Gol­da Meir: Israel’s Matriarch

  • Review
By – August 15, 2023

Gol­da Meir is hav­ing a moment in the sum­mer of 2023. A film about the Israeli prime minister’s lead­er­ship dur­ing the 1973 Yom Kip­pur War, star­ring Helen Mir­ren, is in the­aters. A recent book by the schol­ar Pni­na Lahav imag­ines Meir’s inner thoughts and moti­va­tions over the course of her career. And this excel­lent new biog­ra­phy by diplo­mat Deb­o­rah Lip­stadt recounts her life sto­ry with insight and empathy.

The book begins in Kiev, where Jews were con­stant­ly under the threat of vio­lence by Cos­sacks on horse­back. Meir, born in 1898, was five years old when her fam­i­ly moved to Mil­wau­kee through the Hebrew Immi­grant Aid Soci­ety. Her old­er sis­ter, then four­teen, was already a com­mit­ted Labor Zion­ist; and at a young age, Meir her­self began mak­ing pub­lic speech­es about Zion­ism. She soon decid­ed that she had to live in Pales­tine. In 1921, she moved there with her hus­band, Mor­ris Mey­er­son, and joined a kibbutz.

One of the great strengths of this biog­ra­phy is Lipstadt’s sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the many influ­ences on Meir’s devel­op­ment: her shtetl ori­gins, her bold­ness, her gifts for pub­lic speak­ing and fundrais­ing, and her fer­vent belief in the egal­i­tar­i­an­ism of Labor Zion­ism. Lip­stadt under­scores the con­trast between that ide­al­ism and the real­i­ty that Meir encoun­tered in the kib­butz: women weren’t count­ed as kib­butz mem­bers, they were paid less than men, and they were respon­si­ble for house­hold chores. 

Still, Meir’s tal­ents were quick­ly rec­og­nized. She served on the kib­butz exec­u­tive com­mit­tee, becom­ing its rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the nation­al labor body, the His­tadrut, and lat­er to Mapai, the dom­i­nant polit­i­cal par­ty. She was soon brought into the party’s inner cir­cle, where she formed rela­tion­ships — some of them inti­mate — with the future founders of the State of Israel. Her pub­lic life set an exam­ple for the women of the Yishuv: they, too, should take respon­si­bil­i­ty for build­ing the Jew­ish state along­side the men. But it also meant a lot of time away from her family.

Lip­stadt astute­ly describes world-his­tor­i­cal events through Meir’s eyes: the cal­lous­ness of the British man­date, the Arab riots, the des­per­ate efforts to res­cue Jews from Nazi-occu­pied Europe, the Exo­dus 1947 refugee ship, and post­war con­tacts with Sovi­et Jews. In the ear­ly years of the State, Meir served as Labor Min­is­ter and was a key fig­ure in rais­ing funds from Amer­i­can Jews. In 1956, she became For­eign Min­is­ter. Lipstadt’s behind-the-scenes account of the infight­ing among cab­i­net mem­bers is par­tic­u­lar­ly illuminating.

Meir’s role as prime min­is­ter in the Yom Kip­pur War end­ed her polit­i­cal life at the age of sev­en­ty-five. She was crit­i­cized for exces­sive­ly defer­ring to the mil­i­tary, which had dis­missed reports of an impend­ing attack. And when the Unit­ed States demand­ed that Israel not make a pre­emp­tive assault, she acqui­esced. While her deci­sion may be under­stand­able, there was tremen­dous loss of life; and as the nation’s leader, she was held responsible.

Deb­o­rah Lipstadt’s own ambas­sado­r­i­al role, her ground­ing as a schol­ar, and her first­hand expe­ri­ence of gen­der issues in a lead­er­ship posi­tion make her the ide­al biog­ra­ph­er for Gol­da Meir. It’s a true plea­sure to read this live­ly and deeply informed account of one of Israel’s piv­otal figures.

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