The Ballad of Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion

She was “just a girl from Milwaukee” when he was already the famous “Ben-Gurion.” He was a few steps ahead of her throughout their public and political careers. Still, Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion formed a delicate and meaningful friendship, which ended suddenly due to an ugly political scandal. After years of detachment, towards the end of his life, Ben-Gurion tried to reconcile with her. Did it work?

Miryam Zakheim
Golda and Ben-Gurion, by Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The lunch hall in Kibbutz Revivim was filled with Golda Meir’s relatives and friends. The organizers of this event, which Golda refused to allow to be too big or showy, invited “a number of people, each of which went some way with you”, to show thanks to the Prime Minister who made their kibbutz her second home, as well as to mark 50 years since her immigration to the Land of Israel.

Among the participants was someone who made the long trip from Tel Aviv, despite his advanced age and weakening health. They were once very close friends, but a black cat seemed to have crossed their path in the last decade, and they’d hardly spoken since then. The “Old Man” stood out among those gathered with the smallness of his stature and the strands of white hair adorning his head. It was David Ben-Gurion.

The leader of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel during the British Mandate, the State of Israel’s first Prime Minister, the man who declared the state and who didn’t hesitate to make fateful decisions – was at the end of his life a widower, sick and a little lonely. He came to show respects to his old friend and reconcile with her.

Ben-Gurion at the celebration of Golda Meir’s 50th anniversary of immigrating to the Land of Israel, Kibbutz Revivim. Courtesy of the Golda Meir Institute

Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion first met in 1917 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was a socialist and Zionist, full of youth and passion, and he was an exile from the Land of Israel who had come to the States after the Turks expelled anyone prominently tied to the Zionist movement. His visit to Milwaukee lasted just one day, but it was a very significant day for the local Jewish residents, to whom the Zionist youths from Palestine must have seemed like messengers from another world.

The first meeting between them was one-sided – Ben-Gurion didn’t really “meet” Golda that day, as she was part of the broader audience that came to hear him, but she was deeply impressed by the man who seemed to have an aura of endless confidence about him.

Their second meeting was in Tel Aviv. Golda arrived in the country in July 1921, along with her new husband and sister, at the end of a trip full of travails that seemed like it came out of a popular adventure book.

Ben-Gurion returned to the Land of Israel in August of that year, after years of exile and without Paula and the kids, who remained behind in London. He lived in a rented room on Lilienblum Street, where a group of young Zionist leaders would gather from time to time to hear what he had to say. On one of these occasions, Golda was also invited, having spent a number of years as a Po’alei Zion (“Workers of Zion”) activist in America. She was now starting to make her political and professional way in this new land, and didn’t even have a command of Hebrew, yet.

“I understood very little of what he said,” Golda later said of their first encounter in the Land of Israel, “but I was very impressed by this persona, and how people listened to him.”

Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion at the congress of the socialist International, 1928. Courtesy of the Golda Meir Institute

From here on out, their political careers would develop separately, but they crossed paths again at many points and often met professionally.

In 1920, Ben-Gurion was among the founders of the general workers’ union known as the Histadrut and was appointed its general secretary in 1921. Even at this early point, he already stood out as the most prominent leader among the Jewish pioneers of the Second Aliyah (the immigration wave of 1904-1914).

In those years, Golda was a member of the Ahdut Ha’Avoda (“Labor Unity”) party – later to become part of Mapai (a Hebrew acronym standing for “Workers’ Party of the Land of Israel”). She began to stand out among Zionist women’s organizations, first as a member of the “female workers’ council” and then as secretary of the council. She later took many trips to engage in fundraising and diplomacy in Britain, serving as a delegate at the global conference of the Zionist women’s organization WIZO as well as the 16th World Zionist Conference.

In 1930, Mapai was founded as a merger of smaller parties, becoming the political home for both Golda and Ben-Gurion from this point forward. Ben-Gurion was head of the movement, while Golda placed 20th in the third election to the Assembly of Representatives, the local Jewish internal parliament, which sufficed for her to become a member of the assembly.

Over time, Golda turned from an admirer observing the movement’s undisputed leader from a distance to an inseparable part of the Zionist leadership’s inner circle. Beyond her official work, she also developed close ties with Ben-Gurion and his political partners (including long, complex romantic affairs with David Remez and Zalman Shazar).

Sitting in the same row. Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion at the maiden trip of Israel Railways. From the Ben-Gurion House Archive, BTBG-AL-011

Only towards the end of her life, when she was already a former Prime Minister and Ben-Gurion had passed away, did Golda Meir tell of the deep emotional connection she formed with him already in those early years. Before this, they had been regarded as having a professional relationship of two people sharing the same political causes.

When she spoke of young Ben-Gurion in an interview she gave journalist Yaron London in 1974, her voice took on an uncharacteristic softness.

