“Minister of American Affairs”
BY HER OWN admission, Golda Meir never shared the American “taste for parlor Zionism.”1 Unlike Judah Magnes and Henrietta Szold, Meir,2 went to Palestine when she was young and almost unknown, and the relevance of the United States to her career in the yishuv is not obvious. Friends, colleagues, and biographers have often considered her American background all but incidental to her life, claiming, in the main, that she was an eastern European Jew who merely passed through the New World on her way to the land of Israel. Even the degree to which her later “tours” in America boosted her political career has been downplayed. Others, writing mainly for an American audience, have stressed her affinity for America and commitment to its values, sometimes citing the rather dubious evidence of the close relationship between the United States and Israel that developed during her term as prime minister.3 In fact, Meir’s American experiences were a critical component of her power and influence, although perhaps not in the manner suggested until now.4
Born in Russia, she was taken to the United States by her mother (her father had immigrated a few years earlier) in 1906 at the age of eight, after having endured experiences that were in no way unusual for Russian Jews of the day: poverty, dislocation, and fear of pogroms and of the arrest of a revolutionary sibling. In later life Meir remembered that her father had gone to America planning to accumulate a nest egg and return to Russia. Her sister, Sheyne, claimed that already in 1906 the family was planning to settle in Palestine.5 These memories, however, can be viewed with some scepticism. At the least it must be noted that by the time mother and children arrived in the United States, Moshe Mabovitch (Meir’s maiden name) was becoming rapidly Americanized and attached to his new homeland.6 In Milwaukee, where Meir’s father had settled some time before, the Mabovitch family lived in straitened but steadily improving circumstances. All of them, including Sheyne who was least enthusiastic about America, came to view it as “the land of unlimited possibilities,” if not quite the goldene medine of which they had heard.7 After the poverty of Pinsk and Kiev, even an immigrant ghetto in America seemed promising.
More importantly, they came to see America as the land of freedom, the opposite of oppressive Russia. One of the mythic tales of Golda’s child-hood was of a Labor Day parade in which her father marched. She marveled that American police escorted the marchers instead of trampling them as the Russian police would have done. Some years later, she was surprised when “many non-Jews participated” in a demonstration she helped organize to protest the post-World War I pogroms in the Ukraine.8 Although the more revolutionary and more prickly Sheyne records incidents of antisemitism in America, Golda insisted later in life that growing up she had never experienced any at all. She did notice America’s color bar; and one of the plays that shocked her as a young girl was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion, and other visiting Zionists from Europe and Palestine perceived America’s attitude towards blacks as analogous to Russia’s attitude towards Jews, and feared that Americans would come to treat Jews as they did blacks. She, however, seems to have viewed color prejudice through American eyes. The shortcoming was deplorable; but no general conclusions about American society could be drawn from it.9
Trust of America and distrust, even hatred, of czarist Russia—and communist Russia, as well—became part of Meir’s mind-set. During World War II, many labor leaders in the yishuv lobbied strenuously for sending aid to the embattled Russians. Meir resisted, unless the assistance could be given jointly with American Jews. She wanted the Russians to know that Jews were treated well in America and that the United States did not suppress Zionism, as the USSR did. In 1947, when the yishuv was growing desperate for manpower, she lectured her colleagues on the meaning of “volunteer” in the USSR and turned to the United States for funds and volunteers.10 That she, in particular, went to Moscow in 1948 as Israel’s first ambassador was a signal to both sides in the Cold War of the new country’s future orientation.
Understanding the extent to which Meir’s Weltanschauung and her future actions were influenced by her American experiences depends in part upon an evaluation of the extent of her acculturation during the fifteen years she spent in the United States before making aliyah. These were her formative years—childhood, teenage, and early adulthood. They included all of her formal education, which took place in the public schools of Milwaukee and Denver and the Milwaukee normal school affiliated with the University of Wisconsin.
Apparently, Meir, like most other young immigrants, became rapidly Americanized. She excelled as a student and learned English well enough to teach it briefly in the United States and in Palestine. It became the language of communication with many of her closest friends who came from Yiddish-speaking families similar to hers.11 On leaving America in 1921 she was bilingual, although in both Yiddish and English she spoke much better than she wrote. There is no evidence, however, that she had read American literature or history widely or that she had acquired broad American cultural interests. In the pre-state era, she often reminded her coworkers that she knew more than “a little about America,” and she exhibited considerable knowledge of the American-Jewish scene. But she possessed scant acquaintance with general American affairs before the mid-1940s.
Her acknowledged early mentors were neither teachers nor authors, nor were they Americans. Rather, they were Zionist activists and thinkers, such as Baruch Zuckerman and Naḥman Syrkin, both also immigrants to the United States from Russia, and David Ben-Gurion and Yitzḥak Ben-Zvi, whom she met during their World War I exile in America.12 Essentially, the America which she experienced was immigrant Jewish America; and her American culture was a rather thin veneer.13 Her Jewish education was even less complete than her American. She had no formal Jewish schooling. Before her aliyah, she did not know Hebrew, the language of the new yishuv (she never lost her strong American accent); her knowledge of Zionist theory was rudimentary; even her familiarity with the Jewish religious tradition was superficial. In terms of education and culture, she was as much American as anything else, as Zuckerman later observed.14
Early on Meir came to feel that her own self-fulfillment and that of all Jews could occur only in Palestine. Only there could the Jew speak and act as a Jew. “The more than five million Jews in America live in a free and democratic country,” she remarked in 1944; but they cannot “say what they think nor demand their due without fear.”15 Only in Israel, she reiterated a quarter century later, was there “the possibility of living a full Jewish life, proud and secure.” For her and for many other Jews, that country was the place that was “the best, the most beautiful, and the only one for them.”16 She believed the land of Israel to be “a necessity to the . . . spiritual life of the Jewish people” everywhere. There they could “hope to create something finer and better,” she told American Jews in 1932 (emphasis hers). Jews in the Diaspora could never achieve their full potential. At most, working for Zionism and coming into contact with Palestinians might help them to make something of their wasted lives. Never, she declared some forty years after leaving the United States, did she feel she was making a sacrifice or giving “anything to anyone” by living in Israel. Rather, she felt that in the land of Israel she just “received and received.”17
When she left the United States, Meir seemed to do so with “no nostalgia, no regrets.”18 She burned her bridges, surrendering her passport when the ship docked in Naples (although she and her compatriots did later appeal to the American consul in Jaffa for help in retrieving their misplaced luggage).19 From then on the land of Israel was “home”; and to her the new home was preferable to the old, despite the necessity “to suffer a lot economically” and the danger of “pogroms again.”20 In subsequent years she often admitted to having affection for the United States, but she felt increasing “hatred towards exile.”21 On the eve of World War II, she rhapsodized over the good fortune of Palestinian Jews whose “notion of ‘home,’ be it a shack or even a tent, is that of a true home and . . . not that of an anchorage in the Diaspora.”22 Just after the war, she remarked that what united “the people from various countries” including the United States who had come to live in the land of Israel was their desire “to build with their own hands” a home that would be really “dear to their hearts.”23
Her rejection of the United States and the seeming superficiality of her acculturation to America notwithstanding, Meir took with her some weighty baggage when she emigrated: fundamental American values, characteristics and habits acquired during her sojourn, and ties to family and friends left behind. She departed a liberated woman and a confirmed democrat, who had little use for European notions of hierarchy and protocol.24 Her personality was in many ways an American one. She was blunt and outspoken. She “never disguised her meaning with flowery words,” seeking to “put an end to Jewish apologetics.”25 She was a pragmatic person, who shared the characteristic American suspicion of theory. (Europeans often accused Americans of making a “sport” out of serious issues, such as Zionism.)26 Meir liked to think of her practicality as representative of the Third Aliyah, the wave of immigration that had come from Poland and Russia in the 1920s. Although it coincided with some of the traits of the eastern European olim of that period, it was, of course, quintessentially American. She herself remarked in a 1932 letter to Chaim Arlosoroff that an American was “seldom . . . a scholar and a profound thinker.”27 In 1940 she described American youth in terms that suggested as much about her as about Americans. The main difference between American young people and Europeans, she said, is that Americans cannot be fed abstractions. “Only through concrete demands can one educate American youth.”28
Although she was only twenty-three when she left America, Meir had already acquired some training in the conduct of public affairs. Hers was the experience of the grassroots politician, not that of the social worker; and in some ways it was more appropriate to Palestine than the genteel, philanthropic experiences of Henrietta Szold. As a teenager she raised funds for immigrant relief and to buy schoolbooks for fellow pupils. She delivered streetcorner orations on socialism and Zionism, “as was the custom in America.”29 She fought for the Zionist cause among anti-Zionist Jewish workers and got herself elected a delegate to the American Jewish Congress in 1918, when she was only twenty years old. And she proved herself an indefatigable fund raiser for the Poale Zion Party in a campaign trip undertaken just a few weeks after her marriage. In the rough-and-tumble of America, where energy and talent counted for much, there were “boundless opportunities” for capable people, men and women alike, as Meir put it in one of her stock phrases. In the immigrant ghetto, the older generation often lacked the skills for success. Their children, however, retained the drive of their parents while learning the ways of American society; and parents “were willing to sacrifice everything to ensure” that their children forged ahead. Golda was one of those children; and the lessons she learned in America would serve her well in her new home.30
Goldie Myerson (far right) with the staff of the Jewish People’s School, Milwaukee, 16 July 1916. (Courtesy of the Golda Meir Memorial Association, Tel Aviv.)
