ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Book review'She wanted to be seen as a leader, not a woman leader'

How should Golda Meir be remembered? Deborah Lipstadt weighs in

50 years after end of Meir’s term as PM, longtime historian and current US envoy pens a new biography of the leader – but chooses to skim over her time leading the nation

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

  • Prime Minister Golda Meir pays a visit to the Na'aran kibbutz in the West Bank on November 28, 1972. (Moshe Milner/GPO)
    Prime Minister Golda Meir pays a visit to the Na'aran kibbutz in the West Bank on November 28, 1972. (Moshe Milner/GPO)
  • Prime minister Golda Meir adresses members of the Druze Community and guests during the Nebi Shueib festival in Hittim. (GPO)
    Prime minister Golda Meir adresses members of the Druze Community and guests during the Nebi Shueib festival in Hittim. (GPO)
  • Prime Minister Golda Meir (left) meets US President Richard Nixon at the White House in Washington on March 1, 1973. (GPO)
    Prime Minister Golda Meir (left) meets US President Richard Nixon at the White House in Washington on March 1, 1973. (GPO)
  • Zalman Shazar, Golda Meir, David Ben Gurion and Giora Josephtal at a Labor party conference in Tel Aviv on April 8, 1959. (Hans Pinn/GPO)
    Zalman Shazar, Golda Meir, David Ben Gurion and Giora Josephtal at a Labor party conference in Tel Aviv on April 8, 1959. (Hans Pinn/GPO)
  • This color photograph from 1963 captures then Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir (later Prime Minister) arriving in Nairobi for an official diplomatic visit with an El Al plane in the background; as posted on Open Sea (Courtesy)
    This color photograph from 1963 captures then Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir (later Prime Minister) arriving in Nairobi for an official diplomatic visit with an El Al plane in the background; as posted on Open Sea (Courtesy)

It appears to be the summer of Golda.

Just before “Golda,” a film about the former Israeli prime minister, heads to theaters, and a play titled “The First Lady” premieres at the Habima theater in Tel Aviv, a new biography of the legendary stateswoman is hitting shelves, as the world continues to grapple with her legacy almost 50 years after she left office.

Golda Meir: Israel’s Matriarch” – the latest offering in the Yale University Press “Jewish Lives” biography series – was written by Deborah Lipstadt, a longtime historian and scholar who became the US special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism last year.

In this examination of the pioneering Israeli leader, Lipstadt succeeds in painting a visceral portrait of Golda Meir as a gifted orator and blunt negotiator, a pragmatic, single-minded and often inflexible leader who was wholeheartedly devoted to the Zionist mission.

Israel’s only female prime minister to date, Meir left a legacy that is still hotly debated, and she remains today both praised and derided by Israelis – as she was during her lifetime. Lipstadt notes that when she set out to write the book, what she discovered were depictions and impressions that “ranged from the venomous to the hagiographic.”

In the book’s introduction, Lipstadt writes that she worked to present the many facets of Meir’s identity and explain both her ardent supporters and detractors: “I understand both the reverence and the sharp critique. I have sought the balance between these two extreme views of Israel’s fourth prime minister in order to write a study of an exceptionally accomplished woman who was not without her serious flaws.”

Historian and US envoy Deborah Lipstadt alongside her new biography of Golda Meir. (AP; Courtesy)

Across more than 230 pages, Lipstadt traces Meir’s life from Ukraine to Milwaukee, from activist to organizer, kibbutz worker to power broker, ambassador, MK, cabinet member and ultimately prime minister.

Skimming over wartime

Undoubtedly the most controversial chapter of Meir’s legacy is her leadership during the devastating Yom Kippur War, in which more than 2,500 Israelis were killed though Israel ultimately ended up making territorial gains. Meir has long been excoriated for ignoring warnings that an imminent multi-front attack against Israel was on the horizon.

While the “Golda” film is devoted entirely to this period, Lipstadt seems to find it barely worth mentioning, devoting about five pages to discussing the premier’s wartime leadership.

Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel, is shown as a young woman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, circa 1915. Meir was born Golda Mabovitch. (AP Photo)

In that brief chapter, the author largely seeks to exonerate Meir, as many recent historians have, claiming that she made the best decisions she could with the information she was repeatedly given by her senior military advisers, though she leaves room for criticism.

“In retrospect it is easy to say that Golda was too easily assuaged by these assurances and that as prime minister she should have pushed far harder,” wrote Lipstadt. “One can only speculate whether, if she had served in the IDF and was personally familiar with security matters, she would have been less willing to accept the assurances of the military men.”

