Lioness: Gol­da Meir and the Nation of Israel

  • Review
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.

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