Helen Mirren’s Golda Meir offers a profile of greatness in the face of overwhelming adversity.
By Michael Oren
Ever since the 1970s, the entrances to many American Jewish institutions have boasted a single bust. It is not of Theodore Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, or of Israel’s preeminent leader, David Ben-Gurion, nor even of any prominent American Jew—Justice Louis Brandeis or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The likeness is not flattering. Beneath tightly bunned hair, the face is unsmiling, its features decidedly bland. Their owner never graduated college, wrote a transformative book, or commanded an army. Still, that statue embodies an ideal to which most American Jews aspire: at once patriotic yet open-minded, liberal but muscular, courageous and caring. The bust, moreover, is of a woman and not just any woman. With an accent as flat as the Midwestern plains, four packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day and the omnipresent purse that held them, the clunky shoes and grandmotherly attire, she was Everywoman. Yet, in a rags-to-preeminence story so appealing to Americans, that woman rose to become the prime minister of Israel. She was Golda Meir—or, as she’s still colloquially known, simply, Golda.
Until my grandmother’s death at the age of 100, she claimed that the proudest day of her life was hosting Golda for a fundraising event in her Boston home. In 1973, and again in 1974, a Gallup poll named Golda “Woman of the Year,” the only non-American ever to achieve that title, garnering twice as many votes as the runner-up, Betty Ford. Though no feminist—Ben-Gurion once called her “the only man in the government”—she became a poster-child of women’s liberation, appearing under the banner, “But Can She Type?” She served as the subject of two Broadway plays, several documentaries, and a made-for-television movie. Golda characters appear in a variety of productions, from Steven Spielberg’s Munich to season 26, episode 1 of The Simpsons. No fewer than nine English-language biographies have been written about her, in addition to her own memoir, and the recollections of her son. She was—and to a large extent, has remained—an American icon.
Not so for Israelis. For 50 years, the name Golda has been associated with reckless hubris, with humiliation and trauma and the loss of an innocent Israel that can never be retrieved. Most bitterly, the name Golda evokes the memory of the 2,656 Israeli soldiers—83 times the number, proportionally, of Americans lost on 9/11—killed on her watch. Israel has no end of streets and facilities named for Ben-Gurion, for Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Rabin, and Menachem Begin, but there are few Golda Meir boulevards or university halls. New York has Golda Meir Square, complete with that unprepossessing bust, but not Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Only among Israeli children, born long after her death, does Golda elicit any excitement as the name of a popular ice-cream chain.
Now, half-a-century after her purportedly disastrous performance during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, there are attempts to revisit Golda’s legacy, to examine it in the light of recently released documents, and to reflect on the complex human being behind the bust. Spotlighting these revisions is a bold and riveting new film by Academy Award-winning director Guy Nattiv, starring the incomparable Helen Mirren. After portraying Queens Elizabeth I and II and Catherine the Great, Mirren praised her latest character “one of the most extraordinary I’ve ever played.” That estimation is more than illustrated by the movie simply titled Golda.
Helen Mirren and director Guy Nattiv.
In the majestic screenplay by British writer Nicholas Martin, Golda begins where any other study of her life would logically end, with the Yom Kippur War. That approach differs radically from the 1982 teleplay for A Woman Called Golda, starring Ingrid Bergman. Over the course of that two-part, four-hour biopic, Bergman’s Golda—looking entirely too fetching and bizarrely affecting an Eastern European accent—appears before curious students in the Milwaukee elementary school she once attended and tells them the story of her life. Her recollections begin in the then-Russian city of Kyiv where, as the four-year-old Golda Mabovitch, she watched her father boarding up windows against pogroms. “What did I take with me from there?” the real Golda later remembered. “Fear, hunger, and fear.”
After a harrowing journey through Ukraine, Poland, Austria, and Canada, the family immigrated to the United States in 1906 and settled in Milwaukee. Golda loved America, a country where, in contrast to Europe, the police guarded parading workers rather than bludgeoning them. Her parents wanted her to leave school and marry, but at the age of 14, Golda fled to her sister in Denver and began attending Zionist and socialist discussions. At one of these she met her future husband, Morris Meyerson. Played in the 1982 biopic by a bespectacled, round-eared Leonard Nimoy, Meyerson was an artistic intellectual from whom Golda gleaned both culture and ideology. Married in 1917, the couple might have remained in America but for Golda’s refusal to be merely a “parlor Zionist.” As she later told a friend, “If a thing has to be done, you don’t waste time with theories and debates. You just do it.” Like the signers of the Declaration of Independence, she dreamed of creating a nation. And what better place to establish that nation than in the Land of Israel, as Jews traditionally knew it, but which the rest of the world called Palestine?
The Palestine that the Meyersons encountered in 1921 was an impoverished, malaria-infested backwater. Though newly mandated to the British Empire which promised, in the Balfour Declaration, to transform it into a Jewish national home, Palestine was already torn between Zionist and Arab claims. Into this maelstrom, the young couple stumbled—or rather, from Golda’s perspective, marched—two of the estimated 40,000 immigrants who came to Palestine either out of socialist conviction or fear of renewed Russian pogroms. Many hoped to go on to America, but the United States was shutting its gates to them. The Meyersons were among the handful of Jews who went the other way, from the Goldene Medina—the gold-plated state—to a wilderness in the Middle East.
