September 22, 2018

The Golda Meir exchange, part 1: Has Israel been unfair to its first female prime minister?

Francine Klagsbrun is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day and Married People: Staying Together in the Age of Divorce. She was the editor of the best-selling Free to Be . . . You and Me and is a regular columnist for The Jewish Week, a contributing editor to Lilith, and on the editorial board of Hadassah magazine. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, and Ms. Magazine. She lives in New York City.

The following exchange will focus on her new book, Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel (Schoken, 2017).

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Dear Ms. Klagsbrun,

I’d like to start with a paragraph from the introduction to your book:

And herein lies perhaps the greatest paradox in Golda Meir’s life: outside Israel, she remains a revered figure. American libraries and political centers bear her name, philanthropies give Golda Meir awards, and children’s books about her appear regularly. Within Israel, large segments of the population—mainly the intelligentsia—dislike her, and much of the media rarely refers to her favorably. 

In the ensuing passage, you basically present the Yom Kippur war — perceived in Israel as a big failure of Golda Meir’s leadership — as the reason for this disparity, and you then add that you believe that “the Yom Kippur War does not define Golda Meir.”

My introductory question: Has Israel’s collective memory treated Golda Meir unfairly? What elements of her historical legacy would you like your book to shift the focus to?

Yours, 

Shmuel

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Dear Shmuel,

The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was a dark period in Israel’s history and one that left an indelible mark on the nation’s psyche. The euphoria that followed Israel’s lightning victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 was replaced by a sense of vulnerability and insecurity. The nation had been unprepared for the two-pronged attack by Egypt and Syria on October 6, 1973, and although in the end Israel won that war, it suffered more than 2,500 casualties and thousands more wounded, huge numbers for the small state. As Israel’s prime minister, Golda Meir was held responsible for the surprise attack and resigned some months later. Ever since those days, she has been regarded in Israel as a controversial figure; in the collective psyche, she has not been able to emerge from the shadow of that war.

But is that a fair assessment? I think not. While it is true that —as with any head of state —the buck stopped with the prime minister in terms of the war, Golda Meir’s long life encompassed so much more than the tragedy toward its end. This was a woman who devoted her entire being to building and sustaining a sovereign state for the Jewish people and whose many contributions to that state far exceed her failures.

Look at her, for example, as an official of the Histadrut, the Labor Federation in pre-state Israel. It is 1939 and World War II has begun. In the Jewish community of mandatory Palestine unemployment is rife and people are starving. Four times in a row Golda takes it upon herself to collect a mifdeh, an emergency tax requiring employed workers to donate one day’s pay a month to an unemployment fund. At first workers accept the obligation, but by the fourth mifdeh, resentment is widespread and vicious. People with little themselves do not want to give their hard-earned wages to the unemployed. Golda works incessantly, stumping from factory to factory to plead for the tax and press workers into paying it. In the end she succeeds, saving lives and strengthening the Histadrut, the most important institution in the land.

Look at her as minister of labor in the newly formed state of Israel. With tens of thousands of immigrants flocking to the country, Golda organizes housing, at first makeshift, then more permanent, to give them a life in their new land. She flies back and forth to the United States to raise money for the immigrants, becoming a key force in selling Israel Bonds to American Jews. During these years, from 1949 to 1956, she also pushes through a far-reaching national Insurance plan that becomes the basis of Israel’s social security system still today. She initiates such progressive labor laws as paid vacation for working people and paid maternity leave for working women, among the world’s first nations to provide these benefits.

Look at her as Israel’s foreign minister from 1956 to 1966, and prime minister beginning in 1969. Among other things she strengthens ties between Israel and the United States, making them tighter than they had ever been. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy tells her that the U.S. has a special relationship with Israel comparable only to its relationship with Great Britain; after Kennedy’s assassination President Lyndon Johnson assures her that the friendship she had with the slain president will continue and grow; When she becomes prime minister, President Richard Nixon welcomes her to the White House with more pomp and circumstance than any Israeli leader before her had received. Together with Yitzhak Rabin, her ambassador to the U. S., she turns the Israeli embassy in Washington into the most popular and powerful on embassy row. Responding to Golda’s pleas during the Yom Kippur War, Nixon sends a massive airlift to Israel with much-needed planes and other arms.

Now look at her again in the context of the Yom Kippur War. She is worried and suspicious beforehand about a threat of war from Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt. But her generals and military advisers constantly reassure her that until Egypt acquires certain weapons it needs from the Soviet Union, there is a low probability of war. Moreover, they maintain, even if war were to break out, Israel would defeat the enemy in no time. For the rest of her life she will blame herself for having listened to those advisers instead of following her own intuition. But what leader would not follow the advice of his or her top military experts?  And during the war, when the most famous of her generals, Moshe Dayan, falls apart completely, she remains a rock. She keeps the nation calm, stays on top of every battle and makes crucial military decisions that lead to Israel’s victory.

The time has come to give Golda Meir her due. Like any leader, she had her flaws and she made mistakes, but her passion for Zionism, her determination, hard work and unwavering strength contributed mightily to the founding and subsistence of the Jewish state.