Israel Prime Minister and One of its Greatest Champions, Golda Meir, Once Worked in the St. James Building

November 25, 2019

From 1932 through 1934, Golda Meir, the future prime minister of Israel, worked as one of the leaders of the Pioneer Women’s Organization for Palestine, in its office in the St. James Building, 1133 Broadway. (The organization subsequently changed its name to Pioneer Women in 1939 and is today called Na’amat.).

Golda Meir worked primarily raising funds for the Zionist organization, which was concerned with female participation in the building of Palestine. But this was just one stop on her way to greatness.

For those who experienced life in the time of Golda Meir, no explanation of her legendary stature is necessary.  Younger generations, however, might not realize how powerful a force she was in very dangerous times, when women were given little voice in world politics dominated by men and in a country rooted in patriarchal control.  The title of one biography says it all —The Lioness.

An article on Meir in the encyclopedia on the Jewish Women’s Archive says it best, “Pioneer, visionary, risk-taker, indefatigable fund-raiser, eloquent advocate, she was an activist of the first order, one of the founders of the Jewish state… Presidents and kings found her willfulness charming, while her grandmotherly appearance and plain-spoken personal style endeared her to ordinary people around the world. In her time, Golda was as admired as Queen Elizabeth and as well known by her first name as Madonna is today.”

Born in Kiev in 1898, she migrated with her family to Milwaukee at the age of eight in 1903.  Graduating from elementary school as valedictorian, she had to convince her parents to allow her to stay in school rather than find a husband. (Her father told her that “Men don’t like smart girls.”).

She began attending a three-year program at a teachers’ training college in 1916, but with the establishment of the Palestine state in 1917, she married—under the conditions that she and her husband would move to Palestine and live on a kibbutz.  The climb was not easy. She became expert at breeding and feeding chickens and she was sent by the kibbutz for management courses; she had two children and lived in poverty with her husband in Jerusalem; and finally got a job in Tel Aviv with Histadrut and quickly moved up the ranks to its Executive Committee; during World War II, she took over the leadership of the organization.

The Women’s Organization for the Pioneer Women of Palestine was officially founded in 1925. This early photograph of its leaders includes (L to R, standing): Leah Brown, Goldie Meyerson (Golda Meir), Miriam Meltzer and Nina Zuckerman; (seated): Leah Biskin, Rahel Siegel, Fiegel Berkinblitt. Insert: Chaya Ehrenreich.

With the establishment of the State of Israel and the threat of conflict with the Arab states, she raised over $50,000,000 in the United States for needed defense spending, and she did many other heroic things for the Israeli state, which you can read about here.

After being elected to the Knesset, she became in turn Minister of Labor and then Foreign Minister under Ben Guirion. The description of her term as foreign minister speaks volumes about this woman:

“The only female foreign minister in the world, Golda Meir was also the only foreign minister who had no use for formalities, who flew tourist class, who shocked hotel staffs by handwashing her own underwear and shining her own shoes, and who entertained foreign dignitaries in her kitchen, in an apron, serving them her homemade pastry along with a stern lecture on Israel’s security. She also was a foreign minister who refused to obey the color line in Rhodesia, inspiring a full complement of dignitaries to follow suit, and whose proudest accomplishment was the export of Israeli technical and agricultural expertise to the African nations.”

Although she decided to retire in 1966 due to health concerns and a desire to enjoy life, political events forced her party to prevail upon her to become Israel’s leader in 1969. A devastating loss of life in the Yom Kippur war racked her with remorse, and the people turned on her. Meir resigned as head of state in 1974, but it didn’t end there. After a time, she evolved into an elder stateman and beloved public citizen and her reputation as a philosopher-comedian became a legend. She died on December 8, 1978 at 80, being one of the most accomplished people of the 20th Century.