Editor’s Note: One of the more dramatic successes of Golda Meir took place in the United States, when she was sent by David Ben-Gurion in January 1948 on a desperate mission: to raise funds to finance the fighting taking place in Palestine, with Jerusalem under a deadly siege. Ben-Gurion wanted to go himself, but Meir, who was a member of the inner circle of the pre-state leadership, helped convince him she could accomplish what others had failed to do in raising $7 million. On her arrival in New York, Meir took the advice of her sister, Clara, to try to speak at the annual conference of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, meeting at the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago.

The person to arrange that was Henry Montor, executive vice-chairman of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA). Golda knew of Montor but had never met him. Three years earlier, in 1945, he had gathered a group of 17 wealthy Jewish businessmen to meet with Ben-Gurion, then visiting New York, at the apartment of the millionaire Rudolf G. Sonneborn. At the meeting, the group formed a secret “club” to raise money and purchase armaments and equipment for the future state. During the next several years, the “Sonneborn Institute,” its cover name, contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars toward buying and stockpiling military materials, to be shipped later to Palestine.

Montor was in Chicago when Golda arrived in the States. He knew little about her except that in the past she had been “an impecunious, unimportant representative, a “schnorrer,’” who stayed in people’s houses instead of hotels. Now she arrived “without a dime in her pocketbook even to take a taxi” and wanted to speak at the federation conference. Out of concern for Israel, he pressured the federation to fit her into a luncheon spot on Sunday, January 25, 1948, when the big donors would be present. But how was he going to sell her to that well-heeled crowd?

Present at the creation: In “Lioness,” Francine Klagsbrun chronicles the arc of Golda Meir’s life, from Milwaukee to the halls of the Knesset. KLAGSBRUN CREDIT: Joan Roth

For two days, a snowstorm shut down airports and stalled trains, but during a brief break in the weather on Saturday, Golda found a plane to carry her to Chicago, probably the only one to leave that day. She had not been to the States in ten years. Although reports about her had appeared in American newspapers from time to time, she was hardly a household name. “I was terribly afraid of going to these people who didn’t know me from Adam,” she recalled. “I admit I was shaking.  I had no idea what was going to happen.”

It could not have been easy to meet Montor either. At 42, almost eight years younger than she, he had a reputation as a demon when it came to fund-raising. In 1946, he had set a goal of $100 million for the UJA, the largest campaign of any Jewish organization in history, anywhere in the world, and met it. After that he became for other fundraisers “a Pied Piper. He played the tune and we all danced.” Impatient, seemingly always in motion, his dark eyes snapping, Montor didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was giving Golda this opportunity. She sensed that she had to live up to it or there would be no others.

She delivered her talk without notes, her favorite form of public speaking. “Friends,” she said, looking out at the audience in the way she had of making every listener feel personally addressed. “The mufti and his people have declared war upon us. We have no alternative but … to fight for our lives, for our safety, for what we have accomplished in Palestine, for Jewish honor, for Jewish independence.” She told them of the young people, seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, Haganah members, who fearlessly escorted Jews over the dangerous road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and of others, more than twenty thousand young men and women, who registered to join the military organization. She told them of the 35 who “fought to the very end” on the road to Kfar Etzion and of the last one killed. He had run out of ammunition but died with a stone in his hand, prepared to continue fighting.

The Jewish community in Palestine “is going to fight to the very end” also, she said. “If we have something to fight with, we will fight with that, and if not, we will fight with stones.” The spirit of the young people fighting remained high, she related, but “this spirit alone cannot face rifles and machine guns. Rifles and machine guns without spirit are not worth very much, but spirit without arms can in time be broken with the body.” They needed arms and they needed them immediately.

“Our problem is time,” she emphasized. “Millions of dollars that we may get in three or four months will mean very little in deciding the present issue. The question is what can we get immediately. And, my friends, when I say immediately, this does not mean next month. It does not mean two months from now. It means now.”

She considered herself “not as a guest, but as one of you,” she told them, repeating the word “friends” several times. And without apology, she gave them the sum of between 25 and 30 million dollars in cash the yishuv needed in the next few weeks.

Prime Minister Golda Meir with Ambassador Yitzchak Rabin on board an El Al flight from Milwaukee to New York in February 1969. Wikimedia Commons

“We are not a better breed; we are not the best Jews of the Jewish people,” she said. “It so happened we are there and you are here. I am certain that if you were in Palestine and we were in the United States, you would be doing what we are doing there.”  Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, she promised that the yishuv in Palestine “will fight in the Negev and will fight in Galilee and will fight on the outskirts of Jerusalem until the very end.”

In closing, she gave the audience its charge: “You cannot decide whether we should fight or not. We will … That decision is taken.  Nobody can change it. You can only decide one thing: whether we shall be victorious in this fight or whether the mufti will be victorious. That decision American Jews can make.”

And, a final reminder: “I beg of you — don’t be too late. Don’t be bitterly sorry three months from now for what you failed to do today. The time is now.”

The talk lasted 35 minutes. “The normal noises of a great crowd were paralyzed,” a contemporary report of the event said. When she finished, the audience rose to its feet, some people weeping openly while they applauded. “Sometimes things occur, for reasons you don’t know why,” Montor recalled, “you don’t know what combination of words has done it, but an electric atmosphere generates. People are ready to kill somebody or to embrace each other. And that is still vivid in my mind, that particular afternoon … She had swept the whole conference.”

In her plain dark dress, without a speck of makeup, her hair austerely parted in the middle and pulled tightly back, she seemed to some like a woman out of the Bible. Others marveled at her “genius” for speaking without a prepared text. Her pauses, one man noted, were as meaningful as the words she used. The Dallas delegation — strongly non-Zionist — became so fired up that its members planned to “get so much money they won’t know what to do with it.”

By any measure, Chicago had been a triumph; her speech one of the best in her life.

Editor’s note: The speech led to a whirlwind, cross-country fund-raising tour, 17 cities in the first two weeks, raising $20 million for the Jewish Agency, three times more than the initial goal.

In early March, Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary that “the only ray of light for the present is Golda’s success.”

On her return to Palestine on March 19, Ben-Gurion praised her: “Someday when history will be written, it will be said that there was a Jewish woman who got the money which made the state possible.”

Her only regret, she would say, was that she and those with her had not had the courage to ask for twice as much as they had. Next time she would not hesitate.