One of God’s less charitable epithets for the children of Israel in the desert is am k’shey oref: a “stiff-necked” people. Yet some biblical scholars have seen the phrase as a kind of backhanded compliment. Rigidity, myopia, lack of imagination are hardly admirable traits; but when expressed as fastidiousness, perseverance, single-minded devotion to a worthy goal, mightn’t there be something to say for them?
This, at any rate, is the label that repeatedly comes to mind for the subject of Francine Klagsbrun’s Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel, a mammoth, meticulously researched, and engaging biography of Israel’s fourth prime minister. Golda, as she was universally known, was a famously stiff-necked individual if ever there was one.
Klagsbrun, a long-time literary journalist, is the author of more than a dozen books on Jewish and non-Jewish subjects. Lioness is her first foray into Israeli history, a daunting field of inquiry through which she has steered with impressive scholarship; her research in Israeli and American archives seems to have left no stone unturned. Though clearly sympathetic to her subject as a kind of Jewish and feminist hero, Klagsbrun has also written a balanced work, and indeed largely resists the urge to psychoanalyze her subject or parse her thoughts.
This strikes me as the right approach to Golda, a woman of few words who accomplished much by dint of the ones she had and through her own force of will. Throughout her life, as Klagsbrun shows, Golda stubbornly held to her most cherished ideas and her way of advancing them.
Klagsbrun does not miss a beat of that life. She covers Goldie Mabovitch from her birth in 1898 as a carpenter’s daughter in Kiev, through her family’s immigration to America and her youth in Milwaukee, to her political and post-political life in Israel. We learn of her aliyah at twenty-one to Mandate Palestine, her experiences first in a kibbutz and then in Tel Aviv, her rapid ascent up the greasy pole of the Israeli labor movement to the position first of foreign minister and finally prime minister. Along the way, we read with sadness of her difficult marriage to Morris Meyerson and her sometimes frivolous, not to say callous, attitude to family life.
A socialist from her early teens, Golda never deviated from her belief in the redemptive power of labor, even in the 1960s and 70s when Israel’s socialist policies were clearly inhibiting the country’s development. Religion never interested her. Apart from her perennial annoyance with Israel’s rabbinic authorities, she mostly neglected the religious issue in the Jewish state, and for that matter in the Jewish soul. In thought and action, she was, in her own way, perfectly emblematic of the “mainstream” Zionism of the early to mid-20th century, which drew its energy from sweaty political meetings and smoke-filled rooms where the lines between union business and political business were impossibly blurred.
Golda herself seemed to draw energy and satisfaction from these twinned poles of labor-party politics. Little room was left for the things in-between, whether personal or political. Even when foreign minister and later prime minister, her famous “kitchen” conversations with friends and visitors formed but another extension of the informal, passionate political meetings that had been her lifeblood since adolescence.
To be sure, Golda’s stubbornness could at various times adapt to the demands of circumstance. If in her heart she believed that Germany after the Holocaust was forever damned, as prime minister she came to see the necessity and the benefit of relations with Bonn. Similarly, her implacable opposition to territorial negotiations with Egypt changed in the 70s as geopolitical realities shifted. By nature neither daring nor particularly imaginative, and at times prone to let vendettas or personal grudges influence her decisions, she could also be a politician of dispassionate common sense.
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Of Golda’s political career, not so much as a single small incident seems missing from Klagsbrun’s narrative. Of the momentous ones, we are given detailed sketches of everything from her clandestine early-1948 meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan—in an effort to dissuade him from going to war with the Jewish state-to-be—to her five-year tenure (1969-1974) as prime minister, a period most notable for the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. Klagsbrun also offers an interesting take on the few post-political years prior to her death in 1978, years that in this account were somewhat less wracked by self-doubt over her handling of the 1973 war than has been previously thought.
The most important part of Golda’s life was naturally her premiership. As Klagsbrun demonstrates, Golda’s unelected ascent to the job in 1969, following the death of Levi Eshkol, was anything but guaranteed. It was the labor kingmaker Pinḥas Sapir who correctly deduced that, as between the movement’s two warring factions, Golda could be the “consensus” (i.e., the least objectionable) candidate. Once in office, she dealt reasonably well with the major early issues confronting her. Thus, her firm response to the Egyptian “war of attrition” in 1969-1970 held off a larger war, at least for a while, and she distinguished herself in her advocacy for Soviet Jews, another lifelong preoccupation. The state’s inability to rescue its kidnapped athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 was entirely the fault of the West Germans.