A Woman Called Golda did an admirable job of showing the hardships of that move. Not just disease, scarcity, and Arab attacks, but also Zionist bureaucracy immiserated the Meyersons’ lives. Initially rejected for membership in Kibbutz Merhavia in the Jezreel Valley, they were eventually admitted to the hardcore socialist community where Golda thrived as a chicken farmer and wheat thresher. It was there that she received her first political role on the kibbutz steering committee. Her husband, by contrast, never fitted in, and in failing health, took his crestfallen wife to Jerusalem. As a young mother of two, Golda struggled there with poverty worse, she claimed, than anything she’d experienced in Russia. Only an offer to head the women’s section of the Histadrut Labor Federation saved her career. Her marriage, however, did not survive her relocation to Tel Aviv.
There, as a compelling public speaker, fundraiser, and political factotum, Golda found her metier. She began to represent the Zionists abroad and to solicit contributions for them in the United States. During World War II, she helped recruit both Jews and Arabs into the British army while opposing that army’s efforts to crush Jewish self-defense groups. She tried, although her efforts were futile, to rescue European Jews from the Holocaust. It was only at the war’s end, with many Zionist officials languishing in British prisons, that Golda gained prominence. As the struggle for Jewish statehood loomed, she held several secret meetings with the Emir (later, King) Abdullah of Transjordan (later, Jordan), in an effort to keep his British-trained and -commanded Arab Legion out of the fight. Historians would later argue over the wisdom of sending a woman to negotiate with a misogynous Arab monarch, and debate whether or not Golda succeeded in her mission. The Arab Legion in fact fought bravely in Israel’s War of Independence, from 1947 to 1949, winning every battle. Israel nevertheless prevailed, thanks in part to the $90 million Golda raised in American synagogues and homes such as my grandmother’s in Boston.
Israel was independent, but Golda, who soon Hebraized her last name to Meir (Illuminated), remained Golda. The bun, the cigarettes, the purse, and the frumpish shoes became her trademarks. Scarcely striking, she was rumored to have an impressive list of lovers, including labor leader David Remez and Zalman Shazar, later to become Israel’s third president. And while hardly diplomatic, she served as Israel’s first ambassador to Moscow where, though strictly secular, she visited the city’s main synagogue and stirred the hopes of oppressed Soviet Jews. Elected to the Knesset in 1949, she spent seven years as the Mapai Party’s labor minister, overseeing the absorption of hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, many of them from Middle Eastern countries, and securing vital loan guarantees from the United States. Then, in 1956, she became foreign minister just in time for the Suez Crisis in which Israel colluded with Britain and France in an abortive attempt to topple Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser. Israel emerged from the morass with its reputation bruised and Golda’s record tainted.
Her story might have ended there and been largely forgotten. But Golda was not one for defeat. She pressed on with her foreign-minister role, forged relations with Sub-Saharan Africa, negotiated the first sale of US armaments to Israel, and met with President Kennedy. Still, by 1966, she was exhausted, receiving treatments for lymphoma, and suffering from the swollen feet which became her albatross. The constant squabbles with younger Labor figures, especially Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, wore her down. The Six-Day War, fought the following year, saw Golda largely removed from decision-making. Retirement beckoned when, in March 1969, Prime Minister Eshkol suddenly died and the internally divided Mapai party desperately needed a compromise candidate.
Elected by an overwhelming Mapai majority, Golda became the first female prime minister to make it on her own merits (unlike Indira Gandhi and Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike who inherited the post from their fathers). But the course of her premiership never ran smoothly. Along with the cockiness that characterized Israeli public opinion in the post-1967 period were the widening social divisions and the lingering resentment of the Mizrachi—Middle Eastern and North African—Jews whom Golda once worked to absorb. The Black Panthers, embracing the American model, accused her of bigotry and she, in turn, labelled them “not nice guys.” The leader who, back in 1948, bemoaned the exodus of Palestinian Arabs from Israel, in 1969, publicly denied the existence of the Palestinian people. That same leader had to grapple with the hijacking of airliners, the attacks on school buses, and the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Games by terrorists from that nonexistent people.
Typical of many Israeli politicians in the period, Golda was leftwing on social issues but hawkish on security. She ground through a war of attrition waged by the Egyptians against Israel’s Bar Lev Line of emplacements along the Suez Canal, and in 1970, she managed to reach a ceasefire. Its terms were quickly violated by Cairo, though, which advanced Soviet surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) into the semi-demilitarized zone. President Nixon’s refusal to react strongly to this threat only stiffened Golda’s obduracy.
Newly declassified documents from the Israeli archives have shown that, despite her hard-nosed façade, Golda made repeated peace overtures to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who routinely rebuffed them. Such gestures unfortunately made little impression on Western leaders, above all US President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Both felt that Israel had retreated from its earlier willingness to cede captured Arab territory for peace and that Golda had not been sufficiently flexible. They even accused her of having a Masada Complex. That diplomatic deficit would play a pivotal role in the crisis that confronted Golda on October 5th, 1973.