Prime Minister Golda Meir, the Iron Lady of Israeli politics, played a fundamental role in establishing Israel as a country and guiding it through its difficult formative years. As an early proponent of Zionism, she moved to what was then British Palestine at the age of 23, and eventually rose to the fledgling state of Israel’s highest office. Here are 11 facts about Israel’s kindly grandma and political strategist.
1. SHE WAS BORN IN THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE AND RAISED IN MILWAUKEE.
Born Golda Mabovitch in 1898 in Kiev, Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire), the future Israeli prime minister had a genuinely international upbringing. Her family escaped Russia during a time of increased anti-Jewish sentiment and widespread pogroms—violent mob persecutions of Jewish people—when she was eight years old. Her father, Moshe, left first; he initially sought work in New York City, but then landed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he saved enough money to bring his family over, three years after he had arrived. Golda liked Milwaukee—she later wrote of being entranced by her "pretty new clothes, by the soda pop, and ice cream and by the excitement" of Schuster's Department Store.
2. SHE DISCOVERED ACTIVISM IN GRADE SCHOOL.
Golda got her start with political activism in the fourth grade, when she and her friend Regina Hamburger organized the American Young Sisters Society to raise money to buy textbooks for fellow classmates who couldn't afford them. Their fundraising efforts included some of Golda's first attempts at public speaking, for which she discovered she had a knack.
3. SHE PURSUED AN EDUCATION WHEN HER PARENTS WANTED HER TO GET MARRIED.
Golda’s conservative parents thought that she should work in their deli and start thinking about getting married instead of going to high school. She rebelled by going to live with her sister, Sheyna Korngold, in Denver. The Korngold household was filled with intellectual conversations about Zionism, Socialism, and more. While there Golda also (perhaps ironically) met her future husband, Morris Meyerson.
4. HER MOVE TO PALESTINE WAS DELAYED BY WORLD WAR I.
Golda and Morris were married in 1917, and had intentions to make aliyah, as Jews from the diaspora refer to moving to Israel (aliyah means "ascent"). But they were stalled by the curtailing of transatlantic travel during WWI. While waiting to go, Golda raised funds for the Marxist-Zionist workers group Poale Zion. She finally made the move with her husband and sister in 1921.
5. SHE WAS IN CHARGE OF A CHICKEN FARM.
Golda and her husband’s application to the kibbutz (a type of Israeli collective settlement) Merhavia was initially rejected, but they eventually got in, thanks in part to her husband owning a phonograph. A natural leader, Golda took on and excelled in responsibilities in the community, including almond harvesting, running a kitchen, and tending the chicken coops. They left Merhavia in 1923 for Tel Aviv, and later moved to Jerusalem.
6. SHE WAS ONE OF TWO WOMEN WHO SIGNED ISRAEL’S DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.
After becoming a kibbutz representative to the Israeli labor organization Histadrut, Golda quickly rose through the ranks. She then held several key posts in the World Zionist Organization and in the Jewish Agency, then the highest Jewish authority in Palestine, becoming a powerful spokesperson for the Zionist cause during World War II. When Israel declared independence in 1948, she was one of only two women asked to sign the declaration. Reflecting on the experience years later, Golda said, “After I signed, I cried. When I studied American history as a schoolgirl and I read about those who signed the [United States] Declaration of Independence, I couldn’t imagine these were real people doing something real. And there I was sitting down and signing a declaration of independence.”
7. SHE GOT THE FIRST ISRAELI-ISSUED PASSPORT.
Soon after signing the declaration, Golda flew to the United States to raise money for the fledgling state. As part of this, she received what was effectively the very first passport (technically a Laissez-passer, or travel document) that Israel ever printed. She was soon made Israel’s Minister Plenipotentiary to the Soviet Union, an office she held for less than a year, but during that time she went to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at Moscow Choral Synagogue, where she was mobbed by thousands of Russian Jews chanting her name. The scene was later depicted along with her face on the 10,000 Shekel note.
8. SHE WAS ELECTED TO THE FIRST ISRAELI PARLIAMENT.
When the Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset, first convened in 1949, Golda acted as Minister of Labor and Social Security as a member of the center-left Mapai party. She continued in the role (later retitled the Minister of Labor), overseeing huge infrastructural growth, until 1956, when she became Foreign Minister. It was then that, under a directive from predecessor Moshe Sharett that all foreign service members Hebraicize their names, she officially changed her last name from Meyerson to Meir.
9. SHE LEFT THE CABINET BEFORE BECOMING PRIME MINISTER.
Golda was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1965, and stepped away from her role in the cabinet in 1966, becoming the secretary general of her party instead. Three years later, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol died suddenly of a heart attack, and she was called to the post to prevent a power struggle. During her time in office, she built a strong relationship with the United States, worked to promote her vision for Middle East peace, and helped the country weather the terrorist attack at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich—when 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage, beaten, and eventually murdered.
10. MEN IN POWER SAW HER PREMIERSHIP AS TEMPORARY UNTIL SHE PROVED EVERYONE WRONG.
Golda’s rise out of semi-retirement was orchestrated in part by the powerful party operative Pinchas Sapir, who saw her taking the position as a way to keep the party secure and prevent Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan from fighting for the job after Eshkol’s death and splitting the party. It was also meant to be a short-term situation that would last the rest of Eshkol’s term—but Golda once again proved her leadership prowess, ran for the position during the 1969 election, and won. She was Prime Minister until 1974.
11. SHE WAS A FASHION ICON FOR A PECULIAR REASON.
Beyond her political achievements, Golda made a sartorial mark by wearing clunky orthopedic shoes, which became known as na’alei Golda, or “Golda’s Shoes.” Pairs were supplied to female soldiers for years as part of their uniforms, but they were later phased out (to the relief of many in the army).