Of course, the vexed question of the Yom Kippur War, both Israel’s lack of preparedness and its conduct of the battle once it erupted, remains the decisive and most controverted point of Golda’s tenure. As is well known, the joint attack by Syrian and Egyptian forces on October 6, 1973 caught Israel almost totally unawares, and initial attempts to repulse Syrian forces from the Golan and Egyptians from the Sinai met with decisive setbacks. The military suffered fierce casualties, and the country’s supply of aircraft and tanks was dangerously depleted.
There was, and is, a great deal of blame to go around for this failure. Israel’s famous sense of invincibility after the Six-Day War of 1967, fed by top generals like Moshe Dayan, was real and had permeated Israeli society. No one grasped, for instance, how greatly improved Egypt’s Soviet-built anti-aircraft capabilities had become in the interim.
As Klagsbrun shows, Golda did have concerns in the weeks leading up to the attack, questioning the confident report of Brigadier General Aryeh Shalev that, despite massive Egyptian and Syrian buildups, the likelihood of war remained low. Still, at the end of the day, the buck stopped with the prime minister. On military matters, Golda basically trusted the generals, and the generals were disastrously wrong.
Where Golda has not received enough credit is for her nerve and determination in the war’s aftermath. Both qualities served her well in the peace negotiations with Egypt that were spearheaded by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—even as, domestically, pressure mounted to hold the government accountable for its wartime failures.
The war years are well treated by Klagsbrun, as they have been by a variety of historians. But perhaps the most singular and fascinating contribution of this work lies in its account of Golda’s early life and particularly her upbringing in Milwaukee. For herein lies a puzzle.
Golda’s mother brought her daughters to America in 1906, in the wake of pogroms following the 1905 Russian revolution. Her father Moshe, who had come a few years earlier, was by then earning a living in Milwaukee as a carpenter working for the railroad. The Maboviches were hardly alone in making this trip. In the latter years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, 2,000,000 Jews would leave the Russian empire, mainly for the U.S. As Golda later put it, “to the [Russian] Jews, America was a kind of bank where you went to pick up the dollars scattered on the sidewalks.”
Of these immigrants, deeply wrapped up in the drama of American life, very few would later become active Zionists, let alone make their way to Mandate Palestine. Young Golda was different. Although she attended public school and quickly mastered English—indeed, all her life her English would be better than her Hebrew—from her teenage years on she became absolutely convinced that her future, and the future of the Jews, lay in Palestine.
How to explain this? No doubt part of the answer lies in the unique political climate of the Midwest and especially Milwaukee. Thanks to its population of German immigrants, some of whom had trained in universities, the city was one of the chief centers of progressivism in America, and ideological-political organization was a distinctive feature of Wisconsin life. As there was not much else to do in Milwaukee—in contrast to, say, New York—political and literary meetings became integral to the small Jewish community as well. Ironically, then, it was Golda’s upbringing in the periphery that may have helped point her outward, toward Zionism and away from the American frontier.
Encouraged by her elder sister Sheyna and her sister’s husband Shamai, Golda became close to Po’aley Tsiyon, the Zionist movement that combined Jewish nationalism with a heterodox and ultimately non-Marxist brand of socialism: up with class struggle, down with bourgeois values including religion, but yes to the nation-state and to some of the old trappings of tradition that still possessed the power to rally the base. In Palestine, this was the party of David Ben-Gurion, the precursor to Mapai and the present-day Labor party.
Golda attached herself to this plank, and in some sense never let go. Preternaturally serious, she refused to be what she called a “parlor Zionist” and followed through on her plan to “ascend” to Palestine at the end of World War I. Moving to newly-British Palestine in 1919, she brought along her devoted husband Morris (who was not at all cut out for what lay ahead). No longer an American, she nevertheless took something of the Midwest with her, becoming a rarity among Israel’s founders as a highly effective communicator on return trips to her former home. Her plain-spoken charisma, it turned out, worked well both in the yishuv and back in the Midwest.
It is impossible here to summarize all aspects of Golda’s life, or all of the details of this fine book. Above all, Francine Klagsbrun reveals a person single-mindedly committed to the Zionist cause. Never even in her youth did Golda so much as flirt with the competing ideologies of assimilationism, Bundism, or internationalist Communism. Like Ben-Gurion, one of her mentors, she believed that Israel was the venue of Jewish survival. Throughout her life, even her critics both within the Zionist movement and around the world had to concede her indefatigable devotion to that cause—as well as her political savvy, her genuine indifference to personal wealth and even health, and her open, simple, democratic sensibility.
To that mix of qualities, the sensibility of contemporary Israel may seem to offer a marked contrast. Certainly, the influence of Russian-style labor organizers is much diminished. The country, and its politics, have become at once more Mizraḥi, more religious, and more middle-class. But along with these and other changes that have been wrought in the transition from then until now, this book cannot help reminding us of how much of Golda’s ardent Zionist spirit remains in place today, intact and in fighting trim.
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