Wresting Golda Meir From the Shadows

Wresting Golda Meir From the Shadows

To this growing Golda rethink, Francine Klagsbrun has contributed a thorough and absorbing examination of the woman and her role in Zionism and Israel. “Lioness” wrests Meir from the shadow of the Yom Kippur War and presents her life and career as a lens to examine Israel’s challenges — borders, settlements, occupation, terror and the social and ethnic divide between Jews of European and those of Middle Eastern origin. The author of more than a dozen books, many on Jewish subjects, and an essayist for The Jewish Week, Klagsbrun has spent years reviewing thousands of pages of documents, interviewing those closest to Meir (most now dead) and, while writing with affection, applying the tools of a contemporary truth tester (no, Meir never witnessed a pogrom as a small child in Kiev despite often invoking memories of one; and no, despite a Broadway play and a book by Seymour Hersh, Meir didn’t threaten to unleash nuclear weapons in the 1973 war if Nixon didn’t airlift needed supplies).


In many ways, as Klagsbrun’s narrative makes clear, Meir was the archetypal Zionist. An Eastern European Jew who, after a lengthy American detour, immigrated to Palestine in 1921, Meir embodied the movement’s socialist and egalitarian modesty as well as its tough-minded militarism. She was what the Israelis call a bitzuist — a doer. She not only raised millions of dollars for Zionism and Israel but also fought to save European Jews from the Nazis, carried out clandestine visits to Jordan’s King Abdullah and, as labor minister, built tens of thousands of homes for new immigrants. Born Golda Mabovitch in the humblest of origins (her father’s inability to earn an income kept the family in penury for years), Meir quickly stood out once she landed in America with her family, embraced the Zionist movement and rose through relentless focus and networking.

But, of course, Meir was highly atypical for a simple reason: She was a woman. When she was named foreign minister in the 1950s, she was the only woman in the world to hold that job. When she became prime minister in 1969, she was one of three women in such a post but the other two — Indira Gandhi of India and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Ceylon — came to their roles following the death of a father and a husband.

Everything about how Meir dealt with her gender is fascinating, telling and often somewhat tragic. She suffered from it but was not above exploiting it (“Call me Golda,” she disarmingly told everyone). Just as Barack Obama studiously avoided being seen as a black president, Meir stayed far away from both femininity and feminism. She wore no makeup, smoked like a chimney and, although she began her political rise through the Zionist women’s associations in the late 1920s, she claimed later never to have belonged to a women’s organization. Nixon said of Indira Gandhi that she acted “with the ruthlessness of a man but wanted always to be treated like a woman,” whereas Meir “acted like a man and wanted to be treated like a man.” Ben-Gurion referred to Golda as “the only man in the cabinet.”

There is every reason to see all the manliness pretense as a survival mechanism, pure and simple. There was no model for an ambitious female politician and Meir was not about to devote time to inventing one.

Meir married her American boyfriend Morris Meyerson, a dreamy lover of music and poetry who (like her father) never earned much of a living, never really wanted to move to Palestine and pretty much never saw his wife. The marriage collapsed as Golda took lovers from among her political colleagues (and she later took the Israeli name “Meir”). Their son and daughter were badly neglected as she spent months at a time abroad on fund-raising and diplomatic missions and, when home, stayed at meetings late into the night. Despite suffering personally from societal indifference toward working mothers, Meir never made the issue her own. She was vicious to Shulamit Aloni, an Israeli feminist and civil rights lawyer, a rising power within Labor whom she forced out. In the 1970s, when feminists began to exert influence globally, she dismissed them as “crazy women who burn their bras and … hate men.”

Klagsbrun presents all this as part of the broad sweep of Meir’s life but the topic is ripe for deeper exploration. As part of the renaissance in Meir scholarship, others are taking a closer look at her specifically as a woman leader. (Pnina Lahav, a law professor at Boston University, is deep into a book that analyzes Meir as a victim of sexist mores, a trailblazer and a role model.)

Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel when the Palestinian movement became enamored of terrorism, hijacking planes and kidnapping Israeli Olympic athletes. She had no patience for talk of a Palestinian state other than Jordan. “There will be no third state in the area,” she said. While that put her at odds with most thinking in the recent past, she would feel at home with the political debate in Israel today, where talk of a Palestinian state is fading fast. That may not bring the world any closer to peace in the Holy Land. But it will probably aid in Meir’s rehabilitation.

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