The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

“Israel’s Essential Emissary”: Golda Meir in the American Mind, 1932–1980

When Golda Meir appeared in 1969 on the cover pages of Time, Life, and Look magazines and every major American newspaper in the country, shortly after being elected Israel’s fourth prime minister, it was not the first time her visage adorned the public arena. A frequent visitor to the United States, Meir was already a visible and familiar presence in the American setting. A veteran spokesperson for the Zionist cause since 1932 when she served as Moezet Hapoalot’s emissary to North America, she would crisscross the country on speaking tours, giving countless interviews to the press, meeting with Jewish, Zionist, and pro-Israel groups, and raising funds for the Jewish state-in-the-making.

Photographer Burt Glinn’s arresting 1956 portrait of Meir, used by Time to introduce her as Israel’s then new foreign minister, earned her the moniker “Israel’s essential emissary.” Indeed, for most of her adult life, even after the debacle of the Yom Kippur War (1973), she remained a celebrated and beloved figure in the American setting. The subject of numerous biographies, plays, films, and other expressions of fandom -- artist Andy Warhol included Meir in his silkscreen pantheon “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” -- Meir’s iconic image endures as a symbol of Israel in the American mind.

It is worth observing history has not been kind to “the Old Lady.” Particularly in Israel, Meir -- once lionized and venerated -- is derided for allegedly failing to prevent the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. The contrast between Israeli and American perspectives of Meir could not be more stark. This lecture steps back from the realm of polemics and considers from a macrohistorical perspective -- that is, the historian’s privileged viewpoint of hindsight -- what Meir represents in terms of American Jewish identity and the development of U.S.-Israel relations.