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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Wresting Golda Meir from the shadows

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In late September 1973, Israel's Labor Party made its final campaign pitch for the upcoming elections. It placed ads in all the newspapers with a picture of its leader, the admired and beloved prime minister, Golda Meir, surrounded by reassuring words: "Quiet reigns on the banks of the Suez. The lines are secure; the bridges are open; Jerusalem is united."

Days later, on Yom Kippur, Syria and Egypt launched a massive pincer attack from north and south, their advancing tanks crushing the illusions of a complacent nation and forever shifting public opinion away from Meir. Despite hard-fought victories in both the war and the postponed vote, she resigned four months after re-election, condemned as a woman out of her depth (emphasis on "woman"). She died in 1978.

And while American Jews remember her with pride and fondness (she spent her girlhood in Milwaukee and spoke a disarming Midwestern English of pinched nasal vowels), Meir has remained an object of some scorn in Israel. Her miscalculation contributed to the deaths of thousands. Her dismissal of the Palestinian nation ("no such thing as Palestinians," she notoriously said) has won her few admirers on the left.

But perspectives have begun to shift with the passage of time. As 2018 approaches - the 120th anniversary of Meir's birth - we are in the midst of a re-evaluation of her legacy that places the 1973 disaster into a broader context of a life of rich accomplishment. In that emerging view, her failure to anticipate the attack must be understood as a reflection of the thinking of her security establishment; her leadership during the war was forceful.

Last year, the Israeli state archives published a 700-page volume of her notes and documents with scholarly comment that reflects such revisionism. A grandson of Meir's has recently started a foundation in her name to spread the word and to mark the anniversary. Events are planned both in Israel and the United States.

To this growing Golda rethink, Francine Klagsbrun has contributed a thorough and absorbing examination of the woman and her role in Zionism and Israel. "Lioness" wrests Meir from the shadow of the Yom Kippur War and presents her life and career as a lens to examine Israel's challenges - borders, settlements, occupation, terror and the social and ethnic divide between Jews of European and those of Middle Eastern origin.

The author of more than a dozen books, many on Jewish subjects, and an essayist for The Jewish Week, Klagsbrun has spent years reviewing thousands of pages of documents, interviewing those closest to Meir (most now dead) and, while writing with affection, applying the tools of a contemporary truth tester (no, Meir never witnessed a pogrom as a small child in Kiev despite often invoking memories of one; and no, despite a Broadway play and a book by Seymour Hersh, Meir didn't threaten to unleash nuclear weapons in the 1973 war if Nixon didn't airlift needed supplies).

In many ways, as Klagsbrun's narrative makes clear, Meir was the archetypal Zionist. An Eastern European Jew who, after a lengthy American detour, immigrated to Palestine in 1921, Meir embodied the movement's socialist and egalitarian modesty as well as its tough-minded militarism. She was what the Israelis call a bitzuist - a doer.

She not only raised millions of dollars for Zionism and Israel but also fought to save European Jews from the Nazis, carried out clandestine visits to Jordan's King Abdullah and, as labor minister, built tens of thousands of homes for new immigrants. Born Golda Mabovitch in the humblest of origins (her father's inability to earn an income kept the family in penury for years), Meir quickly stood out once she landed in America with her family, embraced the Zionist movement and rose through relentless focus and networking.

But, of course, Meir was highly atypical for a simple reason: She was a woman. When she was named foreign minister in the 1950s, she was the only woman in the world to hold that job. When she became prime minister in 1969, she was one of three women in such a post but the other two - Indira Gandhi of India and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Ceylon - came to their roles following the death of a father and a husband.

Everything about how Meir dealt with her gender is fascinating, telling and often somewhat tragic. She suffered from it but was not above exploiting it ("Call me Golda," she disarmingly told everyone). Just as Barack Obama studiously avoided being seen as a black president, Meir stayed far away from both femininity and feminism.

She wore no makeup, smoked like a chimney and, although she began her political rise through the Zionist women's associations in the late 1920s, she claimed later never to have belonged to a women's organization. Nixon said of Indira Gandhi that she acted "with the ruthlessness of a man but wanted always to be treated like a woman," whereas Meir "acted like a man and wanted to be treated like a man." Ben-Gurion referred to Golda as "the only man in the cabinet."

Klagsbrun presents all this as part of the broad sweep of Meir's life but the topic is ripe for deeper exploration. As part of the renaissance in Meir scholarship, others are taking a closer look at her specifically as a woman leader. (Pnina Lahav, a law professor at Boston University, is deep into a book that analyzes Meir as a victim of sexist mores, a trailblazer and a role model.)

Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel when the Palestinian movement became enamored of terrorism, hijacking planes and kidnapping Israeli Olympic athletes. She had no patience for talk of a Palestinian state other than Jordan.

"There will be no third state in the area," she said. While that put her at odds with most thinking in the recent past, she would feel at home with the political debate in Israel today, where talk of a Palestinian state is fading fast. That may not bring the world any closer to peace in the Holy Land. But it will probably aid in Meir's rehabilitation. (excerpt)


The reviewer is a senior journalist.
The write-up has also appeared on
www.nytimes.com

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