On September 24, 1969, some 5,000 enthusiastic Jewish Americans waited in Philadelphia International Airport to greet Israel’s first ever female prime minister, Golda Meir.
The high profile state visit was both personal and nostalgic.
Meir, after all, was partially American herself. Born Golda Mabovitch on May 3, 1898, in Kiev, Ukraine, the eastern European emigre moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when she was eight, subsequently emigrating with her husband, Morris Myerson, to Palestine as a young adult in 1921. She would dedicate her life to Zionist and socialist politics thereafter.
New York-based author and journalist Francine Klagsbrun says that up until that historical visit in 1969, no Israeli premier entering the United States had been greeted with such enthusiasm, adoration and respect by the Jewish community there.
“Golda was a very charismatic person who understood America well because she grew up there,” explains Klagsbrun, a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, New York Times, Jewish Week and Newsweek.
Klagsbrun has recently published “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” a 700-page comprehensive biography of the prime minister.
“She knew how to reach [into] the heart of American Jews and was constantly coming to America to raise money,” she said.
“In 1948, David Ben-Gurion knew that the Arab states were going to invade Israel,” Klagsbrun adds. “And so, desperate for arms, he sent Golda to the United States, where she raised $55 million from speaking around the country.”
Golda, as she came to be affectionately known in the press — both in Israel and in the United States — had an approval rating of almost 90 percent when she took office in 1969 as prime minister. However, Meir was forced to resign after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Israel was taken by surprise in the war, and many blamed Meir and her Labor government for the country’s lack of military preparedness, which resulted in many casualties on the Israeli side.
But the Yom Kippur War does not, and should not, entirely define Meir’s political career, says her biographer. “Golda’s legacy is that of integrity, hard work, and dedication to the state and the Jewish people.”
“Golda didn’t have the intellectual background that other [Israeli leaders] had,” Klagsbrun explains. “Her Hebrew wasn’t great and she was not very knowledgeable in Jewish philosophy or the Talmud. But she was a very effective speaker, a clever politician, and a people’s person — all of which was of great use to the state [of Israel].”
Klagsbrun is clearly a fan of her subject, but has no qualms in pointing out Meir’s numerous flaws.
“The problem with Golda’s success — and what she accomplished in her political career — was that it didn’t spill over to other women in Israel,” says Klagsbrun. “She didn’t go out of her way to help other women; she was not an easy person to work with; she could be cruel to people she didn’t like, and she didn’t understand the Palestinians.”
Klagsbrun focuses on this last point in considerable detail in her biography.
Specifically, the author points to an interview published in the Sunday Times in June 1969 in which British journalist Frank Giles asked Meir if she thought the emergence of the Palestinian fighting forces was an important factor in the Middle East.
Meir’s response at the time was blunt in its delivery. “It was not as though there was a Palestinian people and [Jews] came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They [the Palestinians] did not exist,” Meir told the journalist.
“Golda didn’t understand Palestinian nationalism at all,” says Klagsbrun.
Declassified documents provide a new window
There have been a number of biographies written in both Hebrew and English about Meir’s life to date. However, no book goes into quite the same level of detail as this current tome.
Klagsbrun took on the enormous task of writing such an expansive and detailed biography on Meir’s life because a number of key archives have been declassified.
Klagsbrun’s meticulous research took her to a number of countries, where she studied more than a thousand documents, telephone transcripts, and minutes of American, Israeli, British, and Russian governmental meetings.
Not all the historically relevant meetings with or about Meir were committed to paper, however.
One crucial historical record missing from the archives concerned a vitally important meeting Meir held with US President Richard Nixon on September 25, 1969, conducted on the White House lawn to ensure no potential spies or leakers inside the White House could overhear or document their conversation.
Privately, Nixon was famously an anti-Semite. But he was keen to build close political ties with Israel because of its strategic location in the Middle East.
This was especially true during the tumultuous period of the Cold War of the late 1960s, when some Arab nations in the region were turning to Communism and others to pan-Arab nationalism, both steps away from participation in the American-led Western world order.
Ostensibly, both leaders were there to discuss Israel’s military and economic needs.
But Klagsbrun claims there is now significant evidence from the memos of Henry Kissinger — who was then both secretary of state and national security adviser to Nixon — confirming that Meir “told President Nixon that Israel had nuclear weapons.”
Israel’s policy regarding nuclear weapons, which it is believed by foreign intelligence services to have began secretly developing in the 1950s, is euphemistically referred to as “opacity.” Basically, Klagsbrun explains, the policy was neither to deny nor confirm Israel’s alleged possession of nuclear weapons. Official Israel continues this ambiguous stance today.
“Golda’s attitude from the very beginning was that Israel should let the United States know that they had nuclear weapons,” the author says. “In cabinet meetings, for example, she always talked about the need to be open about this issue. She didn’t want nuclear weapons developed in Israel in the first place. When they were, she accepted it. But she at least wanted to reveal to the United States what the situation was.”
Israel had clearly chosen a side in the Cold War by the time Meir purportedly confessed to Nixon about Israel’s alleged nuclear capabilities in 1969. But there was a time when ideological leanings weren’t so clear cut, as the book is keen to point out. Meir was always a committed, if somewhat naïve, socialist.
