How Golda Meir, Israel’s Only Female Prime Minister, Wound Up With Such a Bad Reputation

A new book provides considerable insight into the failures and achievements of Israel’s fourth prime minister – and asks whether it’s time to rehabilitate her image

David Green
David B. Green
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
PM Golda Meir speaking at the United Nations, Oct. 22, 1970; later, on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, she said, "Our situation has never been better."
PM Golda Meir speaking at the United Nations, Oct. 22, 1970; later, on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, she said, "Our situation has never been better."Credit: AP
David Green
David B. Green

It was toward the end of “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” Francine Klagsbrun’s magisterial new biography of Israel’s fourth prime minister (Schocken Books, 824 pages, $40), that it dawned on me that the Yom Kippur War constituted not only the darkest hour in Meir’s career, but also the finest. And therein, perhaps, lies the ironic tragedy of Golda Meir.

A tragedy, because, for several generations of Israelis, Meir, if she’s remembered at all, is perceived as the leader who disregarded the signs that the country was about to be attacked on two fronts, leading to a defensive war in which Israel sustained devastating losses; someone whose hard-headed arrogance led her to reject Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s peace feelers or to recognize the long-standing costs of Israel’s holding on to the territories conquered in 1967, and whose lack of social awareness made her insensitive to the needs and simmering grievances of the non-Ashkenazi half of Israel’s Jewish population, thus contributing to Likud’s rise to power in 1977 and everything that portended.

>> RARE PHOTOS: When Moshe Dayan toured Vietnam and called out U.S. arrogance

Ironic, because, there’s no denying that Golda (which is how Klagsbrun refers to her throughout the book) bears primary responsibility for the “failure,” as the intelligence misreading that led Israel to be caught unprepared in 1973 is still known here today. That failure led to a war in which Israel lost more than 2,500 soldiers – as compared with some 2,200 casualties in the Six-Day War and the 1967-1970 War of Attrition combined – and no less significantly, in which its collective state of mind took a dark turn that hobbles Israeli society to this day.

>> When stalin extended warm welcome to Golda Meir

Prime Minister Golda Meir, right, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, center, meeting IDF soldiers in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War.Credit: GPO

It’s also true, however, that in the lead-up to the war, it was Golda who was inclined to initiate a preemptive attack, but was reassured again and again by her top military advisers – primarily Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Military Intelligence chief Eli Zeira – that despite appearances, the Egyptians and Syrians were not about to launch a war. And while history owes her no prize for having the right instincts but not following them, she deserves recognition for the leadership she displayed once war was underway.

After a brief moment near the start of the war when there is some evidence she that contemplated suicide, Golda “would become a rock a judgment even her severest critics held,” writes Klagsbrun, an American author whose earlier books and journalistic work have generally dealt with Jewish and feminist concerns. And this was while Dayan, probably Israel’s most famous warrior, was openly suggesting that the State of Israel was on the verge of annihilation. As Dayan lost his nerve, continues Klagsbrun, Golda “would be called on to make decisions even she never, in her wildest imagination, thought she could, and she would make them with clear-eyed common sense and strategic insight.”

>> 'The de facto coup d’état': When Moshe Dayan tried to steal Israel's first nuclear device

One example of the latter came on day six of the war. By then Israel had turned the tide on the Syrian front, regaining the ground lost in the Golan Heights during the war’s early hours. The premier now had to decide whether to continue pushing the enemy’s forces back toward the Syrian capital so as to improve Israel’s strategic position, or to transfer a division south to the Egyptian front, where enemy troops still had a presence on the eastern side of the Suez Canal.

Francine Klagsbrun's 2017 biography 'Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel.'

“Golda chose to cross the old cease-fire line and push on to Damascus,” writes Klagsbrun. “In her elemental way, she reasoned that it would take four days to move forces from the north to the southern Egyptian front, and if during that time the UN ordered a cease-fire, Israel would have nothing to show for its grueling days of war. It would have lost territory in the south and gained nothing new in the north.” As a consequence, when a cease-fire did come on October 22, Israeli troops were within 30 miles of Syria’s capital and had also crossed the Suez Canal and surrounded the Egyptian Third Army.

Klagsbrun is clearly sympathetic to her subject, but at the same time, she brings considerable insight to bear on Golda, never taking her words at face value or failing to call her out on her political manipulations, even while placing her actions in the context of the political norms that prevailed in that era. And having interviewed some 150 of Golda’s contemporaries as well as other experts and examined archival material – some of it, including personal correspondence, apparently inspected for the first time – she can make her judgments with credibility and authority.

