Lioness: Gol­da Meir and the Nation of Israel

By – May 16, 2017

With access to close asso­ciates as well as to recent­ly declas­si­fied Amer­i­can, British and Israeli mate­ri­als, Klags­brun has con­struct­ed an extra­or­di­nary biog­ra­phy of Gol­da Meir and the state she helped to build. It is well-researched, well-writ­ten, and well-edit­ed; there is noth­ing in this doorstop of a vol­ume that is irrel­e­vant or unnec­es­sary. Where there’s back­ground a non-spe­cial­ist read­er might need, she sketch­es it in effi­cient­ly and keeps going. Even trick­i­er, she strikes the right tone — occa­sion­al­ly crit­i­cal but always respect­ful. She acknowl­edges that Gol­da, as she is called through­out the vol­ume, took some secrets with her (most­ly about her lovers) but does not try to sec­ond-guess what might have been said in let­ters she has not seen nor in con­ver­sa­tions she has not heard.

Hav­ing opt­ed for a straight­for­ward, chrono­log­i­cal approach, Klags­brun opens with Golda’s roots in Kiev, where threats of pogroms pushed her fam­i­ly, like so many oth­ers, to escape to the Unit­ed States. Gol­da grew up in Mil­wau­kee, but joined her old­er sister’s social­ist-Zion­ist cir­cles in Col­orado. The Gol­da-we-know emerges in 1921, when she and her young hus­band and her sister’s fam­i­ly set sail for Pales­tine. Their hor­ri­ble pas­sage (strikes, deaths, hunger) was only a pre­lude to the stark real­i­ties of life in the yishuv—cramped/​communal hous­ing, out­door plumb­ing, food short­ages, unem­ploy­ment and the con­stant threat of vio­lence. For Social­ist-Zion­ist true believ­ers, like Gol­da and her sis­ter, such dif­fi­cul­ties were just part of the pack­age, mak­ing them work longer and harder.

Klags­brun charts Golda’s progress from new arrival” to polit­i­cal insid­er, pay­ing atten­tion to turn­ing-point moments — times when she took key posi­tions or sided with par­tic­u­lar fac­tions. Gol­da was instinc­tive­ly strate­gic. Appar­ent­ly, the only time she didn’t fol­low her gut instinct, when she allowed her­self to be con­vinced that the Yom Kip­pur War was not immi­nent, result­ed in the only major error she ever thought she’d made.

Hard work and good instincts took Gol­da most of the way, but her rep­u­ta­tion for straight talk” made her a par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive politi­cian. Whether deal­ing with allies like Ben-Guri­on, or foes like Sadat, she spoke her mind and peo­ple knew it. If they didn’t like it, that was their prob­lem, not hers. Golda’s bot­tom line was always clear — the sur­vival of the nation of Israel, for all Jews through­out the world.

For many six­ties left­ists and sec­ond-wave fem­i­nists, Gol­da Meir was no hero. She was close with Nixon and Kissinger. Her Amer­i­can tours were always fundrais­ers for Israel Bonds or the UJA. She ridiculed hip­pies and char­ac­ter­ized fem­i­nists as bra-burn­ers and man-haters.

So how is it, that in 2017, an 800+ page biog­ra­phy of Gol­da Meir can be an absolute­ly riv­et­ing page-turn­er? Tim­ing has a lot to do with it. While Mid­dle East pol­i­tics have changed in the decades since Golda’s death, so many issues she dealt with — the set­tle­ments, refugees, ter­ror­ism — still shape Israeli life today. And for Amer­i­can read­ers out­raged by the 2016 elec­tion, it’s impos­si­ble not to won­der if Hillary’s cam­paign might have been stronger with a healthy dose of Gol­da-style grit. There’s a lot to think about here, long after the end­notes are over.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Francine Klagsbrun

Win­ner of the 2017 Nation­al Jew­ish Book of the Year Award, this is the defin­i­tive biog­ra­phy of Israel’s fourth prime min­is­ter, the only woman to hold that office.

A world fig­ure unlike any oth­er, Gol­da Meir was born in tsarist Rus­sia in 1898, and immi­grat­ed with her fam­i­ly to Amer­i­ca in 1906. She grew up in Mil­wau­kee, mar­ried at nine­teen, and moved with her hus­band to British manda­to­ry Pales­tine in 1921. They joined a kib­butz, but soon left and set­tled in Jerusalem, where Gol­da gave birth to her son Mena­hem and daugh­ter Sarah. Although her mar­riage fell apart, through hard work and ded­i­ca­tion, she rose through the ranks into the inner cir­cles of Israel’s found­ing gen­er­a­tion. After the estab­lish­ment of the state, she held every major polit­i­cal office, from the nation’s first ambas­sador to the USSR, to labor min­is­ter, then for­eign min­is­ter, and, in 1969, prime minister.

With her moth­er­ly appear­ance and plain­spo­ken man­ner, she won the hearts of peo­ple every­where, vot­ed time and again one of the most admired women in the world. But she could also be tough and unbudg­ing, espe­cial­ly when pro­tect­ing Israel’s wel­fare and secu­ri­ty. As prime min­is­ter, she had to cope with an onslaught of ter­ror­ism that no oth­er world leader had ever faced, and han­dled it with strength and deter­mi­na­tion. Her tenure in office end­ed in tragedy, how­ev­er, when Israel was caught off guard by Egypt and Syria’s sur­prise attack on Yom Kip­pur, 1973. Even though Israel won that war, Gol­da resigned in its after­math and spent her final years as a pri­vate cit­i­zen, yet still deeply involved in nation­al affairs. 

Lioness tells the sto­ry of this extra­or­di­nary woman and of the nation to which she devot­ed her life.

  1. What did you know about Gol­da Meir before you read this book? Did your opin­ion of her change after read­ing it? For bet­ter or worse? Do you think the author admired her?

  2. Why does Francine Klags­brun refer to her by her first name, Gol­da,” through­out the book? Do you find that demean­ing to Gol­da Meir or does it enhance her reputation?

  3. How did grow­ing up in Mil­wau­kee impact on GM’S per­son­al­i­ty and work? In what ways did that back­ground dif­fer from those of the mil­lions of immi­grants who grew up in the ten­e­ments of New York and oth­er large cities?

  4. There were out­stand­ing women who devot­ed them­selves to fem­i­nist caus­es in pre-state Israel. Can you name one or two of them and the work she did? How did GM dif­fer from those women? Why do you think she reject­ed fem­i­nism in the ear­ly days? Why did she reject it later?

  5. Dur­ing the dark years of the Holo­caust, GM said, There is no oth­er Zion­ism now except for the res­cue of Jews. This is Zion­ism” What did she mean by that? How did her atti­tude dif­fer from that of David Ben-Guri­on and oth­er Jew­ish Agency lead­ers? Which of them do you believe was more correct?

  6. Gol­da met with King Abdul­lah of Jor­dan two times to try to per­suade him not to join oth­er Arab nations in attack­ing Israel in 1948. Her mis­sion failed. Some peo­ple have said it would have been more suc­cess­ful had Ben-Guri­on sent a man instead of a woman to meet with Abdul­lah. Why do they take that posi­tion? What do you think?

  7. Ben-Guri­on said of Gol­da Meir, Some­day when his­to­ry will be writ­ten, it will be said that there was a Jew­ish woman who got the mon­ey which made the state pos­si­ble.” What was he refer­ring to? In what ways were her activ­i­ties cru­cial to the cre­ation of the state? What tech­niques did she use that made her so successful?

  8. She has been crit­i­cized for mak­ing her­self vis­i­ble at Moscow’s Choral Syn­a­gogue as Israel’s first rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the Sovi­et Union dur­ing the 1948 High Hol­i­days. Many of the thou­sands of Jews who came out to see her were lat­er arrest­ed by the secret police. Should she have kept a low pro­file? How did that stint in the USSR influ­ence her lat­er atti­tude toward Sovi­et Jews? 

  9. GM called her time as labor min­is­ter her sev­en good years.” What did she mean by that? What do you think were her most impor­tant achieve­ments as labor minister?

  10. She had no for­eign ser­vice train­ing, yet as for­eign min­is­ter she won friends for Israel through­out the world. What qual­i­ties did she have that led to those accom­plish­ments? Why was she par­tic­u­lar­ly pop­u­lar among Amer­i­can Jews? How did she strength­en ties with Amer­i­can lead­ers, such as Hen­ry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, and what were the con­se­quences of those connections?

  11. Gol­da Meir often blamed her­self for the fail­ure of her mar­riage. Do you think she was to blame? Why did she keep a pho­to of her hus­band, Mor­ris Mey­er­son, on her man­tle long after the two had split? Although she had sev­er­al romances, she nev­er remar­ried after Mor­ris died. Why do you think she chose not to?

  12. I will nev­er again be the per­son I was before the Yom Kip­pur War,” GM said. What did she mean by that? Some crit­ics have said she should have been more recep­tive to Anwar Sadat’s demands, and thus avoid­ed that war. Do you agree? Was she right to lis­ten to her gen­er­als and not mobi­lize the troops when she sus­pect­ed signs of war? Why did she feel the need to resign after the war? How did that war affect Israel? How did it affect rela­tion­ships between Israel and Egypt?

  13. Why do you think no woman aside from Gol­da Meir has achieved the posi­tion of prime min­is­ter of Israel? What about her makes her rel­e­vant to life today? What do you think is her lega­cy to Israel and the world?