Only about 15% of the book overall focuses on Meir’s time as prime minister. She was 70 years old when she was sworn in as premier – with a long and storied career behind her – but it is undeniable that her term as prime minister is a major part of why she looms so large in the Israeli consciousness today.

Lipstadt also appears to excuse Meir’s actions surrounding her contentious relationship with Mizrahi Jews, many of whom accused her of racism. She notes Meir’s “failure to grasp some of the challenges they faced,” but also believes that “history has certainly forgotten many of” her attempts to right such wrongs, writing that Meir “could not fathom how she was being accused of racism and discrimination. She was angry with those who made that assertion.”

Revisiting a colorful life

“Golda Meir” is far from the first book to attempt to sum up the life of the Zionist leader – coming on the tails of Francine Klagsbrun’s much-lauded “Lioness” in 2017, Meron Medzini’s “Golda Meir” the same year, as well as Pnina Lahav’s examination of her life through the lens of feminism in last year’s “The Only Woman in the Room,” Elinor Burkett’s 2008 biography “Golda” and several others – many of which Lipstadt draws on and cites.

Golda Meir meets with Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and troops on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, October 21, 1973. (Ron Frenkel/GPO)

Meir also put her own pen to paper in the 1973 autobiography “My Life” – although as Lipstadt repeatedly points out – and others have as well – her own recounting of events was not always fully truthful.

Lipstadt comes to the topic with bona fides from decades of work as a historian and researcher, largely focused on the Holocaust, and with eight other books under her belt. In 1996 she was the subject of a high-profile lawsuit by Holocaust denier David Irving, who accused her of libel in her book “Denying the Holocaust.” The saga was later turned into the 2007 film “Denial,” where Lipstadt was played by actress Rachel Weisz.

Today Lipstadt occupies a different role, as an ambassador with the US State Department. She writes in the book’s acknowledgments that she was “in the midst of writing this book” when she was nominated by President Joe Biden for the job.

With the author’s extensive background in Holocaust studies, it is unsurprising that some of the most dynamic sections of the book delve into Meir’s actions during World War II as well as her activity surrounding the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Meir, who survived antisemitic violence as a child in Ukraine, always carried the Holocaust at the forefront of her mind, never forgetting how Jews living in Palestine were largely unable to save their European brethren.

“While Jews everywhere were shattered, the Yishuv’s failure — her failure — to rescue Jews left a visceral imprint on Golda,” wrote Lipstadt. “She believed that she should have been able to do something.”

Foreign Minister Golda Meir gives a press conference in Paris on January 20, 1960 at her hotel. (AP)

And years later, when the world reeled from Israel’s capture of Eichmann in Argentina, then-foreign minister Meir gave a “decidedly undiplomatic” speech to the United Nations, castigating the envoy from Buenos Aires for his outrage at the incident.

A leader or a female leader?

Questions over the impact of Meir’s gender and her constant tug-of-war with feminism are woven throughout the book, as Lipstadt seeks to understand the female leader’s rejection of women’s movements even as she faced sexist barriers.

The author believes that Meir’s rejection of women’s activism stemmed from her belief in the ultimate justness of Zionism and the Labor movement, as well as her desire to have gender be irrelevant to her accomplishments.

“She wanted to be seen as a leader, not a woman leader,” she wrote. “She wanted her dedication to the job to be what characterized her, not her gender.”

Golda Meir and David Remez attend the first Knesset in Jerusalem, December 26, 1949. (Pinn Hans/GPO)

Lipstadt also notes that even at her least popular moments in Israel, Meir was largely beloved in the United States, where she had lived as a child and young adult before moving to Mandatory Palestine.

“With her… unmistakable midwestern accent, amazing talent for extemporaneous speaking, and unique ability to instill in her audience a sense of shared responsibility — some would describe it as guilt — she became and remained an iconic figure for American Jews,” wrote Lipstadt. “They both revered and loved her. She was one of them while simultaneously becoming… a living embodiment of Israel’s rebirth.”

Lipstadt largely leaves herself out of the book, making only occasional references to her own career. However, she notes in the acknowledgments that she felt a connection to the stateswoman.

“With my entry into this new role, I have embarked on a different path, moving temporarily from the world of scholarship to the world of diplomacy,” she wrote just as she stepped into the job of US envoy.

“It was fortuitous that my final work before this move concerned a strong-willed woman who meshed action with diplomacy and who, above all, was committed to making a difference. She was not without her flaws — who is? — but she did exactly that: she made a difference,” she wrote. “I can only hope that in some far smaller fashion, I can do the same.”

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