A leader without illusions Golda Meir combined eloquence, intelligence and toughness to defend Jews and the new State of Israel

In a new biography, Francine Klagsbrun revisits Prime Minister Golda Meir’s decisions that tarnished her career.
Photo by Levan Ramishvili

Review

“Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel” by Francine Klagsbrun. New York: Schocken Books, 2017. 691 pages. $40.

After World War II, when the British were preventing Holocaust survivors from entering Palestine, Golda Meyerson and some other leaders of Jewish Palestine decided on a hunger strike to protest that policy.

When she told the chief secretary in Palestine of their plans, he asked if she thought that her not eating would change British policy. “No, I have no such illusions,” she answered. “If the death of six million didn’t change government policy, I don’t expect that my not eating will do so.”

Golda Meir, as she was to become, was a lioness — at least when it came to standing up for the Jewish people and for Israel — as author Francine Klagsbrun illustrates in this absorbing, well-researched, if very long biography.

(Klagsbrun uses only her subject’s first name in the book, noting that she told everyone to “Call me Golda.” I am following the author’s lead.)

Golda was especially helpful when Israel was desperate — as before and during the War of Independence when she raised millions of dollars from American Jews to buy weapons and ammunition for the fledgling state, soon to be attacked by all its neighbors, and after the 1956 war against Egypt when an infuriated President Dwight Eisenhower threatened Israel and Golda rushed to America to defend her country with unrelenting fervor.

And with equal zeal, she strove to be a leader.

She would not have settled for anything less, for tied to her all-consuming ambition were traits — eloquence, intelligence and toughness — and a passion for Zionism, socialism and the poor, which together produced the dynamo that was Golda.

Almost from the time that she landed on American shores at age 8, from Pinsk in the Russian Empire, Golda’s leadership and organizational skills were on display. Whether at school or the socialist and Zionist groups she favored, Golda often seemed to rise to the top.

One unique leadership skill she developed was listening. As a member of the Histadrut national trade union executive in the 1930s, she “often sat and listened,” Klagsbrun writes. “She listened to every argument and every side of every argument. Finally, when she heard everything she felt she needed to hear on a subject, she would make up her mind about what she believed and how she wanted to act. And once that mind was made up, almost nothing could change it.”

This led her to be seen as inflexible, on the negative side, but also positively as someone who spoke only after carefully weighing the issue.

Golda would seem to have been the ideal candidate to be a passionate feminist. She had an illegal abortion, become independent of her husband and left her two children in the care of others for long periods of time to pursue her career. Yet, she expressed hostility to feminism. Why this seeming contradiction?

“The answer lies in Golda’s personal goals,” Klagsbrun perceptively notes. She had used women’s organizations to get into public life because there was at that time no other way for a woman to get into the man’s world of politics. But while many of her contemporaries devoted their lives to helping women achieve equality, Golda “aimed to be at the center of her country’s life and not in its margins, at the heart of Labor Zionism and not on the periphery. From her perspective, she could achieve her goals by sharply differentiating herself from other strong women while taking on the wider interests of the party and the movement.”

To the consternation of feminists, “she refused to be defined by gender,” Klagsbrun writes. While Golda was successful and apparently satisfied with her professional life, her private life was another matter.

She married the wrong man — a dreamer to whom culture, not politics, was paramount — and eventually divorced him.

Klagsbrun notes that Golda knew she was neglecting her children, knew they resented this behavior and, in written and oral communications with friends, stated that her treatment of her children bothered her conscience. But rarely, if ever, did she give up a fundraising trip or other business so she could stay home with them.

She had affairs with at least two married men, both of whom were stars in the Zionist firmament — Zalman Shazar, later Israel’s third president, and David Remez, a Histadrut leader and Israel’s first transportation minister.

As a leader, she was more feared than loved by those who worked for and with her. Klagsbrun quotes one Foreign Ministry employee to the effect that if Golda didn’t like you, you were in big trouble.

One of the highlights of her career occurred in Moscow in 1948 when she was appointed Israeli representative to the Soviet Union.

When she arrived in Moscow, the official atmosphere was good, as the Soviets had supported the establishment of Israel as a way of weakening Britain and the West in the Middle East. But Soviet Jews were discouraged, sometimes threatened, from having contact with her.

Yet, when Golda visited Moscow’s Choral Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, thousands of Jews came out to see her. “The service over, she [Golda] struggled toward the door, almost smothered by the mass of congregants pushing to see and touch her. … When she tried to walk, she heard a din of voices calling out to her, “A gut yahr” (Happy New Year), and again and again, ‘Golda’ and ‘Goldele,’ and ‘nasha Golda’ (Russian for ‘our Golda’).”

Golda was prime minister before and during the Yom Kippur War. After the war, and particularly since her death in 1978, some analysts have flayed Golda for her decisions during and before that war.

President Anwar Sadat of Egypt had hinted about negotiating with Israel before the war and, say her critics, Golda should have responded more positively.

However, as more documents have become declassified, says Klagsbrun, it’s clear that Sadat would have avoided war only if Israel had agreed prior to negotiations to withdraw from all the territory it had capture in the Six Day War.

She writes that it “might have been a fair price to pay for peace.” I vehemently disagree and, I believe, so would have most Israelis in 1973 and today. Returning to what Abba Eban termed the Jewish state’s “Auschwitz borders” cannot be the basis for a lasting Israeli-Arab peace.

Her failure to call up the reserves earlier is a different matter — a costly mistake, say critics and, according to Klagsbrun, a sentiment with which Golda herself concurred.

Golda Meir always will have a special place in my heart, for she was prime minister when my wife, two very young daughters and I made aliyah in 1972. The fact that Golda also was an American Jew who went to live in the Jewish homeland made identifying with her so easy for me. In addition, she had the most pronounced — some might say beautiful — American accent when speaking Hebrew.

But it was her fearlessness when standing up for our people that most endears her to me.

In 1944, the author writes, she went to the British chief secretary in Palestine to ask for a ship to rescue Hungarian Jewish children, who were in mortal danger following the Nazi conquest of its ally Hungary earlier that year. He told Golda there was a war going on and ships were needed for that struggle.

“I have heard there is a war,” the Jewish leader answered sarcastically. Then, she asked, if there were British children to be rescued, would you find a ship? The British official didn’t answer.

That’s my Golda.

Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.

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