A much younger colleague, when I told him that I was writing about a new biography of Golda, groaned, saying he couldn’t imagine anything less interesting. But Golda’s story is anything but boring, and the individual who emerges from the 800 pages (including notes and a detailed index) of “Lioness” is not only more nuanced than history has given her credit for being, but also more compassionate, realistic and capable of compromise than the image of the blunt-edged battle-ax that has passed down to us, nearly 40 years after her death.

Committed to her work

From childhood, Golda Mabovitch displayed qualities of leadership and a hard-headed dedication to her principles, an attribute that accompanied her through life. Born in Kiev, then part of Russia, in 1898, she arrived with her family in Milwaukee, eight years later. By the time she was 10, Golda was organizing fellow grade school pupils to raise money to buy textbooks for classmates who couldn’t otherwise afford them. At age 14, she ran away from home, traveling to Denver (where her older sister lived), after her parents refused to allow her to attend high school.

By 1915, she was a committed member of the Poalei Zion Zionist labor organization, and in 1921 she was at the head of a group of like-minded friends who picked up and immigrated to Palestine, then under British control. These friends included Golda’s husband Morris Meyerson, a poet and intellectual with no particular interest in being a pioneer in the Land of Israel but who was ready to follow Golda where she led in the hope that their love for each other would smooth over their differences.

Francine KlagsbrunCredit: Joan Roth

Morris was one of a number of male suitors who were smitten with Golda throughout much of her life. Later, a combination of poor health and self-neglect, including a diet limited largely to black coffee and cigarettes, compounded by an ascetic tendency (part of the pioneering ethos) that drove her to pull her hair back in a severe bun, turned an attractive and svelte Golda into the squat and frumpish character most of us remember. But even in middle age, Golda had a passionate love life that encompassed relationships with numerous men, many of whom remained close to her even after she spurned their attempts to attain a commitment from her.

Klagsbrun quotes from letters Meyerson sent Golda in the late ‘30s, during one of her extended stays in the United States, long after their marriage had broken down in all but name. Golda was on assignment for the Histadrut labor federation, raising money to establish a shipping line intended to ferry European Jews to Palestine – a project that never got launched. Meyerson remained in Tel Aviv, taking care of their children, Menahem and Sarah. His letters to Golda are heartbreaking, with “your passionately lovelorn Morris,” as he signed off one of them, openly confessing that “the whole complex of my being is as ever continuously athrill under the sway and charm of your glorious feminity,” even though part of him understood that the feelings were no longer mutual.

The two never divorced, but they also never lived together again (Morris died in 1951), and Golda, though she was apparently intimate with such dynamic (and married) Zionist colleagues as David Remez and Zalman Shazar, who was to become Israel’s third president, remained committed principally to her work.

Klagsbrun portrays a complex relationship between Golda and her children, Menahem (1924-2014) and Sarah (1926-2010). It’s inarguable that their mother was away from home during much of their childhoods. Although in an interview with Klagsbrun both of her children agreed that as kids they “resented it very much” when their mother left them for long periods, after her death they became highly protective of her reputation. Speaking with Haaretz by phone from her home in New York, Klagsbrun noted that when she interviewed Menahem, “you could not say a single negative thing about her. You could not [even] say she wore dowdy clothes.”

As for Golda herself, she was often tormented by her absences from home, though she believed she was doing the right thing. Klagsbrun noted that once, during an interview with an American journalist, Meir defended her neglect of her children, saying, in Klagsbrun’s paraphrase, “I wasn’t doing this for no reason, I was doing it for an important cause that also affected their lives, too. They recognized that.”

A 1918 portrait of Golda Meir taken at a meeting of the American Jewish Congress in Philadelphia.Credit: Family of Golda Meir

And indeed, Golda always volunteered for the toughest jobs, into which she then threw herself in full. She was certainly ambitious, but the welfare of the Jewish people and the survival of the nascent state were the sacred objectives driving her ambition – and this was during an era when neither could be taken for granted. Golda does not seem to have craved power for its own sake, nor was she motivated by a hedonistic urge for the perks of office – not that there were many of these to be had during the country’s early decades.

'Character assassination'

Meir’s grandson Shaul Rahabi, the son of her daughter Sarah, has taken it upon himself in recent years to lead an effort to restore Golda’s reputation and increase awareness about her life and work among younger generations of Israelis. Though Rahabi, 60, thinks some of the disregard for Golda is derived from sexism, he is convinced that her negative image was principally caused by a campaign of “character assassination” led by “parts of Israeli politics that aren’t able to accept that there were periods in our short history as a state that the Arab states were not willing to accept the existence of a Jewish state. They attack my grandmother,” says Rahabi, “for not entering into peace negotiations. But Sadat, even three months before the war, was not willing to enter into direct negotiations.”