On another level entirely, Meir had become an American. She was “steeped in the spirit of expansiveness, that America . . . radiates.”31 In her later years she liked to stay in the best hotels; and she often yearned for a good corned-beef sandwich.32 But even in her earlier, spartan days in Palestine, she maintained the habits of America: promoting nutritious oatmeal as a breakfast food instead of herring, insisting on clean, ironed clothes even when doing field work and on window screens to keep out the flies. Such habits may seem inconsequential, but to her fellow pioneers they were the “strange . . . way[s]” of “American aristocrats”; and they had the effect of separating Meir and her group from the olim who had come directly from eastern Europe.33
American plenty was also the source of inner conflict. Marie Syrkin, a close personal friend of Meir as well as her biographer and the daughter of her mentor, Naḥman Syrkin, observed that one of the push factors in Meir’s aliyah was the feeling of guilt for the good fortune she had enjoyed in America, while Jews in Europe were suffering deprivation and depredation.34 Reflecting in 1941 on the events of the First World War, Meir recalled that “Every one of us then lived with the feeling that he had no right to exist, no sanction for continuing to live a peaceful life while all of Jewry was expiring. . . . We felt it our duty to be together with the Jews of Pinsk and Proskerov.”35
Emigration would prove insufficient as a means of assuaging such guilt feelings, because many of those she met in Palestine refused to believe that America had been left behind. On the voyage over, Meir and her fellow travelers found themselves in the company of a group of Lithuanian pioneers who disdained them as “soft, spoilt” Americans. At Qantara, when they crossed the border into the Promised Land, a customs official told them that Palestine was not a place for “young Americans.” In Tel Aviv the almost destitute newcomers were welcomed as typical American “millionaires.”36 Such reminders reinforced Meir’s guilt and created another legacy, a strong need to live down her Americanness, to prove that she had not been spoiled by life in the goldene medine. On board ship, she insisted that the members of her group abandon their accommodations and sleep on deck to demonstrate their toughness.37 Berl Repetur, one of Golda’s close coworkers over the years, has noted that in the 1920s everyone in the yishuv was convinced that “those who would build the land . . . were the Russians . . . . They were [considered to be] the [real] Jewish nation, not the Americans.” Golda was determined, however, that the yishuv would come to recognize that there were genuine pioneers in America and that the land of Israel would be built by them too. From her, Repetur and others learned that “it was [simply] incorrect [to assume] that America didn’t produce pioneers.”38 It was a point Meir would feel the need to make over and over again. As late as 1942 in an angry exchange, she challenged a Mapai Party colleague who had questioned her labor bona fides to compare “pioneering records,” hers and his.39
In values and culture, in habits and hangups, then, there was much about Golda Meir that marked her as an American when she arrived in Palestine. Although she would work hard in subsequent years to overcome her background, much would remain ineradicably with her. At least some of what she had learned in America would serve her well, as she herself acknowledged. Moreover, as she could not have known in 1921, her American experiences were far from over. And in the years to come, America would, in some ways, loom even larger in her life.
For more than seven years after coming to Palestine, Meir did not set foot on American shores. At first she was very much a private person; but gradually she began to participate in the affairs of the yishuv. The period from 1921 to 1928 is a kind of dark ages in her biography, both because of the dearth of sources and because of the repetitive and stereotypical nature of the material that exists. Still, some information is available, and from it patterns emerge.
Apparently Meir had decided while still in the United States to settle on the land in Kibbutz Merḥavya. The choice reflects both her desire to live down America and her continuing tie to the country she had left. Living on the land was surely the most difficult option available. Her husband opposed the move and was altogether unsuited to kibbutz life; even her ideologically oriented sister, Sheyne, did not go along. Golda, however, was determined to realize the pioneering ideal of the yishuv. At first the young couple was not accepted by the kibbutz. Although eager for new members, the veterans feared, as Meir later remembered, “that an American girl would [not] do the hard physical work required,” that she would look upon kibbutz life as “a sport.”40 She set out to prove them wrong, being “careful not to make any slip expected of an American girl.” She shunned no task as too difficult, mastered the art of poultry raising despite her fear of chickens, and forced herself “to eat every kind of food . . . , even if it was hard to look at.”41 Meir might have considered pioneering in the land of Israel as related to the experience of American frontiersmen. There is no suggestion, however, that she did. For her the abstemious life on a struggling commune was as far from bourgeois America as she could get.
And yet Merḥavya was not all that far from America! Its members included a number of American veterans of the Jewish Legion. One, Meir Dubinsky, had been Golda’s “closest [male] friend”; and it was he who had drawn her interest to the kibbutz.42 Another was Neḥemiah Rabin, whose son Yitzḥak served as army chief of staff and then as Israel’s ambassador to Washington before becoming prime minister. Merḥavya members were suspicious of Americans, in part because they were familiar with them; undoubtedly, as former Americans, they also felt the need to prove themselves unspoiled by the Golden West.
Merḥavya was not Golda’s only contact with Americans during the years of acclimatization in Palestine. She kept in touch with the friends with whom she had come, especially Regina (Hamburger) Medzini. And there was her family. Her husband, Morris, was also a Russian-Jewish immigrant to the United States. Self-taught but steeped in Western culture, he was more deeply rooted in English than his wife. Although in the early years, when the family was still together, Morris and Golda spoke Yiddish to their children and perhaps between themselves, English was his preferred language and was surely heard at home.43 While the Myersons were at Merḥavya there was relatively limited contact between them and Sheyne’s family in Tel Aviv. Because of Morris, they returned to town. Then they lived for a time with Sheyne, whose husband had originally remained in the United States to earn a grubstake for his family. In later years he would return there, when making a living in Palestine proved difficult. In Tel Aviv, Sheyne found housing in buildings erected by Americans (the “old-boy tie” and an appreciation of American construction standards) and work with the Hadassah Medical Organization. In later years, Golda, like other Laborites, would be critical of Hadassah, especially in the late 1930s when she served as chair of Kupat Ḥolim. Now, perhaps because of Sheyne, perhaps because she appreciated the high quality of American medicine, she had words of praise for the organization.44
Originally the two sisters had expected that Clara (Zipke), their youngest sibling, would join them in Palestine. Although Clara never came, the parents made aliyah in 1926, settling in Herzliya, a new town developed by the American Zion Commonwealth.45 (Despite her parents’ connections, Meir shared the generally negative attitudes of most Laborites towards the AZC.)46 During these years, then, the members of the Mabovitch/Myerson family reinforced the Americanness of one another through a variety of “old-country” connections which helped to sustain them in their new life.
At work during the 1920s and in public life in the Histadrut and its women’s affiliate, the Working Women’s Council, Meir also felt an American presence. In 1924 she was employed by the Histadrut construction firm (later called Solel Boneh). One of her coworkers was the wife of Neḥemiah Rabin, Rosa, with whom Golda did not get along, despite their common American bond.47 Even earlier, the Histadrut leaders, who needed workers fluent in English to deal with the Mandatory government and for propaganda and fund-raising work among English speakers, had sensed her potential usefulness. In 1923 Meir acted as guide for the first time to a bigwig visitor, the wife of Phillip Snowden, the British labor leader. Despite her initial reluctance, her success in “igniting” VIPs, especially Americans, ensured that she would frequently be called upon for such tasks. She came to realize that anti-Zionists who had the right sort of experience in Palestine “of necessity alter their views,” and that “members of our movement” also needed to be guided carefully around the yishuv if they were to return home as ambassadors for the cause.48 Even when she had no specific job to perform, she was often present at Histadrut events related to America, such as the reception held in Tel Aviv in 1925 for Forverts editor Abe Cahan.49
Meir’s activities in the Working Women’s Council and the Histadrut during these years led her to be recognized as a person of some promise by the leaders of the Palestine labor movement: Ben-Gurion, Katznelson, Ada Maimon, David Remez, and others. Partly as a result of their influence, her ideas about the United States and about almost everything else began to crystallize, although America remained a peripheral concern, at most. As early as 1922, she may have begun to voice the notion that American Jews had a duty to support Jewish institutions in Palestine if they were not coming on aliyah themselves.50 Three years later during an HEC discussion of the parlous financial condition of Solel Boneh, she asserted a principle which she would espouse for more than a decade, although it was one of the few that she would eventually renounce. In contrast to Yitzḥak Ben-Zvi and others, she insisted that the Histadrut had the moral right to use American funds as it pleased, even if the money had been solicited for a different purpose. That way independence from the American donors could be maintained. “The comrades in America,” she mistakenly assured her compatriots, “will understand us.”51
The year 1928 marked the end of Meir’s period of integration into the yishuv. She was by then rather well known in labor circles, a leader of the second rank, at least. She was serving on the secretariat of the Working Women’s Council and had achieved a position of some power in that organization. The Histadrut leaders recognized her as a suitable international spokesperson for Palestine Labor. Twice they chose her as a delegate to an international conference, in 1924 to a labor conclave in Vienna and in 1928 to a women’s conference in Brussels. She did not attend the 1924 gathering, perhaps because she was pregnant with her first child. At the second meeting she apparently acquitted herself well, although the event went largely unnoticed.52
More significantly, Golda’s Labor comrades began to see her potential for propaganda and organizational work in the English-speaking world, especially in the United States. In December 1928, they dispatched her to America for the first time since she had left on aliyah. Having proved to herself and others that she was not a “spoilt” American, she was prepared to go. Between then and mid-1938 she would spend a part of every year in the United States (except for 1930, when she undertook a mission to England instead), in total, almost four years. On these trips, she worked closely with fund raisers, youth, women’s organizations, and the League for Labor Palestine, all within the Labor Zionist ambit. These tours of duty would provide the decisive push in her rise to power in the yishuv, by offering an optimum forum for the demonstration of her considerable political and fund-raising talents, and by allowing her to develop a power base in America. Her activities, moreover, led naturally to new responsibilities related to the United States and its Jews, first within the Palestine labor movement, then in the official institutions of the yishuv.
To finance its burgeoning activities, the Histadrut had been conducting fund-raising campaigns in North America since the time of Katznelson’s trip in 1921–22 (annually from 1924 under the aegis of the non-Zionist federation of Jewish trade unions, the United Hebrew Trades [in Yiddish, Geverkshaften], and hence, the name, Geverkshaften Campaign). Like most Zionist institutions the Histadrut was chronically short of funds; and as the tempo of its activities heightened in the 1920s, it came to depend upon America for most of its operating budget. To many this dependency was particularly unwelcome, because bourgeois America represented, as it did to Golda, the antithesis of their values. Yosef Sprinzak, the future speaker of the Israeli Knesset, expressed a common sentiment in 1923 when he declared his “organic antipathy to America.”53 David Remez, however, Golda’s chief sponsor and longtime lover, noted at an HEC meeting in September 1928, that the organization “was standing on its [financial] head. We have dived into a sea of troubles,” he said, “and the only breathing tube [available] is the Campaign [in America].”54 Antipathy to America had become an unaffordable luxury. Throughout the fall of 1928 the Histadrut Executive was increasingly preoccupied with American affairs, especially the Campaign.55 Eliyahu Golomb, the future military leader, tried to comfort those who were anxious about the growing dependency. “It has become accepted in the Zionist world,” he said, “that the yishuv can be built [only] with the help of the Diaspora; and the Histadrut Campaign in America is one of the ways [of mobilizing that help].”56
Notwithstanding their eagerness to distance themselves from all aspects of the life style of the pietists, Zionists of all stripes, including the Laborites, adopted the tried-and-true means of financing their work: fund raising abroad, especially in the New World. For the “delegates” from Palestine it was an exhausting and often frustrating exercise in public relations for which many had no talent. Moreover, absence from home for such long periods was often detrimental to family life and career. Not surprisingly, there were few eager volunteers, although some, like Golda, probably preferred to be away from their families.
Despite the desperate financial situation, 1928 was a year in which the Histadrut found it almost impossible to draft a delegation. Raḥel Yana’it Ben-Zvi had just completed a stint with the Pioneer Women’s Organization, the women’s arm of the American Poale Zion-Zeire Zion Party, which was insisting on a replacement in time for their October convention. The Geverkshaften Campaign leaders urged that a strong delegation be sent to them even earlier. Likely candidates were reluctant, however, and needed considerable persuasion. Golda arrived only in early December, and her coworkers, David (Blumenfeld) Bloch and Israel Mereminsky (Merom), even later. Chaim Arlosoroff was already in the United States and was co-opted by the newcomers. The Americans, who had little understanding of the personal hardship that the tours involved, were put out. The Palestinians were unable to understand why schedules could not be altered to accommodate them. They had little appreciation of American notions of planning and efficiency; and they often seemed to disdain their benefactors.57 Golda learned quickly to do business in the American manner. After her return to Palestine, she entreated her colleagues to respond promptly to requests from the United States. In later years she earned kudos for her promptness.58
The Americans’ annoyance melted away when Meir, who came as very much an unknown quantity, set to work immediately and made “an excellent impression overall.”59 As the year was ending, she earned her fund-raising spurs. At the closing session of the National Labor Committee for Palestine convention in New York, the thirty-year-old woman, who had not seen American shores for seven years and had never appeared before a major American organization, addressed the 585 convention delegates, most of whom were male and organization veterans, very much her senior. But it was she of all the speakers who “brought the convention to its highest pitch of enthusiasm.”60
For the next six months she traveled across the country speaking to Campaign rallies, writing the occasional article, and working closely with Labor Zionists. She devoted much of her attention to the Pioneer Women’s Organization, which had been founded four years earlier. Now it was providing almost 95 percent of the budget of the Working Women’s Council and had begun to send olim to Palestine.61 Golda grasped intuitively the special problem of the wives of working-class American Jews, who had no public outlet for their Zionist enthusiasm. She sought to give “the intelligent Jewish woman in America . . . an opportunity to give the best that is in her.” She carefully delineated her goals for the Pioneer Women and distinguished them from those of the well established, enormously successful, middle-class women’s organization, Hadassah. Hadassah, she said, offered aid to the needy and the sick. The Pioneer Women would concern themselves with the healthy, helping them to become useful and productive; they would “work with the Chalutzoth of Palestine,” not for them (emphasis hers). She pointed out to her audiences that “the agricultural enterprises of the [Palestine] working women . . . [were] all self-sustaining.” And she aimed her pitch at “the younger, English-speaking generation,” the only ones, she believed, who could build a working-class women’s group in America.62 “In every place she . . . visited . . . [she was] very successful,” so much so that the American Poale Zion-Zeire Zion Party placed her name in fourth place on their list of candidates for the upcoming World Zionist Congress, ahead of the few other nonresident candidates, all of them male.63
Golda’s achievement was rooted in her earlier experiences. She had a good working knowledge of America. The stress on health, youth, and financial success struck a responsive chord with her audiences; and her expansiveness allowed her to see the bright, promising side of American life in those last days of prosperity before the Great Depression. There is no evidence that she paid much attention to America at large; and what little she saw was not tempting. She boasted that in Palestine, unlike America, life had a high tone; it was not a sport: “There are no gangsters, policemen, or flappers.”64
Her America was still that of the immigrant Jews; and it was still the “land of unlimited possibilities” including Zionist possibilities, for those with energy and know-how. The Pioneer Women she found to be “idealistic, politically committed, liberal young women to who [sic] what was happening in Palestine really mattered.”65 Some might think forty thousand donors to the Geverkshaften Campaign a small number in a Jewish community of some four million. She, however, accentuated the positive, focusing on the growth of the Campaign since its inception.66 Some of her colleagues saw a great gap between themselves and American Jews and were especially pessimistic about the prospect of getting support from the non-Zionist Jewish workers in America. She, however, exulted that “the Palestinian workers have begun to dig a tunnel to reach their American brothers and . . . the American Jewish workers have heard the chop of our hammers. . . . The wall of separation is being broken down and the union is coming.”67
Others had ceased to believe that American Jews would go to Palestine. She, however, found “many who looked upon their residence in the United States as temporary” and were ripe candidates for aliyah.68 She felt close to American Jews and refused to see them as a lost generation. She—and her family—were, after all, partly products of America and proof of the hope it offered to Zionism. The Americans reciprocated the affection and responded to her charisma and to her upbeat approach. As a result, she could “dare . . . to hit hard and to make demands,” in a way that other emissaries, less in tune with America, could not.69 (Raḥel Yana’it, no minor leaguer, complained in 1928 that often on her recent tour of America “the comrades shut their ears” to her pleas.)70
Not all was rosy in America for Meir. Her sister, Clara, and brother-in-law had been lost to communism; and there was a danger that many more American Jews, who might otherwise be Zionists, would go the same way.71 At the other end of the social spectrum, she doubted any good would come from “the men of the salon,” the wealthy, acculturated American Jews, such as Louis Marshall and Felix Warburg. She met some of them on her way home from the United States during her stopover in Europe for the Zionist Congress; and like many other Palestinian Jews, she came to fear that their non-Zionism would hamper the settlement work of the newly reconstituted Jewish Agency.72 She sometimes despaired of convincing the veterans of the Pioneer Women’s Organization that to keep the group viable they would have to attract young people and abandon Yiddish. It also proved difficult to convince her colleagues in Palestine, who preferred to work with the semi-Americanized, Yiddish-speaking oldsters, that they needed to develop propaganda materials in English.73 Unlike many of the non-American emissaries, Golda believed these problems could be overcome through intimate “internal work,” at which she was a master, rather than the usual “large public gatherings” to which her colleagues less familiar with America were limited.74
On the personal level, this first trip back enabled Meir to develop a new means of dealing with her guilt for having had a secure American childhood and teenage. She began to channel the guilt into making America, the bountiful, into an institution for upbuilding the yishuv. Whatever was necessary to enhance that institution would be done, including long absences from Palestine. Visits to America, though, were business, not pleasure, trips. The pattern was established in 1921 during her stopover in New York to earn money for the passage to Palestine. Morris had sought out the “theater, music, and book stores” of the metropolis. Golda had spent her leisure hours at “constant meetings with Labor Zionist colleagues.”75 During her extended stay from 1931 to 1934, she took her children to see the sights of New York; and in 1937 she found time to attend the Yiddish theater.76 Such jaunts, however, were exceptions. In these years, at least, Golda abjured American pleasures. Ironically, for her, returning to the United States was to be another way of renouncing America.
On the professional level, the 1928–29 tour of the United States allowed Golda’s talents for fund raising and organizational work to shine. Overnight she became by far “the most popular” Histadrut figure in America, as her comrades in Palestine quickly recognized.77 In fact, she became so popular that in subsequent years the Americans—especially the Pioneer Women—would often insist that she was the only acceptable emissary. The result was that other potential emissaries acquired a “fear of America.”78 In the spring of 1930 the Pioneer Women pleaded for her return. “The extraordinarily good mood and impression” she had created the previous year led them to believe that with her help they “could capture an unprecedented number of . . . English-speaking young people, who would certainly become involved in our work [and] . . . help . . . greatly [to] broaden our influence.”79 In August the Americans declared peremptorily “that the least she must remain with us is five months and that is not enough.”80
Meir’s successes in America provided her with the beginnings of a power base in the United States, which, in turn, “gave [her] . . . an entry ticket” to the upper echelons of the Palestine labor movement.81 Like her, the comrades had come to understand that the “work” in Palestine “was made possible only thanks to the funds from America.”82 Because she proved so good at fund raising, her colleagues now came to value her very greatly indeed. Soon after her return to Palestine in the late summer of 1929, Meir was made a member of the active secretariat of the Working Women’s Council, its inner circle. The labor leadership now saw her as someone who could bear major responsibility both in Palestine and in the English-speaking world. Her presence was deemed essential whenever American affairs were under consideration, and that was more and more often.83 When the Mapai Party was established in 1930, Meir was one of the founding leaders. In the same year, along with Ben-Gurion and Dov Hoz, she was chosen to represent the Palestine labor movement at the Imperial Labor Conference in London.
That conclave held considerable significance for the Histadrut leaders, who sought to gain friends for Zionism from among the working people of the Empire. Golda’s presence there was a sign of her growing stature in the yishuv; and she did not disappoint her mentors. Ben-Gurion reported that her speech “shook the Conference,” that it was delivered with “genius, forcefulness, bitterness, pain, and taste.” Golda was proving she could serve as spokesperson to the world at large, not just to American Jews.84
In the summer of 1931 the Working Women’s Council, the Mapai Party, and the Histadrut finally acceded to the importuning of America and ordered Meir to undertake a second tour of duty there.85 She would remain until the summer of 1934, except for a two-month home leave in July and August of 1932 to report to the comrades, recharge her batteries, and fetch her two children. Meir had personal reasons for agreeing to the long stay. Her daughter, Sarah, required medical treatment not available in the yishuv. Her marriage now was quite shaky; and Zalman Rubashov (later, Shazar), the journalist and future president of Israel with whom she was then romantically involved, would also be in the United States.86 During this extended visit, she firmly established herself as a power to be reckoned with on both sides of the ocean.
Before leaving Palestine, she asked her colleagues for a plan of action. Ben-Gurion refused, realizing that it was “impossible . . . to dictate directives to America” from Palestine. He undoubtedly also knew that Meir could be trusted to act in Labor’s interest.87 She arrived in October with a clear sense of purpose, “at an extraordinarily difficult, and therefore demanding, time,” as she asserted on her arrival, confident that the yishuv, “together with” American Jewry, would achieve “ultimate victory [in] . . . the struggle . . . still ahead.”88
She explained to her children that “it was her job . . . to tell some of the Jews of America to come and help and to tell others to give money so we can help ourselves.”89 Aliyah took a back seat to fund raising, because immigration certificates were rationed by the British; and Jews in America, unlike those in an increasingly unstable Europe, were safe, if less prosperous than before. (Of the certificates it was allocated for pioneers in 1935, the Jewish Agency apportioned 1,250 to Berlin and 2,250 to Warsaw, but only 55 to New York.)90 She sought to promote aliyah by assisting the “many comrades from America [who were eager] to get to Palestine” but appreciated the need to foster the allegiance of those who “will never come to live in Palestine, but whose hearts are with us and who understand us.”91 For a resolute Zionist with maximalist commitments, that was a most unusual concession to European and American—and Palestinian—realities. Aliyah might be deferred, but Golda could no longer “imagine a Palestine workers’ movement without a campaign” in America, although she believed that campaigns needed “positive content.” By that she meant “concrete,” specific projects for which gifts could be designated. These could arouse “the enthusiasm” of donors, in contrast to debt service, which, however necessary, dampened their spirits.92
Officially, Meir came as a “delegate” to the Pioneer Women’s Organization. She determined to make the still rather disorganized group into an efficient Zionist instrument. As its secretary (in effect, the executive vice-president), Golda sought “to bring order and system to the educational work [of the women], to deepen the[ir] political understanding, and to enrich the[ir] organizational experience.”93 She undertook to visit “most clubs” in the United States and Canada at least once, conducting “three or four meetings every day, followed by discussions until the wee hours.” Many groups she visited several times. “Very often [she] . . . was exhausted.”94 In addition to her other tasks, she organized conferences and a summer encampment for youngsters and acted as an ambassador to other women’s groups, especially Hadassah and the non-Zionist National Council of Jewish Women. From them, too, she secured financial aid for the Working Women’s Council.95 Although she later remembered having edited the Pioneer Woman, its masthead never carried her name.96
As a result of her labors, membership in the organization rose to more than four thousand, including, for the first time, “young American women” seeking “solution[s] to various national and social problems and content for their lives.”97 She managed to maintain the level of giving, “despite the hard times.”98 Yosef Sprinzak wrote to the Mapai Center in the summer of 1934 that by then the Pioneer Women was “the best organized” group in the Labor-Zionist camp, thanks to Meir. Early in her mission, Meir herself proclaimed the significance of her accomplishments. She told the Americans that “Hearing the notes of thousands of comrades from the coldest points of western Canada to Texas, from the noisy and tumultuous New York to California of marvellous beauty similar to that of Palestine—provides extraordinary encouragement for the comrades in Palestine.” Under her tutelage, she noted, the Pioneer Women’s Organization had become “the most vital element of the [American Labor Zionist] movement,” although she viewed that fact as a “sad” commentary on the rest of the movement. It was a judgment with which her American coworkers concurred.99 By 1934, she could claim that the group had become “a substantial political force.” She considered it a major achievement to have harnessed that force for the common Zionist good by discouraging the women from turning the Pioneer Women into a radical feminist splinter group. At the same time, she established the principle that any Labor mission to America must include a woman prepared to deal with women’s concerns.100
When she returned to Palestine, Golda “left [behind] her influence everywhere on everyone” in the organization.101 Her “simplicity and logical way of thinking” had made “the greatest impact” on the Pioneer Women, creating “a magical, holiday atmosphere” that continued to inspire maximum output long after her departure. To them she was “our Goldie . . . one of us, reared and trained in America.”102 Groups from Omaha to Washington perpetuated the memory of her visit by adopting her name. In the yishuv, her accomplishments were widely recognized, although female coworkers, perhaps out of jealousy, were less enthusiastic than the men. When asked to take Golda’s place in the United States, Ada Fishman (Maimon), the sister of Rabbi Y. L. Fishman, replied disparagingly that she “had no faith in the work in America.” Some months later, Elisheva Kaplan, then in the United States, remarked that as yet the Working Women’s Council exerted influence there only within a very narrow circle and that “changes needed to be made” with regard to the delegate’s role. Ben-Gurion, however, accepted Golda’s self-evaluation. He echoed her words in describing the Pioneer Women as “the most significant part of our movement in America, deserving of nurture and care.” Characteristically, he declared his own opinion to be “the consensus.”103
After leaving the United States in 1934, Golda’s interest in the Pioneer Women diminished, in part, no doubt, because she began again to focus largely on the yishuv and, as a result, to readjust her priorities. In a retrospective speech to the Histadrut Council in 1941, she described the Pioneer Women as “a magnificent movement,” which had succeeded in “putting an end . . . to the loneliness of the Jewish mother” and in harnessing her energies for Zionism.104 But during her 1936 “tour” of America, she found relatively little time for the organization; and in the years following, the records indicate few contacts between her and her erstwhile American comrades. She firmly refused to travel to America for their 1947 convention, despite the hard-sell of Bert Goldstein, who was convinced that an appearance by Golda could transform the group into “the most important woman’s Zionist organization” in America. But by then Meir had to attend to more pressing matters at home, where the Arabs were attempting to strangle the as yet unborn Jewish state.105
Her duties with the Pioneer Women might have constituted a full workload for someone less energetic or less committed. Meir, however, labored almost as hard raising money for the Geverkshaften Campaign and for Labor institutions, such as the Kupat Ḥolim health insurance scheme and its clinics and hospitals, and Yachin, the Histadrut settlement company.106 Her fund-raising coworkers included Rubashov, Israel Mereminsky, Shimon Kushiner, and Yosef Sprinzak.
“The terrible economic conditions,” which, Meir noted, “deteriorated by the day,” caused a radical decline in donations to the Keren HaYesod and the Keren Kayemet.107 The Laborites, however, believed that their campaign served as “the front line of the nation,” not only providing needed funds but also “conquering [the] hearts” of American Jews for Zionism.108 They sympathized with unemployed workers and the “even worse-off middle class” in the United States; but in light of the economic collapse of the capitalist world and the resurgence of antisemitism in central Europe, they felt more the urgency of the situation in Palestine, where the “need of the hour [was] as never before.”109 Despite some reticence about “appearing with their hands out” in depression times,110 they put forth an extraordinary effort. Rubashov visited some four hundred cities and towns for the Campaign in 1931–32. Sometimes Golda combined work for the Pioneer Women with Campaign duties; sometimes she traveled exclusively on behalf of the Campaign.111 Thanks to the efforts of the Palestinians and their American colleagues the Geverkshaften Campaign sustained a better level of giving than most drives during those years.
The comrades in Palestine were not always appreciative of the hard work or the hard times. In November 1932, Eliyahu Dobkin wrote to Mereminsky on behalf of the Histadrut Executive that he hoped “for more income” from the Campaign; he also suggested “additional cutbacks” to the already lean fund-raising budget. And there were repeated complaints that Golda did not report often enough on her comings and goings.112
Another area of intense involvement for Meir during these years was youth work. Others had given up on American youth; and, as noted earlier, she, too, recognized the emptiness of the flapper age and the lure of both communism and Revisionist Zionism in those depression years. Together with Mereminsky, however, she was convinced that the early 1930s offered unprecedented “opportunities to capture the youth in America” and expressed confidence that “the Labor movement in Palestine . . . [could] serve as a guide to the troubled minds and souls of Jewish Youth [sic] in America.” In 1930 she reminded her colleagues in the Mapai Center that young Americans were coming to Palestine “as pioneers, despite . . . [the party’s] lack of energy” in recruiting them.113
As a youth worker, even in a summer camp setting, her programming was sometimes “too heavily laden”; she was occasionally hampered by the inability to relax and to deal openly with young people; and she did not always take account of the differences between Americans and Palestinians. In 1932, for example, she told the American Young Poale Zion convention that “the individual who must, for some reason beyond his control, remain outside of Palestine must feel that great personal misfortune has occurred in his life.” Not surprisingly, the young people were “dissatisfied.”114 Even so, she understood the importance of English-speaking leadership; she was willing to allocate scarce manpower for youth work in America; and her energy and can-do personality proved appealing to young Americans.115
During her first American trip, Golda had addressed the Boston and Ann Arbor chapters of Avukah, the student Zionist group. In 1931–32 she reached out successfully to the student elite, appearing before Avukah groups at Harvard and the University of Chicago and at the national convention of the organization. In the summer of 1933 she taught at the Avukah Summer School, together with Professor Shalom Spiegel of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Simon Greenberg, and others, impressive colleagues for a graduate of the Wisconsin Normal School. She retained a long-distance relationship with Avukah for a number of years.116 In November 1932, she was one of the instructors of a five-week course given by the Menorah Society at the City College of New York; and in May 1933 she lectured on “idealogy and leadership technique” [sic] to the Central Community Younger Clubs of Brooklyn. Meir also helped to organize the summer encampments of Labor Zionist youth groups, at which she aroused yearning for the “healthy society . . . in Palestine.”117
The HeḤalutz youth movement occupied much of her time. A fairly loose aggregation of groups dedicated to pioneering settlement in Palestine, the organization had been one of the projects promoted by Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi during their World War I sojourn in the New World, of which more below. Although it prospered elsewhere, HeḤalutz had languished in America. In late 1932 there were fewer than one hundred members in all of North America, as opposed to some forty-one thousand in Poland a year later.118 The more left-wing HaShomer HaTza’ir youth organization was somewhat more successful in reaching out to Americans.
As was the case with most aspects of American Zionism, Golda evaluated “the pioneering commitments” of young Zionists there “more highly” than did her Histadrut colleagues from eastern Europe. Some time earlier she had accused the Histadrut of having “sinned” in not promoting HeḤalutz in America, as it had in Poland and Rumania.119 From 1932 to 1934 she sought to strengthen the organization through the merger of HaShomer HaTza’ir and other Labor-affiliated youth groups, including Gordonia and the Young Poale Zion, into a unified American HeḤalutz. (The HaShomer HaTza’ir leadership complained of her partisanship in favor of groups associated with the Palestine Mapai Party and remained independent until 1939.) She also helped to organize HeḤalutz activities, spoke to young pioneers at the group’s training farm in New Jersey, and served as a member of its adult council. The result was a steady, but not spectacular, increase in membership.120 In 1936, the American HeḤalutz “was still not a large movement,” although Meir claimed that a discerning observer could detect “signs of growth.” By 1945 she had to admit that the American Poale Zion “had not succeeded in spawning a mass pioneering movement, for whatever reasons,” but she gave them considerable credit for their more limited achievements in the relatively uncongenial American setting.121
An aspect of American Zionism which did not seem promising to Golda was the Labor Zionist political parties. The natural allies of Mapai and the Histadrut, the American Poale Zion and the smaller parties had an aging membership uninterested in aliyah. In fact, Golda charged in 1932, they were generally uninterested in any meaningful activity. The party’s leaders, she reported to her colleagues in Palestine, were “not the most talented” and not united. Ostensibly the heads of a socialist-Zionist organization, they seemed disengaged from both socialism and Zionism. It was “clear” to her that “no activities could be undertaken given the present situation [and] that only a prolonged war for the sake of the party” could bring about change. Over two decades later her bleak assessment remained unchanged.122
The League for Labor Palestine provided an alternative to the political parties, and it was yet another focus of Golda’s attention during her 1931–34 American tour of duty. It was an institution she helped to found. Conceived as the “iron front” of American Labor Zionism the purpose of which was “to create a periphery” for the movement, the League was essentially a “front organization” modeled on the communist leagues in the United States and on established support groups for Palestine laborers in Europe.123 From 1931, Meir worked on the League together with Mereminsky and others. She addressed League chapters across the country, adding them to her crowded itinerary. Through the League she hoped to “make Eretz Yisrael [Palestine] popular among the Jewish masses [in America] . . . , just as the communists [had done with] . . . Russia,” although she refused to assume an official position in the new organization.124
By mid-1937 the League had enrolled almost three thousand members in seventy chapters around the country, including intellectuals, staid Hadassah women, and non-Zionist members of the National Council of Jewish Women brought on board by Golda, whose “brilliant lectures . . . created a wonderful sentiment.” As intended, the League made Zionism respectable to “groups which had [previously] been inaccessible” to the movement. (One St. Louis “lady” was so taken by Meir’s discussion of the League that she volunteered her support, if the organizers would agree to “omit . . . two words [from its name]: ‘Labor’ and ‘Palestine.’”) There was even a chapter at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where some students and faculty members maintained the staunch anti-Zionism of classical Reform Judaism. The League’s upper-middlebrow journal, Jewish Frontier, was endorsed by Justice Brandeis. In 1937 it claimed a circulation of eleven thousand and had become so successful that some of the Palestinians proposed removing it from League control and turning it into a Labor-Zionist movement journal.125
Despite the anxiety of some American Labor-Zionist party stalwarts about competition from the League and the scepticism of some of her Histadrut colleagues regarding its worth,126 Meir took justified pride in its success. She believed that “the scope of work and the people that have been drown [sic] into it certainly make one certain that at last we are beginning to build something serious and worthwhile.” Jewish Frontier, she declared in 1935, “is something that our movement in the States never dared to attempt before.” Its advent, she asserted, marked a timely departure from “our kinder-garden [sic] stage.” Never much of a reader, she had “managed to read several articles.”127 In subsequent years Meir remained a staunch supporter of the League. Although she refused to heed a summons to serve it as a special emissary, and only reluctantly agreed to support its activities at the expense of remittances to Palestine, she acted as an advisor from afar and made herself available to chapters when she returned to the United States.128
Golda’s other major activity during this extended stay was acting as an ambassador of Labor Zionism. Her tasks were ceremonial and political. In addition to participating in movement gatherings of all sorts, she appeared at conventions of the Socialist Party of America, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Workmen’s Circle, and other non-Zionist organizations giving the Palestine workers and Zionism, as a whole, much favorable exposure.129 Meir took part in negotiations with Jewish labor leaders in an effort to bring non-Zionist workers into the Zionist orbit.130 And she assumed a major role in the battle against Revisionism, lecturing to more than one thousand New York Poale Zion in November 1932 on the evils of Jabotinsky and his followers. She took to task the president of Hadassah who encouraged supporting the Revisionists at the 1933 Zionist Congress, and denounced the New York Morgn Zhurnal for its “vicious” pro-Revisionist, anti-labor stance.131 Her Histadrut colleagues wanted even more vigorous action. They urged her and Mereminsky to charge the Revisionists with slander before a Zionist court for having claimed in the Morgn Zhurnal that Revisionists were excluded from Histadrut elections and discriminated against in the workplace, and that Palestine Laborites had beaten a Revisionist to death.132 Some months after her return to Palestine in 1934, Golda was dismayed to discover that “organized” Labor gangs had in fact been attacking Revisionists and that she “had told a lie” in America when she denied that possibility. She swore never again to “travel abroad” on behalf of Labor, a vow she did not keep for long.133
It is perhaps something of an exaggeration to say that during her 1931–34 sojourn in America, Meir succeeded in creating there an effective Labor-Zionist infrastructure, and in transforming Labor Zionism into an “American” movement. The Pioneer Women, the League for Labor Palestine, and Jewish Frontier were not her brainchildren; they were not the only viable Labor-Zionist institutions; nor was she alone responsible for their newfound popularity and effectiveness. But she played a major role, perhaps the major role, in strengthening those institutions and enabling them to supplant, as the standard-bearers of the movement, the ineffectual political parties, always viewed as “foreign” transplants with appeal only to immigrants. In so doing she had become herself an American Labor Zionist leader. The American Poale Zion-Zeirei Zion again chose her as one of their delegates to the World Zionist Congress. This time, too, she was fourth on the slate. Ben-Gurion, by contrast, was ninety-ninth and last.134
Meir’s triumphs in the United States in the early 1930s are attributable to her personality, her organizing talents, her tremendous energy, her earlier American experiences, her unwavering faith in Zionism, and her confidence in the Zionist potential of America, which she knew how to exploit. More than anything else, however, her achievements were connected to her extraordinary ability to communicate with ordinary American Jews. Towards the end of her life, Meir wrote a foreword to a biography of Yisrael Merom (Mereminsky), her fellow Histadrut emissary in the United States in the early 1930s. Her words apply to her no less than to him. Merom, she said, had “the ability to talk to simple workers . . . in a way that made them feel that a fellow-worker was sincerely sharing with them the needs and problems which confronted [both] them in America and their counterparts in the Histadrut.”135
One further aspect of Golda’s mission requires comment. Her stay in the United States coincided with one of the most turbulent periods of American history. These were the years of the Great Depression, the banking crisis, the election of Franklin Roosevelt as president, the beginning of the New Deal. Curiously, there is no echo of these earthshaking happenings in Meir’s letters, her oral and written reports, or her articles, other than terse references to the “hard times” being experienced by individual Jews and Jewish organizations. Her later reflections on the period are similarly silent. Apparently she did not recognize any relevance then or later in the events of those days to the yishuv. Nor did she discern anything translatable to Palestine, although, at the least, some of the New Deal innovations might have provided instructive models for dealing with chronic unemployment.
