At the end of 1948 the young nation of Israel was winning a war of survival over the national armies of five Arab nations. Many reasons have been given for Israel’s victory, but the overwhelming one was the Arab threat to “push the Jews into the sea”; that threat left no alternative but victory. With victory close at hand, Ben Gurion knew he had to win the peace. The future of the new-born Jewish state rested largely with Russia and whether the Russians would continue to support the Arabs or move to a more neutral position in the Israeli-Arab conflict. To move the Communist state into a more Israeli-favored position, Ben Gurion chose Golda Meir as his ambassador to Russia.
Golda was not good ambassadorial material. She was headstrong, outspoken and highly opinionated, not the qualities you look for in a diplomat. In 1948 Golda began what was to be a short-lived diplomatic career in Russia. In a reversal of fate, Golda was returning to a country she had left 40 years ago as a hungry, frightened child with memories of pogroms and Cossacks rampaging through her shtetl. Now she returned as the Ambassador, minister plenipotentiary, of the new state of Israel. Golda had come far from her shtetl childhood.
In September 1948, in accordance to diplomatic procedure, Golda was asked to present her credentials at the Russian Foreign Ministry. Because so few in the Ministry spoke Hebrew, Golda was asked to speak in English. Golda, being Golda and in her usual stubborn manner, replied, “I am not an Englishwoman or an American” and proceeded to speak in Hebrew. So much for Golda’s diplomacy.
It soon became apparent that Golda was not going to make much progress against a stubborn Russian foreign policy that favored Arabs. But Golda’s triumph came from an unexpected source – her relations with the hundreds of thousands of repressed Russian Jews. Stalin’s policy towards Jews had deteriorated from a refusal to allow Jews to keep their Jewish identity to murderous purges that accused Jews as traitors. With Stalin’s paranoia in mind, the 500,000 Moscow Jews shied away from any contact with Golda and her staff until Rosh Hashanah 1948. During the High Holidays word of the Israeli delegation attending services at the Choral Synagogue in Moscow had gotten out and the usual thin crowd at services was now overflowing. The climax came when the Israeli military attaché was called to read the Torah. As the Jewish officer in uniform and a Star of David on his yarmulke walked down the aisle toward the bimah there was complete silence. A Jewish officer! A JEWISH OFFICER FROM ISRAEL! The pent-up emotions of Russian Jews who had suffered so much and for so long burst out in a flood of tears. After the Russian revolution and the Holocaust and Stalin purges, the Jewish people had survived and even had a homeland of their own. The proof was Golda and her staff sitting in their synagogue.
Golda encountered an even more emotional scene as she was leaving Rosh Hashanah services that day. Tens of thousands of Moscow’s Jews swarmed around Golda as she was leaving the synagogue, all trying to make a connection with her, the living embodiment of their long repressed Jewish identity. Taken aback by this outpouring of emotion, Golda could only manage to stutter out, “A danke eich vos ihr seit geblieben Yidn.” “Thank you for having remained Jews.”
After five unsuccessful months of trying to persuade Russia to keep a neutral stance in Middle East policy, Ben Gurion gave up and recalled Golda to Israel where she became the Minister of Labor. This was a job that was more of a match for her talents. But the seeds she planted as ambassador to Russia came to bear 40 years later as hundreds of thousands of the children of Russians she inspired came to Israel.
Herb Belkin is a Jewish historian who writes and lectures on the dramatic events leading to the founding of the rebirth of Israel. Herb can be reached at email@example.com