A new biography of Golda Meir reveals the complex character and competing narratives about the legendary Israeli leader
In 1958, when she was serving as foreign minister, Golda Meir told a reception in Ghana, “Our neighbors are out to destroy us.”
She was in Africa to cultivate friends for the young Jewish state, which was only 10 years old. African nations were emerging as well from the chains of colonialism. As a Jewish woman, she felt she could connect to these freedom-seeking peoples. There was one problem. Israel was buying weapons from the hated French. She pondered that even if France’s leader was the devil, perhaps they “would regard it as our duty to buy arms from him to keep my people from being annihilated once again.”
The scene symbolizes the larger and complex questions about Golda Meir, Israel’s first and so far only female prime minister. In Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel, a new biography by Francine Klagsbrun, the author of dozen other mostly Jewish-themed books, the writer seeks to understand why Meir’s life sometimes seems glossed over by history.
“Outside Israel, she remains a revered figure. American libraries and political centers bear her name... within Israel, large segments of the population – mainly the intelligentsia – dislike her and much of the media rarely refers to her favorably.”
That’s certainly true, although she has not suffered as bad a fate as Levi Eshkol, the prime minister during the 1967 war whose great victories were eclipsed by larger legends. Eshkol seemed like a boring accountant, but Meir was larger than life in many ways. It is an opportune time to give her a reappraisal.
Meir was born in Kiev in 1898 to a family from Belorussia. Jews were coming to Kiev to escape the poverty and depression of the shtetlach, writes Klagsbrun. There were around 14,000 Jews in the city, just over 10% of the population. There was also antisemitism.
“When word of a possible pogrom reached the two [ Jewish] families [living in Golda’s building] the fathers prepared to protect their homes however possible.”
Jews would board up the doors and windows.
“I can hear the sound of that hammer now,” Meir would recall. It doesn’t take much to draw parallels with her speech in Ghana about being surrounded by enemies. In a way, Israel was surrounded in 1958 as her family was in the early 20th century.
Like so many hundreds of thousands of Jews that booked ship for the New World, she came to the United States in 1906 and attended school in Milwaukee. By 1917 she was a Zionist activist, haranguing Jews who would listen. Compared to today when most leading American Jewish organizations are institutionally pro-Israel and it is the youth who are critical, in those days the elites of the American Jewish community were often anti-Zionist or non-Zionist.
It was the poorer and younger “masses” who were interested in Zionism, particularly those from the Pale of Settlement, as opposed to the older and more established wealthy German Jewish community in the US. She married Morris Myerson, a “sign painter,” at this time, and moved to Palestine in 1921. Over the years she rose in the Zionist movement. In 1943 she appeared in a Jerusalem military court as a representative of the Histadrut to defend two men accused of stealing rifles.
“If a Jew who is armed in self-defense is a criminal, then all Jews in Palestine are criminals,” she told the court.
When Israel declared independence, the Soviet Union was the second country to recognize the young state. Meir was sent to Moscow as its first representative in August 1948. She flew via Lvov, passing over the country where she had been born. Years after her posting in Moscow, she became embroiled in a scandal when a writer claimed she had passed names of Jews wishing to emigrate to the Soviets. According to Klagsbrun, the accusation is untrue.
The book is strongest in these earliest accounts of Meir’s life. It is a window on life in the various places Meir lived: Ukraine, the US, British Palestine, the Soviet Union and young Israel. It documents well her experience as foreign minister reaching out to places in Africa. It is weaker in its later chapters looking at her time as prime minister from 1969 to 1974.
Although it delves into Meir’s attempts to deal with and quash Palestinian terrorist groups, it barely touches on the most important and controversial aspect of her career, the Yom Kippur War. This is probably understandable, a book that seeks to present her as more complex and nuanced than simply the prime minister who made mistakes in 1973 needs to focus on the other part of her life. Those interested in the military history will have to go elsewhere. ■
THEN-LABOR minister Golda Meir attends the opening of the Tel Aviv-Netanya highway in July 1950.