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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Wisconsin Teacher and Unionist - Golda Meir, Women's History Month, March 2nd


Golda Meir as a young girl
 I have no particular organized outline for these posts on Women's History Month; each one is prompted by some daily encounter with the news or current events.  Meir was a logical choice, given the events taking place in Madison, Wisconsin and also in the middle east.  Meir grew up in Milwaukee, and became a teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; she was an active supporter of labor causes.

Women's History Month is celebrated world wide, an extension of International Women's Day on March 8th, going back to 1911, which then grew into a celebration of Women's History Week, and now we're up to a whole month.


Golda Meir is best known as the 4th Prime Minister of Israel, a position she held from March 17, 1969 until  June 3, 1974.   But her background was much more diverse; she was born in Kiev in 1898, then part of Russia, now the Ukraine.  She came to the United States, to Milwaukee, with her mother and siblings to join her father in 1906; they had fled Russia to avoid a Pogrom.  For those not entirely familiar with the term, becaue it has such interesting parallels to what is taking place in some of the middle east developments, where there are sunni/shia tensions, or tribal loyalties defining conflicts, I'll take the easy route, from wikipedia:
A pogrom (Russian: погром) is a form of violent riot, a mob attack, either approved or condoned by government or military authorities, directed against a particular group, whether ethnic, religious, or other, and characterized by killings and destruction of their homes and properties, businesses, and religious centres. The term usually carries connotation of spontaneous hatred within the majority population against certain (usually ethnic) minorities, which they see as dangerous and harming the interests of majority.
Golda Meir, 1914
Milwaukee, WI
courtesy of
Wikipedia


In Milwaukee, Golda Meir worked part time with her mother in her grocery store, and went to a grade school which is now named for her, the Golda Meir School.  She graduated valedictorian of her class, and was noted for her leadership, including organizing a fund raiser to help pay for students text books. (If Governor Scott Walker and the Republicans have their way with budget cuts, this might become a necessity again.)

Golda Meir married a sign painter in 1917, around the time she graduated from teachers college, and began to teach in the public schools in Milwaukee.  She and her husband left to move to a kibbutz in Palestine in 1921. She and her husband would have moved to the middle east sooner, but WWI intruded.  In the interim, Meir became more active in the Zionist movement, including traveling around the United States fund raising.  During this time, discovering she was pregnant shortly after her wedding she had an abortion, because ""her Zionist obligations simply did not leave room for a child."

In Palestine, Meir and her husband lived on a kibbutz, where she rose to a position of leadership, and was elected to the Israeli trade union organization Histadrut, or HaHistadrut HaKlalit shel HaOvdim B'Eretz Yisrael, which in 1921 unified two earlier competing labor organizations formed to protect Jewish workers, particularly Jewish immigrant workers to Palestine.  David Ben Gurion, who was to become the first Prime Minister of Israel was elected the Secretary.  The Histadrut became one of the most key nation-building organizations in the history of Israel; it began accepting Arab members as of 1959.  Meir became the representative of a labor group to the United States from 1932 to 1934, and then returned to Palestine.

In 1938, Meir was the Jewish observer from Palestine at the Evian conference in Evian les Bains, France called by FDR to discuss the Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.  Palestine at the time was a British mandate, following WWI, and had limited Jewish immigration to the region under their control.  (Jordan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia came into existence in the same agreement which had established British Palestine; all of them were carved out of the old Ottoman Empire, by the Treaty of Sevres in 1920.)

Meir, circa 1948
In 1948, after a war of independence from the British, Golda Meir was one of only two women of the 24 signatories to the Israeli Declaration of Independence signed on May 14th.  Meir went on to be the first Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union, and then was elected to their representative body, the Knesset in 1949.  She served as the Israeli Labour Minister, the approximate equivalent of Secretary of Labor in the United States, from 1949 to 1956.  From 1956 to 1966, Golda Meir left her position as Labor Minister to become the Foreign Minister until 1966, when she stepped down due to illness. 

Meir, with Anwar Sadat
Meir became the first  (and only) woman premier of Israel in 1969, retiring in 1974, after having been leader of Israel during the Yom Kippur war, the Munich Olympics massacre, and numerous other challenges.  She died 4 years after retiring as premier of Israel, at the age of 80, of a lymphoma.

As a public school teacher, a fierce labor union supporter, who grew up in Wisconsin, I can only speculate, based on her life, what Golda Meir's position would be on the status of events unfolding in Madison.  That position would certainly not be passive or silent, and it suggests at least to me, a further inspiration for those protesting.  I can only imagine that Meir is spinning in her grave on Mt. Herzl, at the proposal to end the existing collective bargaining of unions, or the barring of protesters to the Capital building.

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