In one chapter Klagsbrun recalls what Meir once referred to as the “honeymoon” period of Israel’s relationship with the Soviet Union.
In September 1948, Meir began serving as Israel’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union. The Russian newspapers Izvestia and Pravda detailed her arrival with some fuss at time; particularly her attempt to present Israel as a small pioneering nation, living simply in accordance with socialist ideals.
Klagsbrun says that Meir didn’t fully comprehend the distinctions that Stalin made between the Soviet Union’s relationship with Israel, and Soviet Jewry’s relationship with it.
“Stalin wanted Soviet Jews to be faithful only to Mother Russia. I don’t think Golda, or other Israelis, quite understood that distinction,” the author explains.
“Nor did the Israeli delegates understand how secretive the Soviet Union actually was. They were being watched and recorded at every moment they were there,” Klagsbrun adds.
Pioneering woman in a frontier society
A patriarchal culture dominated the politics of Israel during its early years, as the state was forming and evolving quickly. The responsibility and prestige that Meir sought out at that time was the exception, not the rule, for women in the nascent state.
According to Klagsbrun, Israel’s founding father and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion should be given some credit for the bold decision to involve a woman in a leading political position — especially at a time when a woman’s presence was not a common sight in political circles, and not just in Israel.
In March 1948, after Meir raised a considerable sum of cash in the United States to acquire arms for the fledgling state, Ben-Gurion told Meir that “someday when history will be written, it will be said there was a Jewish woman who got the money to make the state possible.”
That same month Ben-Gurion told a number of male colleagues in a Mapai Party meeting that “it is essential to have women in government.”
“Golda was very close to Ben-Gurion,” Klagsbrun explains.
Arguments, nevertheless, arose between both personalities.
“What they fought over was Germany,” says Klagsbrun. “Ben-Gurion was very accepting — probably rightly so — of what he called the new Germany after the Holocaust. He saw Germany as a source of financial support for Israel. Golda went along with it. But her heart was not totally in it.”
“Golda felt that Israel was made up of Holocaust survivors, and that Ben-Gurion was not very responsive to that,” Klagsbrun adds.
They were also divided on the 1954 Lavon affair, in which 11 young Egyptian Jews carried out sabotage operations in Egypt in an effort to create chaos and force Britain to retain its control over the Suez Canal.
Both Israel’s prime minister at the time Moshe Sharett and its defense minister, Pinhas Lavon, denied any knowledge of the operation, but then-head of IDF military intelligence Binyamin Gibli claimed he was given the orders for the operation from Lavon himself.
“Ben-Gurion wanted to have a judicial trial of Lavon,” Klagsbrun says, “and the other ministers — Golda and others — even though they were not in love with Lavon, just wanted to end the whole thing.”
“This became a huge big deal when Ben-Gurion became truly obsessed with the idea of a judicial committee,” Klagsbrun continues. “Golda wanted to move on and and accept a ministerial committee’s call to clear Lavon. So it became a bone of contention between them. Ultimately, it led to a breakdown in their [political] relationship.”
“However, they did get back together and make up,” Klagsbrun adds. “And no matter what went on between them, Golda always said that it was Ben-Gurion that was truly responsible for the creation of Israel. So she had enormous respect and love for him.”
Focus on the home-front
Klagsbrun’s book doesn’t just focus on Meir’s political life. The biography also zooms in on the former prime minister’s colorful and rather unconventional personal life — especially the difficulties Meir encountered in juggling her political life and her family.
She struggled to balance these two worlds. Her relationship with her husband Morris Myerson, Klagsbrun says, became a pragmatic one, losing something of the physical or affectionate.
In an essay Meir once wrote called “Borrowed Mothers,” she spoke of what she called her “inner struggles and the despairs of the mother who goes to work as being without parallel in human experience.”
Often, with the assistance of Morris — and other family members who lent a helping hand — Meir left her children in those early years for months at a time as she dedicated her life to Zionist and socialist politics.
“The children were very resentful of her, but when they got older they were so proud of her,” says Klagsbrun.
While Morris and Golda never legally divorced, their marriage was long over by the time he died in 1951. Klagsbrun says that rumors cropped up fairly regularly about other lovers Meir had within the Mapai Party and outside it. She was even said to have once had a fling with an aristocratic Palestinian Arab.
But it was David Remez, Israel’s first minister of transportation and a signatory of its declaration of independence, who Meir would become both physically and emotionally close to over the course of her life.
Klagsbrun’s book reprints intimate letters — written in Hebrew and with coded words — between the two lovers as they confided with each other, often in code to avoid being caught by their spouses.
“David Remez, who Golda had an affair with, I believe was truly the love of her life,” says Klagsbrun.
“I also felt that she had an affair with Henry Montor, who was the director of the United Jewish Appeal [and former US secretary of the Treasury] who she worked very closely with in raising money in the United States,” she says.
“There were other men [I suspected] she had affairs with, but I wasn’t able to find actual documents that would prove it,” Klagsbrun concludes. “She was a woman ahead of her time in this sense. Her attitude was to live life to the fullest.”