Goldie Myerson (second row, fifth from left) with the members of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Pioneer Women’s Organization, 20 February 1934. (Courtesy of the Golda Meir Memorial Association, Tel Aviv.)
Meir’s America remained circumscribed by the borders of the Jewish community. And even then, her vision was selective. In 1941 she addressed the Histadrut study seminar on the subject of “Mutual Aid in Times of Crisis.” Only the Histadrut, she claimed, cared about its members’ needs; union members elsewhere “felt no responsibility for each other” and limited their interest to wages.136 But American unions, particularly those with heavy Jewish involvement, such as the International Ladies Garment Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, had pioneered in the areas of health care, subsidized housing, unemployment and disability benefits, adult education, and cooperative banking.137 Golda could not have been unaware of these activities. The knowledge might have been of use to her, if not immediately, then after 1935, when she held responsibility in the Histadrut Executive for the social services sector, or later, when she served as Israel’s second minister of labor and social welfare. In the 1930s, however, her sights were fixed firmly on the yishuv. America could provide financial aid for Palestine and olim; it could not be a model. An interesting exception to the rule occurred in 1942 during a discussion in the Mapai Party Center of a new law forbidding wartime strikes. Golda cited the example of John L. Lewis, the head of the United Mine Workers of America, who promised Roosevelt there would be no coal strikes during the war, even though he was an implacable foe of the president.138
Yosef Sprinzak put a somewhat different spin on Meir’s sensibilities. She was, he wrote to his wife in 1934, “the most successful” Histadrut emissary to America and the “best suited to that place and its conditions,” and yet she remained “immersed [in] . . . the [Labor] movement in Palestine.”139 In appreciation of her ability to function in both worlds, and perhaps also of her Palestinian blinders, Golda was invited to join the secretariat of the HEC and the Mapai Central Committee soon after her return to Palestine. In effect, she became Labor’s “minister of American affairs.” Mapai was by then the dominant party in Palestine; and Ben-Gurion headed the Jewish Agency. Golda now belonged to the policymaking elite of the yishuv.
The rise of Hitler, moreover, as well as the deteriorating situation of Polish Jewry, and Britain’s steady backing away from its commitment to Zionism in the mid-thirties propelled America to the forefront of Zionists’ consciousness. With Polish Jewry leaning heavily towards Revisionism, the Palestine Labor leadership was coming to see America as “the single . . . most important Jewish center . . . upon which depends the realization of [our kind of] Zionism.”140 The United States, Golda reminded the Histadrut National Council in 1937, was home to “the largest and strongest and politically most powerful” Jewish community in the world.141 For the yishuv as a whole, America had become “the place to which we shall look in wartime and from which we shall expect protection, supplies, and manpower,” David Remez acknowledged in 1938.142 American experience no longer aroused suspicion; in fact it now conferred prestige and power. As Labor’s most qualified expert on American Jews, Meir inevitably found her power and prestige enhanced.
One of the less glamorous tasks that fell to Golda as head of the Histadrut American desk was looking after visitors and prospective settlers from America, much as she had done for years without an official post. Setting up a special tourist department had been suggested by Mereminsky, Eliezer Galili, and other Palestinians, as well as American Zionists. They were weary of Americans with “inflated” notions about accommodations and travel, who did not receive “appropriate guidance” in Palestine and, as a result, “returned home with mistaken impressions,” often disappointed and angry. The danger of making enemies through tourism and failed attempts at aliyah made the idea of a visitors’ bureau palatable to the Laborites, who tended to disdain comforts and luxuries, at least in theory, and, like Szold, to regard tourists as little more than voyeurs.143 In one of her first reports to the HEC after her return in 1934, Golda proposed the establishment of a Labor tourist agency. The suggestion was adopted, and Tiyur veTiyul (Sightseeing and Touring) was launched with her at the helm.144
Goldie Myerson at Camp Kvutzah in New York State, summer 1934. (Courtesy of the Golda Meir Memorial Association, Tel Aviv.)
As head of the agency in 1935–36, Golda preached “the importance of well organised tours to Palestine” and practiced what she preached.145 She set up trips for Americans connected to Labor and occasionally herself acted as guide for a VIP, such as (Reform) Rabbi Edward L. Israel of Baltimore, a League activist and a supporter of Labor causes in the United States and Palestine.146 To groups of teachers, young people, and synagogue members whom she hoped to instruct and inspire, she paid special attention. She arranged for youngsters to “spend their time living the life of the country—not only seeing it” (emphasis hers). She “warn[ed youthful clients] against demands of unnecessary comfort or luxury,” and endeavored to offer them “a fine serious Zionist education,” whether they wanted it or not, as well as an “enjoyable” experience.147 She also acted as advisor to Americans planning aliyah, some of whom toured the country in preparation.148 One of her innovative suggestions was that visitors should experience pioneering life firsthand in kibbutz and moshav guest houses with modest accommodations.149 The educational tour and the kibbutz guest house were ideas ahead of their time. In subsequent years, especially from the mid-1950s, they would be very widely accepted, although few, if any, remembered then that Golda had offered similar suggestions two decades earlier.
It was expected in these years, too, that Golda would take part in events relating to American visitors; even after she had left Tiyur veTiyul, she continued to help with arrangements. She both welcomed and scolded visitors. She “marvel[ed at] . . . the patience” of visiting Geverkshaften Campaign leaders in the summer of 1937 “to persevere in their hard work.” But she “wished many of . . . [them] would come . . . to settle, [or] at least come . . . often” to visit.150
Earlier that year a high-level National Labor Delegation, representing groups which had become valuable allies of the Palestinian Laborites, had come from the United States. A few months before, during the Arab riots, some of their number had successfully interceded at Golda’s request with the British Trade Union Council on behalf of the yishuv.151 Isaac Hamlin, the [executive] secretary of the National Committee for the Jewish Workers in Palestine who had organized the trip in New York, implored the HEC and Golda to roll out the red carpet, and, indeed, they did. Anxious about the Palestinians’ lackadaisical, if not hostile, attitude to visitors, he issued detailed instructions to be “follow[ed] . . . exactly.” He pleaded, among other things, that the union leaders meet all the “right” people. He implored the Palestinians to do “everything that will put the delegation in the eye of the local Jewish reader and [also] make a strong impression when they return to America [as well as to] . . . make sure they see the institutions built with American campaign funds.”152
Hamlin was heeded. Davar reported every move of the delegation. Golda and others greeted them at the ship and accompanied them almost everywhere. They met Weizmann, the high commissioner, and Menaḥem Ussishkin, the head of the Jewish National Fund; they planted trees in memory of an American labor leader and a Jewish pioneer killed in an Arab attack. Golda accompanied them home from Palestine to continue their “education” and to ensure that they would lobby for Zionism in London.153
The planning and the efforts were rewarded. Max Zaritsky, president of the Hat and Capmakers’ Union of America and, according to Hamlin, the key person on the trip, had wanted to “live the atmosphere of the land of Israel,” not just to tour. And “the loveable Comrade Golda” had made that possible, just as she regularly did for younger tourists.154 In her usual way Meir praised the unionists for their support of the Geverkshaften Campaign, which provided, she said, “vital pioneering capital” without which the Palestine laborers could do nothing. At the same time, she reminded them of the need for more money, for immigrants, and for political support.155 In London, they submitted a strong pro-Zionist statement to the Trade Union Congress and to the Labour Party. Back home, Golda reported, they demonstrated “exceptional dedication and loyalty . . . appear[ing] . . . at . . . meetings and . . . [making] heartfelt statements about the Histadrut.”156
Another Histadrut activity with which Meir was connected in these years was the promotion of Palestine-made products (Totzeret HaAretz). In American Labor circles the sales campaign was conducted through the Consumers’ League of the Pioneer Women.157 Meir became involved in 1938, when the Pioneer Women despaired over shoddy, poorly packaged merchandise, bills for goods never received and perhaps never sent, cottonseed oil masquerading as olive oil, and a refusal on principle to label kosher products as such, and begged for her intervention. When approached in New York, Meir agreed to serve on the committee in Palestine that selected items to be sent. Back home, however, she proved uneager to be involved in such a prosaic task. Uncharacteristically, she ignored the angry letters from New York. Some of Golda’s colleagues thought a major opportunity which held the promise of increased self-sufficiency was being missed, but she apparently disagreed.158 Wartime disruption of shipping put an effective end to the project in any case.