The Klagsbrun biography carefully examines the record of messages that passed between Sadat and Meir in the years preceding October 1973, and it’s hard not to agree that Sadat’s conditions for talking peace – an unconditional Israeli commitment to full withdrawal from all the territories occupied during the Six-Day War – were not something a responsible Israeli leader could agree to. When Israeli and Egyptian negotiators finally did sit down for their first direct talks in November 1973, at Kilometer 101 in the Sinai Desert, there were no such preconditions, even though the Egyptians were now in a superior diplomatic situation. Four years later, both countries were in a position to make the necessary compromises to make peace.

When Meir and Sadat did finally meet, it was long after her retirement, when she came to Ben-Gurion Airport to greet the Egyptian leader on his November 1977 visit to Israel, a dramatic gesture that led to a formal peace treaty a year and a half later. Writes Klagsbrun: “Yitzhak Rabin, standing next to Golda, overheard Sadat say, ‘For many, many years I have wanted to meet you,’ and Golda respond, ‘Why didn’t you come?’ His answer was revealing: ‘The time was not yet ripe.’ He had not been ready before the war to extend himself for peace in this way.”

A 1917 wedding photo of Golda and Morris Meyerson.Credit: Family of Golda Meir

The charge that Golda lacked social sensitivity revolves mainly around the premier’s tense meeting with members of the Black Panthers Mizrahi protest organization in 1971, after which she supposedly had nothing more meaningful to say than that her interlocutors were “not nice.”

It may in fact be that Golda, who generally was a natural at connecting with people on a personal level, lacked the skills to ingratiate herself with members of the Black Panthers, but it would be absurd to discount her legacy as a social democrat – the Israeli politician who may have done more than any of her peers to provide housing for new immigrants, to push for a national insurance law, and generally to create the Israeli welfare state – simply because she called her detractors “not nice.” Not to mention that her remark was made in response to the claim by the head of the Moroccan Immigrants Association that the Panthers were “nice guys,” to which Golda shot back, “People who throw Molotov cocktails at Jewish police are not nice.”

Next year, 2018, will mark 120 years since Meir’s birth, and four decades since her death. Rahabi hopes that the time is ripe for the rehabilitation of her public image, and he stands at the head of a nonprofit organization, the Golda Meir Institute for Leadership and Society, which has set that as its task. Despite its impressive name, Rahabi stresses that the institute has the most minimal of budgets, and mainly points to projects undertaken by others that he thinks indicate a growing receptiveness to a revisionist view of Golda.

In addition to Klagsbrun’s book (which has not yet been picked up for publication in Hebrew), there is a documentary in the works about Meir’s tenure as prime minister. An Israeli-German co-production, “Madam Prime Minister,” is being made by producer Udi Nir and director Shani Rozanes, who expect to have it ready for television broadcast in both countries this May. Both Nir, who is 29, and Rozanes, 36, seem as surprised as anyone about their choice of subject.

Rozanes, a journalist with background in both print and TV, lived in New York for a number of years and observed that despite the low regard for Golda in Israel, the late prime minister remains “a mega-icon over there.” Which got her wondering, “What are they seeing that we’re not seeing? And what are they missing that we’re so aware of?”

Golda Meir opening the Tel-Aviv-Netanya highway in 1950.Credit: Rudi Weissenstein / The Photo House

She says she grew up in a politicized home with a staunchly feminist mother, and that she would have expected Golda to be a hero in her family, but there was “dismay” over the Yom Kippur War. “For my dad it was a very painful memory, and that was a shadow that overcast” the memory of Golda, she says.

Historian Anita Shapira, who has written acclaimed biographies of David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson, among others, attributes the scorn for Golda in part to sexism and elitism, noting that even during Meir’s time in office, when she was “one of the most admired premiers,” there was also “a real contempt for her among intellectuals, in particular among men,” related to her poor Hebrew and lack of higher education.

But mainly, says Shapira, for all of Golda’s natural charisma and popularity, “it all disappeared in Yom Kippur,” and she suggests that Israelis “project that [retroactively] onto her prior activities.” Her sense that large parts of her generation – Shapira was born in 1940 – “would not forgive Golda for the war, I think until this very day.” At the same time, of course, “that population is getting older and disappearing,” and thus she, too, thinks the time for Meir’s rehabilitation may have arrived.

Margaret Thatcher (L) meets Golda Meir in Tel Aviv, March 1976.Credit: Moshe Milner/GPO

Click the alert icon to follow topics: