Some figures are so pervasive in our upbringing that they take on almost mythic proportions.
That’s the place Golda Meir holds for pool builder George Kazdin.
“She epitomized a very strong leader of a persecuted country,” says the president of Kazdin Pools & Spas Inc. in Southampton, N.Y. “She became prime minister at a time when I think there were only three female prime ministers in the world, and she fought off several Arab nations that attacked.”
But while Meir had a number of admirable qualities, there is one that stands out in Kazdin’s mind. “She was tough,” he says. “That was the biggest characteristic.”
Born in the Ukraine in 1898, Meir’s early childhood was marked by anti-Semitic violence and grinding poverty. Regarding that time, she would later say, “If there is any logical explanation necessary for the direction which my life has taken, it is the desire and determination to save Jewish children … from a similar experience.”
Meir’s family immigrated to America in 1906, and it wasn’t long before her famous toughness began to shine. Legend has it that when a classmate yelled an anti-Semitic comment to one of her friends, Meir responded by organizing a demonstration in front of his house. She was 13 years old at the time.
“When I think of people I look up to as leaders, hers is the name that immediately comes to me,” Kazdin says.
By the time she enrolled in college, it was clear that Meir’s life path lay with Zionism, and she soon dropped out of school to work full-time for the cause. Her commitment deepened in 1921, when she moved to British Palestine and became increasingly active in local politics.
Then came 1948, and the birth of a Jewish state. Israel was surrounded by hostile forces, and if the tiny nation were to have even a chance of surviving, it needed vast amounts of money to buy weapons and supplies. It was decided that Meir would go to the United States on an emergency fund-raising trip.
The American Jews were tired of giving money, she was told, so $7- or $8 million was all that could be expected.
But Meir was a pit bull. She toured the United States, making impassioned speeches that underscored Israel’s desperate need for support.
“There are over 300 killed by now. There will be more,” she said. “But … the spirit of our young people is such that no matter how many Arabs invade the country, that spirit will not falter ... The Jewish community in Palestine is going to fight to the very end. If we have arms to fight with, we will fight with those, and if not, we will fight with stones in our hands.”
Meir returned home triumphant with $50 million, and many credit her efforts as crucial to the nation’s survival.
“She was a terrific leader of the country,” Kazdin says. “Her commitment to the land and her people, that she would take no prisoners and did everything possible to lead that country and develop it.”
In 1949, Meir was elected to the Israeli parliament and appointed minister of labor by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Her belief in swift retaliation against attackers caused him to note that Meir was “the only man in my cabinet.”
Meir was amused that the prime minister believed he had paid her a great compliment. “I doubt that any man would have been flattered if I had said about him that he was the only woman in the cabinet,” she replied.
But it was the late ’60s, when Meir was made prime minister, that Kazdin remembers her best. She became the face of Israel at a time when he was becoming an adult who could clearly understand world events.
“I grew up in a religious Jewish environment,” he explains. “When all this was happening, I was less than 13 years old. It was a very large topic — the first Seven-Day War, the War of Independence and the other stuff that happened in the later ’60s and ’70s.”
One of Kazdin’s clearest memories of Meir came after the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. A terrorist group with ties to Yasser Arafat broke into the Olympic Village, took the Israelis hostage, and killed them.
In response, Meir covertly authorized the secret service and Israeli intelligence agents to assassinate those responsible for the atrocity.
“If you were Jewish, your reaction [to the massacre] was, ‘This is horrible. How long is it going to take the Israelis to hunt these [people] down and kill them?’” Kazdin recalls. “It was that simple. It proved that if you strike any Jew anywhere, they’re going to come for you. I respected that. In Yiddish it would be chutzpah, Golda Meir sticking to her guns.”
That chutzpah started a nation.