In addition to looking after Americans in the yishuv in these years, Meir remained the Histadrut’s most effective emissary to American Jews. In 1931 with more on his mind undoubtedly than politics, Rubashov argued that Golda should be sent to America, because she was “the only man [!]” in the Histadrut who knew the “ways” of the New World. Seven years later, with war clouds on the horizon, Pinhas Lubianiker (later, Lavon), the future government minister and secretary general of the Histadrut himself the son of a Jewish Legionnaire from America, claimed there was still “no possible suggestion [for an emissary] other than Golda.” No one disagreed.159
Meir was the most capable American fund raiser of the Histadrut, although her strength lay in dealing with people of modest means; and she was still reluctant to approach the “men of the salon.”160 In 1936 she returned home to report that American Jews had been most favorably impressed when the anti-Jewish outbreaks in Palestine of that year did not prompt a request for additional financial aid.161 But in general, the yishuv could not afford to go it alone, and Golda knew how to inspire Americans to help. Although she did not obey the call of Geverkshaften Campaign leaders to become Campaign director for a year at a reasonable salary, she spent much time on every trip raising funds.162
In late 1937 she told 1,500 campaign workers at New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania that if Palestine were to be partitioned by the British into an Arab and a Jewish state, “the Jews alone” would be “responsible.” With “Jewish hands to colonize more territory,” she declared,
to fertilize and cultivate more land, . . . no power in the world would be able to uproot Jews from the land. But for long years the Jewish masses have been apathetic regarding the reconstruction work which has been going on in Palestine, and that has brought us to the present plan to partition the land and allot Jews only a small part of it.
Young Jewish idealists have come to dry the swamps of Hadera and plant . . . eucalyptus trees. Now those trees have grown and they make Jewish ships. Jewish pioneers have enough courage to settle . . . surrounded by Arabs; but their courage places upon us a great obligation.
“Often their security hinges on several factors” related to adequate funding, she told her rapt listeners, adding, “One must give them the vital needs.”163 It was “a masterly speech,”164 typical for Golda, that aroused enthusiasm and guilt by evoking the most positive images of the yishuv while stressing its dependence on America. In 1948 she would play on the same themes in her dramatic speech to the Council of Jewish Federations, threatening the Americans that “the youngsters . . . in the front line . . . [might] fail because money that should have reached Palestine today will reach it in a month or two months from now.”165
Her most intensive fund-raising effort in these years was conducted on behalf of Naḥshon, a new maritime venture of the Histadrut. The idea of developing the shipping and fishing industries in Palestine emerged in the mid-1930s from a number of sources. In the spring of 1935 H. M. Caiserman, the general secretary of the Canadian Jewish Congress and a Poale Zion activist, offered several ships to the Histadrut at a bargain price. In an article and an address to the Zionist Congress that same year, Ben-Gurion showed an interest in the maritime frontier. The Arab blockade of Jaffa in 1936 gave the notion a further boost; and that year David Remez and others proposed a major undertaking.166
Meir was naturally drawn into the project, because its success depended upon American funds. In late 1936 she exchanged letters on behalf of the Histadrut with Alfred J. Miville of New York, who had “been asked to head a five million dollar steamship company operating between New York and Jaffa.”167 Towards the end of that year the Histadrut decided to create a “special company for [its] . . . maritime activities,” to be financed through the sale of thirty thousand shares priced at five dollars each.168 Since its experience with shares for the Workers’ Bank in the early 1920s, the labor federation had generally eschewed stocks as a way of raising capital.169 Times now seemed ripe to try again. Golda was to be the chief salesperson.
She employed her tried-and-true approaches and some newer ones. There were two major whirlwind tours of the usual kind. From March to July 1937 and from November of that year to July 1938 she visited Scranton, Binghamton, Waterbury, Omaha, and other smaller Jewish centers, as well as all the large communities, speaking to working people’s groups. She also appeared at the usual conventions, although not at the United Palestine Appeal gathering in Washington, perhaps because the ZOA leadership was annoyed with her for conducting the Naḥshon campaign while their drive was in progress.170 By Golda’s earlier standards this was a short, easy trip; and she reported to the Histadrut that she had visited only a few cities.171 For the first time, Meir turned also to a few wealthy “private people” whom she knew, some of whom “had not previously supported a [Labor] undertaking.”172
All of her efforts were rewarded with success. “Real encouragement came from the public,” she told the HEC; never before in her work in America had she “seen such readiness.”173 She sold almost forty thousand shares and could easily have sold more. She made useful contacts with people in the shipping industry who were eager to help, including a Jewish executive of the giant United Fruit Company. Meir’s enthusiasm for passenger ships seemed to grow by the day, and it was infectious. Her colleagues in Palestine, however, were getting cold feet, fearing they might be over their heads in a project that could prove to be a very expensive failure. When they refused to allow her to proceed with the purchase of ships, she returned home in a huff.174 In a reversal of her earlier position, she objected strenuously when the other members of the HEC decided to develop the fishing industry with the funds she had raised for a passenger line. She protested to no avail that this meant breaking faith with the American donors.175 The onset of war also decided this issue and allowed for face saving.
Throughout the 1930s Meir was involved mostly with working- and middle-class American Jews. Sometimes, however, she was required to deal with gentiles; and she began to gather some confidence in doing so. In 1936 the Histadrut appointed her, along with Rubashov and Professor Chaim Feinman, an American, as delegates to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. That year she began to monitor the general American press, although she proved unable to place articles favorable to Labor Zionism. She also assumed responsibility for maintaining contact with American labor leaders, such as William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor. She persuaded Green to prod British Labor leaders and Roosevelt to press the British government to keep the gates of Palestine open for Jewish refugees.176
Meir’s focus with regard to America shifted considerably during the war years, although her goal of securing effective support for the yishuv remained the same. She took much more interest than formerly in world events: the course of the war, the fate of Europe’s Jews, and the international politics of creating a state, in particular. During part of the war she held the foreign affairs portfolio of the Histadrut; in 1946, when the more experienced statesmen were either jailed by the British or outside Palestine avoiding arrest, she became acting head of the foreign affairs desk of the Jewish Agency, in effect, the foreign secretary of the state in the making. Some scholars view Meir’s rise through the ranks into the field of foreign relations as an example of the Peter principle;177 it might better be seen as recognition of the growing importance of the United States, her area of special competence.