She tells of a Ben-Gurion who was a little different than his popular persona, as only those closest to him experienced the contrasts in the personality of the “Old Man.” He was in fact a charismatic speaker who suffered from social anxiety: on stage, at public speeches, he always seemed fearless and inspiringly confident in his path, but among his close circle or when he had to speak with someone privately – things were entirely different. He was surprisingly shy; in one-on-one meetings, his words would get tangled up when he needed to have them flow freely.

For instance, he was very close to Rachel Yanait and Yitzhak Ben Zvi, but he personally told Golda that shortly after he arrived in the country, he went on a long walk with Rachel Yanait during which he made not a sound. As he later admitted – “I didn’t know how to speak then, or what one is supposed to talk about.”

When he was offered to become Chairman of the Jewish Agency, he thought he might have to go to the British High Commissioner and speak with him, and he shared his dilemmas with Golda: “How do I talk to him? What do I say to him”?

Golda did not consider this a mark against his leadership – perhaps even the opposite.

“It’s character. He needed to overcome it, and he did. There was no-one who spoke with him and left feeling, ‘Nu, so I’ve met another random person…’”

Golda told of how Ben-Gurion wasn’t one for idle chit-chat:

“Ben-Gurion was generally a man who didn’t need people around him. Every one of us could sit with friends and talk about all sorts of things – even without a purpose, just to chat. Ben-Gurion was never a part of that. Everyone knew – with Ben-Gurion you don’t chat, you talk to the point. About things that must be spoken of.”

She heeded this unwritten rule: In the many decades of her acquaintance with Ben-Gurion, it never occurred to her to go to his house for a casual sit-down. If she had – it would have come off as odd, and he would immediately ask what happened.

Except once. One Saturday afternoon in Autumn, 1947, Golda received a strange phone call. Ben-Gurion was on the line, asking her to come to him – without a specific purpose. When she arrived, she found him on the second floor, which she had never been invited to before. It was a huge room with the walls covered in books, and Ben-Gurion was pacing back and forth, restless. He told her things which would have shaken many at that point in time, before the State of Israel had even been born: “Golda, I’m not sleeping at night, I don’t know what will be with us. There will be a war, that is clear, I know what we have, but I don’t know what will be, how we’ll handle it.”

“I don’t have contempt for those who are afraid,” he continued, “Here, [Zionist leader Yosef] Sprinzak is afraid, but he has the courage to say he’s afraid. Sometimes there’s a lot of courage in saying you’re afraid. And even Sprinzak doesn’t yet know how much we need to be afraid.”

It was the first time she had the feeling that he could not cope with the crucial dilemmas all by himself, and that he needed someone to whom he could pour out his heart and present his concerns. She was that person for him.

At this rare opportunity, he let her enter a place almost no-one got a glimpse of

This soft side of Ben-Gurion was something Golda Meir also witnessed after the state was established. During the War of Independence, she would enter the room and see him sign letters to bereaved parents. This was not the Ben-Gurion people knew – the decider, the man who was always strongly opinionated, the one who didn’t give a damn. Here, he gave a damn. A lot. And he let her see that.

These anecdotes tell us not only of Ben-Gurion’s private, inner world, but also the place Golda had in that world. Despite this, and although they marched together towards common causes for many years, Golda couldn’t see herself as his equal. “Who was I? I was a girl from Milwaukee, and he? He was Ben-Gurion.”

At Ben-Gurion House in Tel Aviv, which served as the permanent residence of David and Paula Ben-Gurion from the 1930s until they moved to Sde Boker in the Negev Desert, collections of photographs and albums can be found alongside the voluminous books. These tell the story of Ben-Gurion, the leader and the man, and of his widespread contacts around the world. Among these are also unofficial, rare images of him with Golda, where we can see something of their gentle relationship.

The photo albums have been digitized thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben-Gurion House Archive, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem, and the National Library of Israel, and can be viewed here.

A close friendship. Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion in conversation. From the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-161

On May 14, 1948, they both signed the Declaration of Independence. He stood and declared the Jewish state, and she was one of just two Jewish women whose signatures can be found on that important historical document. After the declaration, of all the signatories and those present in the room, Ben-Gurion decided to walk with her to Dizengoff Square to meet the cheering crowd. He spoke to them with restraint, a leader who understood the weight and enormity of the event and who feared what they were about to face. It was Golda, now fluent in Hebrew, who spoke with enthusiasm and passion, doing so with a heavy American accent.

Golda Meir’s signature on the Declaration of Independence

Immediately afterwards, that same day, she left to raise funds in the United States at Ben-Gurion’s request, even though the last thing she wanted was to be away from the country during that eventful period.

She believed in him and his decisions wholeheartedly, and sat as a minister in his (many) governments. Even if they disagreed here and there, she often said that “regarding the major goals, on the path we had to take, he was always right.”

