault is found in her reluctance to publicly mention the name of a granddaughter born with Down syndrome, for spending too much time away from her family, and for her fierce political tactics.
Sitting in the auditorium that day I can imagine Golda feeling remorse for these things as well. But great leaders carry tremendous burdens and responsibilities. It was on her shoulders to make decisions in often quite fraught contexts. This requires an especially tough skin, especially in Israel.
In this regard recall the joke that circulated when, meeting for the first time, President Eisenhower conveyed to David Ben Gurion how difficult it was to be president of 170 million people. Ben Gurion replied that it was even harder to be prime minister of two million prime ministers.
In Golda I discerned someone who, rather than try to deny, obfuscate, or paper over misgivings, was willing to acknowledge them straight-up. For this alone, I felt great appreciation and respect for her. And still do.