A few weeks ago, I started writing an article that opened with the line “This was the summer of Golda.” And then, on October 7, several hours into the half-day train ride from Kyiv, Ukraine to Warsaw, Poland, I watched from my iPhone as war broke out in Israel. A massive intelligence failure, a breach at Israel’s border with Gaza, and unspeakable horrors that followed. The “Summer of Golda” had just taken on new meaning, exactly 50-years after the Yom Kippur War.
Let me rewind.
At the turn of the 20th century, mass immigration of Jewish families started from the territory of modern-day Ukraine to the United States as a result of rising, often violent, antisemitism. Two sets of my great-great-grandparents left their homes in Kovel and Lutsk, Western Ukraine for America. A few hundred miles away, in Kyiv, the Mabovitch Family also set out for America. By 1906, both families ended up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, living in the same neighborhood of predominantly Jewish immigrants. My grandmother’s aunt, Sadie, and a young Goldie Mabovitch became childhood friends and classmates.
Goldie and Sadie attended Fourth Street School (now renamed Golda Meir School) where despite their young age they became activists and Zionists. Goldie would eventually move to Denver but returned to Milwaukee when she and Sadie became active members of the Young Poale Zion, the predecessor to Habonim. In Milwaukee, Young Poale Zion was one of dozens of Zionist organizations working to bring to fruition a modern Jewish state in the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, a vision set forth by Theodor Herzl just two decades earlier at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland.
In 1921, a now-married Golda Myerson with her husband moved to Mandatory Palestine where she would eventually sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence, serve as ambassador to the Soviet Union, a cabinet minister, and eventually as Israel’s sixth prime minister under the name Golda Meir. Much has been written by historians about her meteoric rise to premiership, so I will not do so here. Perhaps the most critical period of her premiership was that of the Yom Kippur War.
Fast forward to the present.
Until this year, Golda represented a division between Jews in the United States and Jews in Israel. To American Jews, Golda is the eternal grandmother of the Jewish people, and exemplar of how an American Jew (despite being born in Kyiv) could bridge the gap between Israel and the US by being fluent in both communities. To Israelis, she bore responsibility for the grave loss of life during the Yom Kippur War, a result of poor intelligence and in the eyes of some, poor leadership. This summer, the Golda of the Yom Kippur War came back to life portrayed by Dame Helen Mirren, with the recently opened archives of the War allowing the world to see a different version of wartime Golda. Fifty years later, the Israeli and American public could suddenly see Golda through each other’s eyes. Israelis could see the grandmotherly figure Americans have immortalized as she painstakingly internalized the losses of the war and used her wit and soul to rally global support, care for her leaders, and refuse to assign blame even when it might have been due. At the same time, Americans could start to see why, in absence of all the facts, Israelis have blamed Golda resulting in her eventual resignation in 1974.
Earlier this summer, now US Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt, published her biography of Golda Meir entitled Golda Meir: Israel’s Matriarch which all but omits Golda’s wartime premiership. Instead, it focuses on how her upbringing, experience twice-over as an immigrant, and family influences ultimately shaped the once-in-a-generation leader that Golda became. Lipstadt spends a chapter about her Milwaukee years where my grandmother’s aunt Sadie is quoted (from an earlier interview) about the influence of Golda’s husband Morris. Lipstadt hints at themes of democracy, activism, and nationalism, all of which follow Golda throughout her life and political career.
In addition to Golda’s representation in literature and on the big screen, this was also the “Summer of Golda” for me personally. During the depths of COVID-19 lockdown, I scoured Amazon to find every biography written about Golda Meir, most of which are out of print, and proceeded to read them all in order of publication date, over a dozen in total. It wasn’t hard to see how places in Golda’s life affected her political ideology, her leadership philosophy, her Jewish identity, and her outlook on the world. This summer, I was able to make three “pilgrimages” to places of significance in Golda’s life – Milwaukee, Kyiv, and New York, each of which opened a window for me into both the complexity of Golda but also the modern state of Israel.
The first pilgrimage, Milwaukee. I joined Tali, an activist from Philadelphia from UnXeptable, the movement of pro-democracy Israelis abroad directing global attention to the democratic backslide we are currently seeing in Israel instigated by the “judicial overhaul.” Before staging a bipartisan demonstration in the name of “Saving Israeli Democracy” outside of the first Republican debate, we paid a visit to Golda Meir School, only a few minute’s walk away. A hundred plus years ago, Goldie and Sadie would leave their Yiddish-speaking homes each morning to attend school at Fourth Street To learn the basics of math and science, and the basics of being an American, being a citizen of a democratic country, and a member of a pluralistic society. All were realities in stark contrast to the experiences of Jews, the families both left behind, living in the Russian Empire at the time. Golda undoubtedly knew the value of democracy because she knew life without it, both firsthand, and through the stories of her parents. In Israel’s Declaration of Independence to which she is a signatory it says:
“The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice, and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex, will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education, and culture.”
