Golda Meir: Ukraine’s iron lady

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Golda Meir: Ukraine’s iron lady

The former Israeli prime minister, who was born in Kyiv, is a hero in her native country’s fight against Russia

Golda Meir
Golda Meir

The most prominent Jewish figure in Ukraine right now is the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The runner-up may well be another country’s famous Jewish leader.

Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel and a native of Kyiv whose family fled amid antisemitic violence, has loomed large ever since Russia launched its war on Ukraine late last month.

Her words have appeared in pro-Ukrainian memes, been quoted by Ukrainian diplomats and even been pulled from the backpack of a battle-ready Ukrainian soldier.

Almost as soon as the war began, memes riffing on a quote often attributed to Meir, adapted to the current conflict, began circulating online.

“If Russia lays down its weapons, there is no war. If Ukraine lays down its weapons, there is no Ukraine,” read one widely shared tweet, which its author attributed to “a Ukrainian Christian”.

A Ukrainian soldier with the biography Golda

The author later clarified that the comment came from a Facebook post by an American missionary who had been living in Kyiv and who fled to Hungary and then returned to the USA this week.

But it is actually an adaptation of a quote widely attributed to Meir, who led Israel during and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which Israel won at great cost weeks after Egypt and Syria, which had amassed troops on Israel’s borders for months, invaded from multiple directions.

“If the Arabs put down their weapons today, there would be no more violence. If the Jews put down their weapons today, there would be no more Israel,” goes the quote. Benjamin Netanyahu, then speaker of Israel’s government, uttered those words in a speech to lawmakers in 2006.

Ukraine held little romance for Meir, whose family was poor and unhappy in Kyiv and then, later, in Wisconsin, where they settled after emigrating in 1906. She often recounted the memory of seeing her father batten down their home in preparation for a pogrom that ultimately did not take place.

“I can hear the sound of that hammer now, and I can see the children standing in the streets, wide-eyed and not making a sound, watching the nails being driven in,” one of her biographers, Francine Klagsbrun, wrote in 2017’s Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel. In the Burkett biography that the Ukrainian soldier carried, Meir is quoted offering another indictment, saying, “The Russia I knew was a place that men on horses butchered Jews.”

In Israel, Meir followed an improbable trajectory from poor immigrant to foreign minister, and then prime minister. Like Zelensky, she became renowned for how she laid out her country’s predicament to her countrymen and to the world.

“We say ‘peace’ and the echo comes back from the other side, ‘war,’” she once said, according to her New York Times obituary, in a comment that bears resemblance to ones in Zelensky’s recent public addresssr. “We don’t want wars even when we win.”

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