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Golda Meir is icon for Ukrainians

By Philissa Kramer

KIEV — The most prominent Jewish figure in Ukraine right now is the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The runner-up may well be another country’s famous Jewish leader.

A Ukrainian soldier named Alex keeps Golda Meir’s biography in his backpack. (Screenshot from Twitter)

Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel and a native of Kiev whose family fled amid anti-Semitic violence, has loomed large ever since Russia launched its war on Ukraine late last month. 

Her words have appeared in pro-Ukrainian memes, been quoted by Ukrainian diplomats and even been pulled from the backpack of a battle-ready Ukrainian soldier.

Almost as soon as the war began, a variation on a quote from Meir   began circulating online.

“If Russia lays down its weapons, there is no war. If Ukraine lays down its weapons, there is no Ukraine,” read one widely shared tweet, which its author attributed to “a Ukrainian Christian.”

The author then said that the comment came from a Facebook post by an American missionary who had been living in Kiev, evacuated to Hungary and then returned to the US last week.

But it is actually an adaptation of the quote by Meir. “If the Arabs put down their weapons today, there would be no more violence. If the Jews put down their weapons today, there would be no more Israel.”

Meir’s comments appear to have resonated widely with Ukrainians, who are in a fight for their country’s survival.

On March 7, after Zelensky addressed a group of American Jewish leaders, his ambassador to the US extended the connection, saying that Meir was “a great woman who I admire.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Oksana Markarova said, “just wants us to stop being Ukrainians. He wants to demilitarize us, and he wants us to be neutral. Now of course, that means we have to agree to surrender and die. 

“And here I can [paraphrase] a great woman who I admire [and who] was born in Kiev and led the brave country of Israel: The Russians want us to die. We want to live so that doesn’t leave a lot of space for compromise.”

“To be or not to be is not a question of compromise,” Meir told The New York Times in 1973. “Either you be or you don’t be.”

“It would be great to have her now with us,” Markarova said about Meir. “I think she would help a lot in this great fight.”

At least one soldier appears to agree. On March 8, an Israeli reporter encountered a Ukrainian soldier who pulled a hefty biography of Meir from his backpack. The soldier, who identified himself as Alex but said his nickname is “Zion,” said he keeps the biography — a Ukrainian-language translation of the 2009 book Golda by Elinor Burkett — alongside his night-vision device, water and hat.

“This is my favorite book,” Alex said. “I take it with me even if it will be my last battle.”

The reporter, Ron Ben-Yishai, asked him why he is such a fan of the Zionist leader. Alex answered, “Because I am a Zionist.” 

He’s not Jewish, the soldier said, but he is a Ukrainian patriot — and “I think that Ukraine have [to] say thanks to Jewish people.”

The video — which a journalist with Israel’s YNet News posted to Twitter accompanied by the comment “I swear to you, it’s real” — cuts off there.

Meir has become something of an icon among Ukrainian leaders who are eager to claim her as a native daughter, according to a 2018 report in the Jerusalem Post. 

Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire when she lived there.

“The loose connection Meir had to Ukraine was enough for the [Ukrainian] state to embrace her as ‘one of our own,’” Eli Belotserkovsky, then Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine, told the newspaper at the time. 

“Today Ukrainian-Israeli relations are marked by a great deal of friendship and will to work together. 

“When Ukrainian leaders mark the contribution Ukrainian Jews made to the creation of the [Israeli] state one of the first names to be brought up is Meir. This is a major turn of history as the place little Meir ran away from now, 120 years later, warmly embraces her.”

Meir’s family was poor and unhappy in Kiev. They settled in Wisconsin and Denver after coming to the US in 1906. Meir frequently recounted the memory of watching her father batten down their home in preparation for a pogrom that ultimately did not take place.

“I can hear the sound of that hammer now, and I can see the children standing in the streets, wide-eyed and not making a sound, watching the nails being driven in,” one of her biographers, Francine Klagsbrun, wrote in 2017’s Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel. 

In the Burkett biography that Alex carried, Meir is quoted offering another indictment, saying, “The Russia I knew was a place that men on horses butchered Jews.”

In Israel, Meir followed an improbable trajectory from poor immigrant to to social Zionist ideologue to foreign minister and then prime minister, a landmark position for a woman at that time. 

Like Zelensky, she became renowned for the way she laid out her country’s predicament among its neighbors to her countrymen and to the world.

“We say ‘peace’ and the echo comes back from the other side, ‘war,’” she once said, according to her New York Times obituary, in a comment that resembles one  in Zelensky’s public addresses throughout his country’s war: “We don’t want wars even when we win.”

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