Why Golda Still Matters

Dan Elbaum

Dan Elbaum

In a dramatic scene from the new film “Golda,” Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir meets with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger says, “You must remember that first I am an American, second I am secretary of state and third I am a Jew.” Golda replies, “Henry, you forget that in Israel we read from right to left.”

“Golda” will remind and educate Americans, Israelis and people around the world about the tense days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when Israel’s fate hung in the balance. It will no doubt reopen painful debates as the 50th anniversary of that conflict approaches. As she was in life, Golda is a controversial figure in Israel with admirers and detractors. Yet in America, a land she called home for two decades, her legacy has perhaps never been stronger or more important.

Golda reminds us of the link between America and Israel. In many ways, her story starts in the same way that the stories of our grandparents do. She was born in Kyiv, and her memories were of poverty and fear of pogroms. Indeed, among her earliest recollections was one of her father boarding up the windows and doors in preparation for an antisemitic attack. She came to America with nothing in 1908, following her father who had come a few years earlier to establish the family. They quickly Americanized their names, shed their traditional clothes and did what they could to fit into their new country.

Obviously, Golda’s life took her elsewhere, but she never forgot her link to America and American Jews. When she signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence, she recalled learning about the American signers of their own declaration and the mythic figures she had imagined them to be. When speaking before the American Federation of Labor in 1969, she searched the massive crowd for the sign of the carpenters’ union to which her father
had belonged.

Perhaps more than any Israeli politician of her era, Golda understood American Jews and we felt that we understood her. It is little wonder that in January 1948, when war with several Arab states seemed inevitable, Golda was sent to the U.S. to try to raise $25 million for the Jewish Agency for Israel, which would be used to equip the Jewish armed forces. In a speech that she remembered as “unscheduled, unrehearsed … and unannounced” at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds in Chicago, Golda spoke so compellingly that she raised twice the requested amount.

Today, as surveys continue to show an increasing disconnect between young American Jews and Israel, Golda’s story reminds us of the liberal ideals that led so many American Jews to support, visit and move to the Jewish state. Although the Israel of today is (thankfully) different than the scattered communities that Golda found 100 years ago, the ideals of democracy and equality remain very much alive. Indeed, anyone who does not believe that should visit the streets of any Israeli city on a Saturday night to see thousands of Israelis proclaiming those values.

Golda once said, “We don’t rejoice in victories. We rejoice when a new kind of cotton is grown and when strawberries bloom in Israel.” Today, the cotton has become modern drip irrigation and voicemail technology and the strawberries have become Waze and pill cameras, but the same spirit remains. Israel has more museums per capita than any other nation in the world and the highest concentration of tech companies outside of Silicon Valley. Although we should never overlook Israel’s imperfections and Israelis will not hesitate to point them out to you, the spirit that Golda and Israel’s founders inspired remains very much with us today.

If the film “Golda” teaches us one lesson that we should never forget, it is this: In 1973, Israel survived because of the courage of its people. But it also owed its survival to one man — the president of the United States of America. At the critical moment, President Richard Nixon, a man known to make antisemitic statements with some regularity, did what he needed to do to help save Jewish lives.

If there is one central accomplishment of American Jews since 1948, it is that we have helped create a situation in which we have always been able to count on the American president when the chips were down. Regardless of our politics and personal views, we must assure that this remains true. Politicians come and go, and the political winds will blow in different directions, but the principles that bind us as a people must always remain strong.

Dan Elbaum is head of North America at the Jewish Agency for Israel and the president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development.


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