Working together. Ben-Gurion’s government during the Third Knesset. From: President Yitzhak Ben Zvi Collection, IL-INL-YBZ-0125-456

When she traveled abroad, they corresponded; Ben-Gurion found it easier to express his feelings in writing.

“You’re missed here, these days, by all of us, but especially me. Yet it seems to me that the historical struggle being waged in New York and Washington requires your stay in the US”

The unique relationship between the two held until the 1960s, when politics tore them apart in a way Golda could not imagine. “The Lavon Affair” was a complex political crisis which began with the colossal failure of certain intelligence operations in Egypt, and went on to split and divide the Mapai political leadership, eventually leading to the end of Ben-Gurion’s political career.

Golda called it “the miserable, tragic dispute that didn’t have to happen,” but these words do not suffice to describe her great pain over the rift, which she considered to be a personal disaster.

In the Israeli foreign service. Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion with representatives of foreign nations at the Acadia Hotel. From: Ben-Gurion House Archive, BTBG-PH-077

In a soul-baring interview to Yaron London conducted after Ben-Gurion’s death, she was hardly willing to talk about that period, which was terrible for her. “I always understood Ben-Gurion’s motives, but here I didn’t understand anything, beginning to end.”

After decades of close acquaintance and friendship, in which he deeply influenced her political thought and activism, to break away from him and even see him as being in the “enemy camp” was unbearable.

“Ben-Gurion was no ‘vegetarian’ in the partisan war, or in the war for what he thought was the right thing, and neither was I,” she told London with a pained half-smile.

When Ben-Gurion celebrated his 80th birthday, she didn’t come to the event and he was deeply hurt.

But she never stopped appreciating him. At election events in those days, she spoke often of his enormous contributions, even calling him “the greatest Jew of our generation.” Still, reconciliation was difficult and it only happened years later.

In 1970, when she was already Prime Minister, Golda asked Ben-Gurion to represent the Israeli government in Paris along with Zalman Shazar at the public funeral of Charles de Gaulle. But the real gesture of reconciliation came from Ben-Gurion, a year later.

In September 1971, he came to the 50th anniversary celebration of Golda Meir’s arrival in the Land of Israel. Golda was deeply impressed by his very presence, but she also received a gift: a copy he kept of a telegraph she sent him from America for his 75th birthday.

“No dispute that was or yet will be between us,” Golda wrote in that telegraph, “will erase my recognition that I was exceptionally merited to work with a man who was more responsible than anyone else for what we have here.”

Golda Meir at the 50th anniversary of her immigration to the Land of Israel, Kibbutz Revivim

Later at the party, Ben-Gurion got on stage, but had some trouble finding the simple words to express what he felt. So he instead read letters aloud, letters he’d written in the past, either to her or about her.

The first contained words he wrote to [Israeli diplomat] Abba Eban:

“Golda is more important to Israel that a few million dollars, so you should do your best that she not work … and rest a bit during her stay in England.”

The second was a letter he sent her himself, while she was in the US:

“Dear, beloved Golda, I learned your secret. This year you’ve reached the age of 60, although I know you don’t want to celebrate your birthday, since you do not like publicity and personal celebrations. But after all, you cannot prevent me from congratulating you and telling you that which I feel, that your birthday is but a convenient opportunity to reveal some of my appreciation and friendship and love … an exemplary figure, a good friend, both strict and forgiving … I see you, and I am not alone, at your full creative powers, and my most faithful hopes for you that your strength will last many more years, and the trust and appreciation which most of the people in Israel as well as American Jewry feel for you will keep you steady during the difficulties you encounter as does every one of us.


David Ben-Gurion.”

That was all. He finished, and got off stage.

Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion in conversation. From the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-161

“You wouldn’t say that Ben-Gurion could be sentimental,” she told London a few years later, “but he could be very sentimental.”

Ten days after Ben-Gurion’s death, Golda spoke before the Knesset in his memory. She was Prime Minister at the time, and the lion’s share of the speech dealt with his public image. But at the end, her tone became more personal, and she spoke of the close friend she’d lost, regained, and lost again, this time for good:

“Honorable [Knesset] Chairman, with your permission and that of the Members of Knesset, I would like to say a few personal words for a minute. It fell in my lot to know Ben-Gurion in 1917, when he and his friend, his good and dear friend Yitzhak Ben Zvi, may his memory be a blessing, came to the United States … and it was my fate during all my years of life in the country, very many of those years, the decisive majority of those years, to work with him … There was much friendship, there was a brief period of bitterness, and I thank God that in recent years, there was an absolute, complete reconciliation. And among all the things etched in my heart in Ben-Gurion’s favor, perhaps among the most significant, was that after the bitter rivalry, we both gained a renewed and wonderful friendship.”

The photos appearing in the article are kept at the Ben-Gurion House Archive, and are made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.


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