Quoting Golda Meir

There’s a quote of Golda Meir’s doing the rounds in many discussions of the Israeli government’s war on Gaza.  It is regularly misquoted as:

we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their children.

Bob Schieffer used this in a ridiculous closing segment on Face the Nation, after allowing Benjamin Netanyahu to make a number of un-challenged statements about fact and motive.  Perhaps Bob Schieffer wanted to join the  rush (check any internet discussion board) to use it as a sanctimonious  justification for the many children killed in the bombing of Gaza or to validate the Israeli government’s assertion that it’s all actually Hamas’ fault (or even that of the Palestinians). It is of course, the Israeli Defense Forces who are dropping the bombs and shells on Gaza.

Of course, Bob Schieffer had the Golda Meir quote wrong. The correct quote is easy to find.  It’s on the last page of her autobiography and it’s right there on Wikiquote.  It goes like this:

When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.

— Golda Meir at a Press conference in London (1969)

Sounds completely different doesn’t it?

This was said two years after Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria  in what’s known as the Six-Day war.  The Six-Day war was itself 10 years after a coordinated attack by Israel, Britian and France to take the Suez canal from Egypt (known as the Suez crisis). The Suez Crisis itself happened 10 years after the Nakba, when Israeli forces frightened perhaps two or three hundred thousand Palestinians enough that they fled their homes, sometimes at gunpoint. The Israeli state then passed laws to limit their ability to return. The Nakba happened shortly after the Second World War in which 6 million Jews and possibly 10 million other civilians were systematically murdered by the Nazis and their henchmen in addition to many millions more being dispossessed of their homes and property. Since the 1880s, Jews had been migrating to Palestine to escape European pogroms, growing anti-semitism and the Nazis. So that’s some of the context.

To come back to Golda Meir and whether or not it is right to use this quote in the current conflict.  She was not talking about bombing the homes of Palestinians who oppose Israeli occupation from F-16s flying high above them.  She was not talking about killing whole families with young children.  She was not talking about children. She was talking about sons recruited for Arab armies.  She was lamenting a dreadful waste of young men sent by older men to die for their glory and tribute.

Golda Meir was an astute politician, and she lived in a time when people did not talk about killing children.  Or make up sanctimonious justifications for it.

Of course you can’t use the real quote to justify killing.  Unless you want to imply that you will never forgive the Arabs for forcing you to kill Hamas fighters.

The people who are misquoting Golda Meir should correct themselves, their poor research shouldn’t malign her.  Starting with Bob Schieffer whose program reaches millions and who have been poorly served by his error.

It’s also worth noting that Golda Meir said a lot of different things, some of them contradictory.  She was a human being, one who was changed and changed herself in response to events and experience, many of them tragic.  So, for instance, when it comes to quotes from Golda Meir, I think this one is unjustly ignored:

It is a dreadful thing to see the dead city. Next to the port I found children, women, the old, waiting for a way to leave. I entered the houses, there were houses where the coffee and pita bread were left on the table, and I could not avoid [thinking] that this, indeed, had been the picture in many Jewish towns [i.e., in Europe, during World War II]’.

— Gloda Meir on 6 May, 1948 after a visit to Arab Haifa.

This is the statement of a human being who saw something terrible and acknowledged it.  One who was attuned to the suffering of a people, even if they were not her own.

An easy way to figure out whether or not a statement about this conflict is true is to switch Israel for Palestine, Holocaust for Nakba and then see whether it elicits the same response from the same people.  If it doesn’t, they’ve just been responding to tribal instinct. It is intriguing that the Palestinians and the Israelis chose the same word, catastrophe,  Shoah, Nakba to describe their respective tragedies.

One of the most infuriating things in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that each side has people who will deny history, deny the suffering of the other side to bolster their arguments.

So for instance, there are many Palestinians, and non-Palestinians who will deny the Holocaust, its severity, or the impact it has had on many, many generations of Jews. There’s actually an entire little cottage industry that weaves ridiculous conspiracy theories. Insane theories like:

  • The holocaust is a myth
  • The Holocaust was concocted to gain sympathy and take over Palestine

But it must also be said, and acknowledged, that there are many Israelis and non-Israelis who deny the Nakba, their state’s role in it, or the impact it has had, and continues to have, on Palestinians. They come up with ridiculous conspiracy theories as well. You hear things like:

  • There are no Palestinian refugees, they are undesirables from Egypt, Syria, Jordan whom those countries did not want
  • No Palestinians fled because of Israeli actions, any who left did because Arab armies told them to (difficult to reconcile with the multiple civilian massacres Israeli forces perpetrated in 1948).

To be clear, the holocaust was an unimaginable thing.  I am not equating the Holocaust and the Nakba.  From an objective perspective, the Holocaust is of a different magnitude entirely.  Still, recognizing the Holocaust does not require denying the Nakba and it’s profound impact on the lives of millions of Palestinians.

Yet, on both sides we have people who deny and diminish the suffering of their political opponents.  Many Palestinians deny possibly the worst genocidal attempt in humankind’s history.  Many Israelis deny their state’s role in creating the largest refugee population in the modern world.

It must also be said that there are many more on each side who acknowledge and empathize with the other’s suffering.

No conflict can truly be resolved unless each side publicly empathizes with the other. In this case, their suffering.  It is necessary to say: For my part in your suffering I ask forgiveness, and for that which is not my part I weep with you.  Necessary as it brings the two parties together. Necessary because you acknowledge there is nothing that can change the past, all you can do is empathize.  It costs nothing.  And it is a gift of empathy that helps each participant grow.

To get back to Golda Meir, who had this to say about Palestinian refugees later in life.

Any one who speaks in favor of bringing the Arab refugees back must also say how he expects to take the responsibility for it, if he is interested in the state of Israel. It is better that things are stated clearly and plainly: We shall not let this happen.

— Golda Meir in October 1961

The woman didn’t mince words.  That’s the statement of a Foreign Minister making plain her country’s policies. One who knows her country has fought a war of aggression (some would say 1948 and most would agree the Suez crisis in 1957), and wars of defense (1948 and the six-day war in 1967).

There’s another quote doing the rounds on the internet, it’s claimed Golda Meir said something like:

Now, when everyone knows what they did to us, we can do anything we want, and no one has the right to criticize us and tell us what to do.

and it’s sometimes rendered as:

After the holocaust, we Jews can do anything

I don’t know whether she ever said anything like that.  Most people read both statements as a justification for any action by the Israeli state. But there is another way to read the second. Perhaps she was saying that after surviving the Holocaust, her people were capable of doing anything. Even achieving a just peace with the Palestinians.

Since we’re quoting, I’ll leave the last word for Abraham Lincoln who had a rare ability.  In the midst of a terrible and bloody struggle, he could see how the world, in the fullness of time, would regard it.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” ….

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.