In July 1938, Meir sat as a nonparticipating observer at the international conference in Evian-les-Bains, ostensibly called by President Roosevelt to find a solution to the problem of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. There she came to “realize . . . that [even] a world which was not . . . anti-Semitic . . . could stand by” while Jews were “victimized.”178 Like Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion, and so many others, Golda “believed in Roosevelt’s good intentions.” She attributed the failure of the conference to his not having prepared for it adequately.179 “Sitting there in that magnificent hall listening to the delegates” explain why they could do nothing for Jewish refugees was a shattering, “terrible experience” for Meir.180 No other country offered more than did America; most offered the Jews nothing. Golda resolved, she told a press conference at Evian, that the Jewish “people should never again need declarations of support.”181
In the meantime, the Jews desperately needed support, not declarations. Like her close associates, Katznelson and Ben-Gurion, Meir realized that meaningful assistance could come only from the United States, that the battle for Palestine had to be waged in the American political arena. Jabotinsky had said as much during World War I.182 Never much of an Anglophile, she predicted with prescience in early 1941 that the United States would play a much more important role in the Second World War than it had in the First. And “the front in America [had to be] . . . an extension of [the] . . . front in Palestine.” She exhorted the Laborites and the yishuv as a whole to improve their “ability to influence” American public opinion.183 The rationale for action in the yishuv or in America was twofold: improving the political situation, and strengthening the Jewish community for the struggles ahead. Ever the woman of action, never the theorizer, she urged the Palestinians to focus on what they could actually do.184
In response to the British White Paper of 1939, which limited further Jewish immigration to Palestine to seventy-five thousand and severely restricted Jews’ rights to acquire land there, Golda took her cues from Ben-Gurion, of which more below. She proposed a general strike in the yishuv and demonstrations in the United States. The British, she believed, might be susceptible to pressure because they needed good relations with Washington. She doubted Roosevelt would be influenced by marchers, but demonstrations in America would showcase Jewish solidarity for the British and remind them of the potential clout of American Jewry. Such political agitation would stiffen the political backbone of the American Jewish community and revive the interest of pro-Zionist gentiles.185 It was the same sort of reasoning she used with regard to aid to the USSR from the yishuv during the war, when she argued that joint action with American Jewry would demonstrate American solidarity with Zionism to the Russians.186
In 1943, when the Final Solution was becoming known and the Americans were planning another international conference on refugees (also designed to be unproductive), Meir and Remez dusted off an old Revisionist proposal for a petition to the Allies to be signed by every Jew in Palestine and then by the Jews of the English-speaking countries. The suggestion was rejected, like its Revisionist predecessor, as too time-consuming and not likely to succeed. Instead the two frantically cabled labor and political friends in the United States and England asking them to mobilize public opinion in favor of “immediate energetic action.”187 Some months later Meir insisted that the Histadrut send a strong delegation to an international labor congress in England to lobby for Jewish statehood. She found it hard to believe that “what has happened to the Jewish people during the war had happened” without the revolt of the British and American labor movements and of Russia. But she remained convinced that Labor held the key to government action. In the summer of 1944 she was gratified to learn that both the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the two national American labor groups, had endorsed the concept of Jewish statehood.188
Considering Golda’s great concern for the Jews of Europe, the guilt which always plagued her when she escaped misfortune, and her appreciation of the importance of America in international politics, the record of her wartime activities seems scant. One reason is that she remained caught up in local yishuv affairs and did not visit America during the war. But she may have stayed home, because there did not appear to be much she could do in the United States, despite her enhanced stature and new political role. The United States, as opposed to Jewish America, was not yet familiar territory; and it appeared rather less hospitable to Jews and less open to their concerns than earlier.
Since the late 1930s she had been uncomfortably aware that antisemitism was on the rise in America.189 There was, she admitted in 1939, “a hard and bitter truth” with which the yishuv had to come to terms. Zionists had
relied not a little on public opinion in the different countries for support . . . [believing] that in every nation . . . labor movements, liberal movements, intellectual circles . . . would come to our aid at the critical moment. We [assumed]. . . that . . . countries with large and powerful Jewish communities . . . would come to our help.
Now, things had changed. In fact,
there isn’t much help to be hoped for from these quarters. Although there still remain a few . . . countries where Jews live in considerable numbers, and to us here they seem strong and influential and certainly able to help us—let us not deceive ourselves. There is no Jewish community in the world today, not even in the most liberal and democratic countries, where the Jew doesn’t feel . . . that he himself is sitting on a volcano.190
By 1944 her outlook was even dimmer. She compared the future of American Jewry to that of the Jews of Europe. “Many millions of Americans” were “being sent to war against Hitler,” she noted in a speech to the Histadrut Council; but “a Jewish child was not safe walking to school in New York, Boston, or Detroit.” Impending danger in America made it imperative “to bring the maximum number of Jews” to Palestine from there “in the shortest time.”191 Never before had she felt this way.
The American Zionist movement was hardly equal to the task of inspiring and organizing a new aliyah. Already in 1936 Golda had pronounced the ZOA and its newly elected president, Rabbi Stephen Wise, hopeless. She claimed “there were no people fit for office” in the ZOA, that the best were “mixed up in petty politicking related to personal squabbles.” Her longstanding conviction, that the yishuv should provide leadership for America, seemed confirmed. More than Ben-Gurion and Bernard Joseph (later, Dov Yosef, the military governor of Jerusalem during the War of Independence) she doubted the ability of the wartime American Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs to conduct effective propaganda and urged her colleagues in Palestine to send an emissary to do the work properly.192 Her opinion of American Labor Zionist politicos was, as noted, no more sanguine. Although often third-rate, they had once guarded the interests of the little man, the ordinary Jew. Now they had delusions of grandeur and sought “independence” from Palestine and “Americanization,” although, she acidly remarked, it is “quite certain that their parents . . . did not come to America on the Mayflower”193 The Laborites were still the best of the American Zionist lot, Golda conceded in late 1945. But the gap between the devoted rank and file and the mediocre leaders who had “not even an elementary understanding of what we need in America,” who “live[d in their minds and hearts] outside of America,” was lamentable, she asserted with unintended irony.194
The Americans themselves were not entirely at fault. “We are reaping . . . what we sowed,” she acknowledged, having always treated America as “spoils to be plundered. . . . We thought . . . [that] we could receive money for our . . . work in Palestine year after year without ever giving back anything at all.” Having been unwilling to send enough first-rate people to America to revolutionize its Zionist groups, and having insisted that every penny collected be remitted to the yishuv leaving little for programming in the United States, the Palestinians had undermined American Zionism. Now, at a time of great need and great danger, they would suffer from the Americans’ weaknesses.195 Meir had given of her talent and energy to the movement in America; her colleagues, as a group, had been less generous. But even she had always put the immediate interests of the yishuv first.
And yet, at this moment in history, American Jews had to take the place of the millions in Europe, the foot soldiers of Zionism, “from whom the possibility of life was being snatched away,” Meir remarked with frightening foresight in early 1941. While she believed that Americans now needed to save themselves through aliyah, the yishuv needed them as olim to help “the broken and crushed from the lands of blood,” or to replace them altogether.196 In 1939 she thought it might be possible to recruit twenty thousand volunteers in America for service in the yishuv, although she knew a major effort would be needed to do so. The United States, she remarked in 1941, was “the only country left” where “large-scale, systematic” youth work could be undertaken.197
At the end of the war, knowledge of the Holocaust and the lack of support for Zionism in England and the United States left Meir disillusioned with both countries. The American president (by then, Harry Truman) and all the parties there, she charged, “had only shortly before . . . promised full support for all our demands.” Now they were reneging. Still, she refused to despair and clung to vestiges of her more optimistic, pre-war hope, that “in the United States and in the . . . Labour Party in England there would [yet] be found an echo to our demands . . . a pure conscience.”198
She was also somewhat disillusioned with American Jews and pronounced it a blessing that no one from the yishuv had had to endure service among them as an emissary during the war years.199 But regarding them, too, she refused to despair. She rejoiced when eight hundred American war veterans registered for study in Palestine, expecting that their number would increase and that many of them would remain in the country. Golda was no longer satisfied with donations from America; now she demanded aliyah. “If American Jewry,” she declared in 1945, “says, ‘We stand with you,’ that [declaration] is meaningless, unless they . . . marshal all their energy, strength, and money to establish a pioneering [settlement] movement of many thousands . . . who will come here [to Palestine].”200 Two years later she would tell visiting Histadrut (Geverkshaften) Campaign leaders that it was their “duty” to return to America and spread the word that the yishuv needed more Jews. “The Jews of America must come” to settle she asserted; and “hundreds” of them should arrive on an illegal immigration ship to demonstrate that aliyah is not for the poor and homeless alone. She was convinced that “for this purpose it was possible to recruit the cream of American Jewish youth.”201
In World War II the Jewish people lost a third of its numbers. To Zionists, and even to many not previously sympathetic to the movement, the message of the Holocaust was clear. Only a Jewish state could guarantee Jews’ safety. It was also clear that without the support of the United States there would be no Jewish state. The funds for state building could only come from there. British enthusiasm for Zionism had all but evaporated, and Britain was becoming a second-rate power. American political opposition would ensure that the enemies of Zionism in Britain and the Arab world would gain the day. American backing might win it.
With the United States now indisputably the key to Zionist success, Golda’s command of English and her American experiences automatically made her an important player in the drama about to unfold. As noted, however, she was more ambivalent about America and its Jews in the mid-1940s than she had ever been. And she was still inexperienced in dealing with wealthy American Jews and with gentiles, and unsure of her abilities. In September 1947, she urged the Jewish Agency executive to send Ben-Gurion there.202 But he was needed at home; and in January 1948, she set out again for New York. As had been the case from the start, she rejected America and was at the same time propelled towards it.
It was zero hour for the yishuv. Arab armies were poised to attack the ill-equipped, ill-trained Jewish forces few in number. The Palestinians were certain they could “establish” themselves, but they needed “between twenty-five and thirty million dollars” for weapons and supplies, unheard of sums in Zionist fund raising. “You cannot decide whether we should fight or not,” Golda told the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds in Chicago, “we will!” Wealthy American Jews could “only decide one thing: whether we shall be victorious in this fight or whether the Mufti [the religious leader of the Palestine Arabs] will be victorious.”203 She returned home with fifty million dollars.
Her triumph restored her faith in American Jewry.204 The support of the American public and government for the new state would restore her faith in the United States. She had proved more than able to communicate with wealthy American Jews, which boosted her stock in the new state. She had labored to make American Jewry a cornerstone of Zionism. Her progress through the political ranks in the yishuv was in no small part the result of her American connections and vision. In 1957, Ben-Gurion described her as “the most precious gift that American Jewry has given to Israel.”205 With only slight exaggeration, he might have said that American Jewry was the most precious gift that she had given to Israel.