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A new bi­og­ra­phy of Golda Meir re­veals the com­plex char­ac­ter and com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives about the leg­endary Is­raeli leader

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • SETH J. FRANTZMAN

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. ■

(Teddy Brauner/GPO)

THEN-LA­BOR min­is­ter Golda Meir at­tends the opening of the Tel Aviv-Ne­tanya high­way in July 1950.

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