Opinion: The debate over our walls- Who was Golda Meir, and what’s the issue?

Joshua Stacher

Tension has risen over an opinion piece Yousof Mousa, president of Kent State’s Students for Justice in Palestine, published in The Kent Stater Nov. 1.

The article was an open letter to the university administration, requesting the portrait and quote in bowman Hall of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir be replaced with a Jewish voice more representative of the core value of diversity and inclusion. The issue is not with the particular quote but with the politics of the particular politician.

On Nov. 8, Kent State President Beverly Warren wrote to Mousa and thanked him for his “support for Kent State to continue to be a diverse community that is committed to inclusive excellence.”

Warren then said she asked Todd Diacon, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs, to “confer with the appropriate parties relative to” his concerns before replying to him.

On Nov. 10, Diacon replied to Mousa. In that email, Diacon said “removing the quote from Golda Meir, which is nonsectarian and which reasonably could be read by many as inspirational, would be counter to our core institutional value of supporting a diversity of cultures, beliefs, identities and thought. We will not remove the quotation.” He added that all the quotations from the walls in Bowman Hall are scheduled for removal in Summer 2017, when the heating and cooling systems are upgraded.

There is no evidence that suggests Diacon conferred with Kent State’s Students for Justice in Palestine, Ohio Student Association, Spanish and Latino Student Association or the Muslim Students’ Association. The lack of a transparent process as to how Diacon arrived at this decision, can only lead people to speculate who he conferred with before issuing his decision.

Various student organizations have written statements showing support and dissent with Diacon’s decision not to remove Meir from the wall.

Many students have been passing by my office to discuss who Meir was and why her personality is so wrought with controversy.

I decided to help add clarity by writing about it.

Golda Meir was born in Kiev in 1898. She moved with her family to New York City in 1903 and then to Milwaukee in 1905. In 1917, she moved to Palestine to work on a Kibbutz before settling in Tel Aviv in 1924.

Meir was involved in the Zionist movement under British colonial rule in Mandate Palestine. She worked tirelessly to help Jews trapped in Europe emigrate away from the evil and systematic campaign to exterminate them. She ran the political department of the Jewish Agency until Israel was established in 1948. Meir was one of two women that signed the Israel’s declaration of independence.

During Israel’s War of Independence, Meir traveled to the U.S. to raise money for the young Israeli state. She served the Israeli state as labor minister (1949-1956) and foreign minister (1956-1966). She was elected the first and only woman prime minister of Israel in 1969. She stayed in that post until 1974.

Why do students at Kent State feel that Meir’s portrait in Bowman Hall marginalizes Palestinians in our community?

There are two primary reasons beyond her career where, according to a number of Israeli historians, she was consistently hostile to Palestinians.

In 1969, Meir said, “There (was) no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”

What Meir meant was there was never a Palestinian national policy with a state of its own. That is, of course, correct.

But that’s what the struggle was about from the 1917 Balfour Declaration through the Mandate period (1923-1948). Specifically, the struggle was about whether or not the Palestinians had national rights. Neither the Zionists nor the British agreed that they did, although the British began to see things differently after the Arab Revolt began in 1936. The 1937 Peel Partition plan implicitly acknowledges the existence of two national communities in the country. Therefore, Meir’s interpretation of this history is deeply flawed.

The quote is also significant because she said it as prime minister, 21 years after the systematic cleansing of Palestinians between Dec. 1947 and Jan. 1949. Palestinians refer to this as “Al-Nakba” or the “Catastrophe.”

Between 1947-1949, Zionist militias and the state of Israel systematically dispossessed and expelled at least 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. They were never allowed to return home. Palestinians remain the largest refugee community in the world.

The Palestinian Catastrophe was not a voluntary exodus, as one of the founding myths of Israel suggests. The “New Historians” in the Israeli academy discredited these myths beginning in the late ‘80s. Zionists and the state of Israel systematically dispossessed and depopulated Palestinians from their villages and towns. In some cases, the Israeli state moved Jews escaping the Holocaust into ready-made Palestinian homes. Nearly 80 percent of Palestinian villages were erased during the Nakba.

None of these are a matter of opinion. They are historical facts.

Meir, in her 1969 statement, not only misinterprets history, but she also denies the ethnic cleansing required for Israel’s establishment happened. Therefore, this privileges a history that denies the Palestinian Nakba — as an event and an ongoing structure — ever happened.

It does not matter what Meir knew at the time of the forced expulsion of Palestinians. The fact of the matter is she would have known this happened by 1969, and she would have also known Palestinian citizens of Israel lived under a regime of military restrictions between 1949-1966. Meir was complicit through her statement and in denying the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. This is what Palestinian students and their allies find reprehensible about her portrait decorating Kent State’s walls.

When Kent State administration decided not to remove the quote, it lead students to question the university’s values.

The decision catered to some students over others, who continue to feel marginalized. This issue could be resolved if a more universal and inclusive figure replaced Meir’s portrait.

Thankfully, the student coalition pushing for this change are pursuing it with the politics of civility and seeking more education, despite the marginalizing words and repressive history around this politician’s portrait, which many students and faculty have to walk by on their way to classes.