Former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir is a hero to Ukrainians in the fight against Russia

by | Mar 9, 2022 | Other News

(JTA)—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.

Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel and a native of Kyiv whose family fled amid antisemitic violence, has loomed large ever since Russia launched its war on Ukraine. Her words have appeared in pro-Ukrainian memes, been quoted by Ukrainian diplomats and even pulled from the backpack of a battle-ready Ukrainian soldier.

Almost as soon as the war began, memes riffing on a quote often attributed to Meir, adapted to the current conflict, 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.”

But it is actually an adaptation of a quote widely attributed to Meir, who led Israel during and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which Israel won at great cost weeks after Egypt and Syria, which had amassed troops on Israel’s borders for months, invaded from multiple directions.

“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,” goes the quote, which has been attributed to Meir on memes for more than a decade.

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Oksana Markarova, Ambassador of Ukraine to the United States 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 Kyiv 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.”

That paraphrase does sound like Meir, who famously discarded the idea of compromising with Israel’s Arab neighbors. “To be or not to be is not a question of compromise,” she told the New York Times in 1973. “Either you be or you don’t be.”

On Tuesday, March 8, an Israeli reporter encountered a Ukrainian soldier who pulled a hefty biography of Meir from his backpack. The soldier 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,” he said. “I take it with me even if it will be my last battle.”

The soldier, who is not Jewish, said he is a Ukrainian patriot—and “I think that Ukraine have [to] say thanks to Jewish people.”

In fact, 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. “Today Ukrainian-Israeli relations are marked by a great deal of friendship and will to work together. When Ukrainian leaders mark the contributions 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.”

Like Zelensky, Meir  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, in a comment that bears resemblance to ones in Zelensky’s public addresses throughout his country’s war. “We don’t want wars even when we win.”

-Philissa Cramer