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.