For example, schoolchildren of past generations were taught that when George Washington’s father asked if he’d chopped down a cherry tree, young George responded: “I cannot tell a lie.” The story was actually a fabrication that had its roots in Mason Locke Weems’s 1800 book The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington.
Another example: It was long thought that Abraham Lincoln composed his famous Gettysburg Address on the train to that Pennsylvania city, but even though there were people who claimed to have seen Lincoln writing on the train, the assertion that he wrote the address en route to Gettysburg has been shown to be spurious. (Historians have concluded that the president finished at least part of his speech before he left the White House and may have put the final touches on it between the time he arrived at Gettysburg and the ceremonies the next morning.)
One more: It was for many decades considered as fact that Abner Doubleday invented the game of baseball in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. However, not only is there no known record of Doubleday even setting foot in Cooperstown, we now know the myth had its origin in the unsubstantiated conclusions of a committee that felt its promulgation would create a patriotic and romantic image for the sport.
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As if the enigma of Meir’s “Peace will come” statement were not troubling enough, there is, astonishingly, another ultra-famous Meir quote whose origin seems mired in doubt: “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.”
The possibility that Meir never really said this was brought to my attention by Jason Maoz, senior editor of The Jewish Press. He had been on the trail of this celebrated quote a while back, trying assiduously to find its provenance and ending up with the same dead ends and frustrations I did with the “Peace will come” statement.
Launching myself on a quest to track down another Meir gem, I got in touch with all the repositories and archives I’d contacted for the “Peace will come” quote. One by one, the responses all came back carrying the same empty message: No primary source can be found for this quote.
In my relentless search for original sources for the two quotes, I scoured innumerable websites and newspaper indexes as well as several Meir biographies. The discerning reader is aware that quotes in nonfiction books often don’t come from original sources but are derived from secondary ones. Not always reliable, secondary sources come with a caveat: they may be in error or may be repeating errors from other sources. Therefore, in verifying quotes the scrupulous researcher needs to follow the chain of citations back to the very first one and ascertain if indeed that first citation itself is from a bona fide original source.
Curiously, most of the books I looked at, as well as Meir’s own autobiography, My Life, contained no mention of these two most famous Meir quotes. Nor was either of them included in The New York Times’s 4,883-word December 9, 1978 obituary of Meir – although Times reporter Israel Shenker found room for more than three dozen other quotes from Meir.
My investigation took a turn when I found a 1970 collection of Meir quotes titled As Good As Golda: The Warmth and Wisdom of Israel’s Prime Minister. In this book there are two quotes that bear close resemblance to the pair in question: “Peace will come when Nasser loves his own children more than he hates the Israelis” and “What we hold against Nasser is not only the killing of our sons but forcing them for the sake of Israel’s survival to kill others.”