Even though there were moments in Golda’s career where her personal outlooks proved controversial, the bedrock foundation of the country she helped found were rooted in democratic principles and values that are shared by modern democracies on every continent and undoubtedly influenced by her upbringing as an immigrant in the Midwestern United States. While written with clarity 75 years ago, this democratic promise and ideal is still a work-in-progress.
The second pilgrimage, Ukraine. This was a leadership mission of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, of which I serve as a Vice Chair. The trip’s purpose was to see the impact of the war on our communities, show solidarity, and identify continued needs of (progressive) Jewish communities across the country. The trip started in Lutsk, part of Ukraine where my family once lived, and ended in Kyiv. On the second to last day of the trip, we drove by an unassuming apartment block in Kyiv at 5A Baseina Street, where a sculpturesque plaque is mounted outside to mark the former home of Goldie Mabovitch’s family. It was not lost on me that after visiting this small marker, we met with the Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine – effectively a successor to Golda Meir in her role as Ambassador to the Soviet Union.
Despite being born in Kyiv, Golda never lived to see a sovereign nor democratic Ukraine, let alone one under siege by its autocratic Russian neighbor. Kyiv, in modern day Ukraine, gave Golda her Jewish identity, it set her family apart from their fellow country people as Jews were not fully accepted, a sentiment still shared in dark corners of modern Ukrainian society. Golda undoubtedly took that Jewish identity with her, coupled with the sense of impermanence in one’s place of birth. Golda’s story, like so many of our own ancestors’, was part of a divergence in Jewish history – with her Jewish identity following her to America and then to Israel. And the rest of our families, whose Jewish communities continued in the Pale of Settlement met the horrors of the pogroms, the Shoah, and political oppression. Both Jewish stories were no stranger to war, antisemitism, and brutality, yet both were resilient, with Jewish life surviving in Central and Eastern Europe and flourishing in the sovereign state of Israel in the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.
The third pilgrimage, New York City. I visited Golda Meir Square, which sits hidden at the base of Times Square. After signing Israel’s Declaration of Independence, her official role in the pre-state government was replaced by the nascent Foreign Ministry. Four days after the Declaration of Independence, Golda left on a trip to the United States to fundraise for the new state. She had done a similar tour decades earlier on behalf of the Zionist Movement, with great success. This time, she traveled to the United States with the first ever Israeli passport where she raised nearly a third of the cost of the War of Independence. In the face of existential war, Golda traveled to the country she knew second-best to rally support for the fragile state. She served as a human bridge between the would-be two largest global Jewish communities, a human representation of the difference between “home” and “homeland.” This duality is one I struggle with daily, only intensified by the war of the last week.
Seventy-five years later, a strong and sovereign Israel is again attacked and requires support of the international Jewish community at an existential moment that seemed unfathomable even weeks ago. While the relationship between American and Israeli Jews has vacillated in recent years, the current war has the potential to bring together these two Jewish communities as it did 75 years ago, and as it did 50 years ago. The visit to Golda Meir Square was my full-circle moment in the Golda story. In one lifetime, Golda’s first voyage to America was as a stateless Russian immigrant, and her first return to America as a citizen and leader of the sovereign Jewish State of Israel.
The story of Golda is still being written, and her legacy will continue to transcend time. In the absence of conclusions and absolute lessons from the “Summer of Golda,” I offer a simple prayer, both inspired by and an homage to the life’s work of Golda Meir.
We pray for peace – wherever there is war, in Israel, in Ukraine, and throughout the world.
We pray for democracy – where rights of the minority are fiercely protected by the rule of the majority.
We pray for humanity – where the value of all human life is sacred.
We pray for leadership – where acts of selflessness outrank self-serving.
We pray for unity – where commonalities bridge differences and divisions.
If you wish to support relief efforts in Ukraine, please consider a donation to the WUPJ Ukraine Crisis Fund. If you wish to support relief efforts in Israel, please consider a donation to the WUPJ Israel Emergency Fund to support victims of terror. Both funds will support areas of greatest need in partnership with our local constituents.