By Michael Oren
That is where Golda, the new movie, begins. The entire backstory, told in detail by the 1982 biopic, is eliminated. Apart from a poignant reference to the pogroms her family once feared, there is nothing—no mention of the Milwaukee childhood, her failed marriage or neglected children, the hardships of the kibbutz, the meetings with Abdullah, her service in Moscow, the victorious wars, and frustrated battles for peace. Nothing but the face—or rather the makeup applied to Mirren’s: multi-layered, less lined than creviced, tobacco-cured, and leathern. “She looks more like Golda than Golda did,” my partner observed. That face provides all the backstory the audience needs.
It’s the face that winces under the weight of learning, on the morning of October 5th, that the armies of Egypt and Syria would soon launch a massive surprise assault on Israeli positions. It’s the face, glimpsed through scudding clouds of Chesterfield smoke, that subtly registers the realization that her senior security advisors—Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Chief of Staff David Elazar, and, especially, Head of Army Intelligence Eli Zeira—have erred. Together, they fell victim to the “concepzia,” as it was called in Anglicized Hebrew, the groupthink that concluded that the Arabs, after suffering such a total defeat only six years earlier, would never dare attack. The “concepzia” led them to discount warnings—from a high-placed Egyptian spy, Ashraf Marwan, and from Jordan’s King Hussein—that Egypt and Syria were indeed poised to strike. Though Israel had installed a super-expensive listening system to detect when the Egyptians were mobilized, the “concepzia” convinced Zeira to turn it off.
Golda never questioned the “concepzia.” The repeated war warnings that preceded October 5th, each one triggering a costly call-up of Israeli reserves, further consolidated the belief that the Arabs were bluffing. But now, with the Israel Defense Forces and the Mossad both concluding that war would break out the next day, Golda consulted another source—her gut. This told her to mobilize all the reserves and to mount a 1967-like preemptive attack. But acting again on her security experts’ advice, she settled on calling up only half of the reservists, and fearing a backlash from Nixon and Kissinger, held off striking preemptively.
“My gut told me that war was coming but I ignored it,” Mirren-qua-Golda confesses to the panel of judges—the Agranat Commision—that later investigated the failings of the war. “All those boys who died … I will carry that pain to my grave.” The simultaneous attack began on the afternoon of October 6th—Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day, when a great many reservists were in synagogues—at precisely 2pm, with the sun in the defenders’ eyes.
Those defenders were grossly outnumbered. In the Sinai, fewer than 8,000 Israeli soldiers and 45 tanks faced a colossal Egyptian force of 32,000 backed by 2,000 tanks. In the north, the ratio of Syrian to Israeli tanks was nearly five to one. Under the nearly impenetrable umbrella of those Soviet SAMs, Egyptian soldiers fielding shoulder-fired Soviet anti-tank missiles succeeded in fording the Canal and erecting bridges across it. One by one, the Israeli emplacements fell and their companies were taken prisoner. Egyptian armor poured into the Sinai. Syrian forces, meanwhile, smashed through the thinly held Israeli defenses, recaptured almost the entire Golan Heights, and prepared to conquer all of Galilee.
Not since 1948, when the Egyptian army came within 30 miles of Tel Aviv and the Syrians reached the Sea of Galilee, had Israel been so penetrated. Veteran ministers panicked, most notably Moshe Dayan, who appeared to suffer a breakdown on national TV. Only Golda, the movie accurately shows, maintained her composure. She buffs up Dayan—“It could be worse,” she tells him. “You could have my feet.”—and overrides his orders for a possible nuclear response. She reassures the public that the situation is firmly under control, and channels her stress with 90 cigarettes daily. Only to her personal secretary, Lou Kedar, does Golda confide her fears. “If the Americans throw us to the dogs and the Arabs reach Tel Aviv, I will not be taken alive,” she vows. “You are to make sure of that.”
Two days of intensive fighting followed. The Syrian advance was halted and reversed, and the Egyptians’ attempts to expand beyond their Sinai foothold were thwarted. But the IDF’s attempts to break through to the remaining emplacements egregiously failed. In the movie’s rendition of the Pit, the IDF’s underground command center, Golda listens to the screams of Israeli men being massacred. The price was staggering: at least 700 dead—almost as many as in the entire Six-Day War—together with an intolerable number of fighter jets and tanks. With the Soviets rapidly resupplying the Arab forces, Israel had no choice but to turn to the United States.
“Henry, I’m going to level with you. We need help.” So begins the movie’s most powerful subplot, the supercharged yet almost familial relationship between Golda and Kissinger, played by a dour Liev Schreiber. “I’m first an American. Second, I’m the secretary of state, and third I’m a Jew,” he tells her in one of their most often-quoted exchanges. “I know, Henry,” Golda replies. “But in Israel we read from right to left.” The situation leaves little time for banter. She shocks him with the extent of Israel’s butcher’s bill, reminds him of the pressure he placed on her not to attack first, and threatens to appeal directly to the American people on TV—anything to get an airlift of weaponry. Kissinger equivocates, complaining of Arab oil boycotts and Nixon’s problems with Watergate. Only when the prime minister warns that the Arabs are liable to destroy Israel with Soviet weapons—“What message does that send to the world, Henry?”—does the secretary finally relent.
The result was Operation Nickle Grass, a 32-day skytrain of US Starlifter and Galaxy transports that brought more than 22,000 tons of tanks, guns, and ammo to Israel, along with 100 Phantom fighters. Golda devotes scant attention to the operation, pivotal though it was, or to the fact America’s European allies refused to let the aircraft refuel. Nor does the film focus on the grinding battles with the Syrian and Iraqi armies that brought the IDF to the gates of Damascus. Rather, it focuses exclusively—and dramatically speaking, justifiably—on the war’s final phase in the south.
This is the story of General Ariel Sharon’s masterstroke and Golda tells it grippingly. When first introduced to her, Sharon responds to Golda’s “it’s an honor” with a dismissive grunt. He wants to lead tanks and infantry across the Suez Canal into Egypt and strand the enemy’s Third Army on the opposite bank. It’s a brilliant plan but with one small drawback: the two Egyptian divisions guarding the approaches to Cairo will surely obliterate Sharon’s probe. This is Golda’s moment. Rather than approve Sharon’s reckless scheme, she insists on waiting until Sadat, flush with victory, advances those two divisions into the Sinai. “Do you think a few sand dunes along the Suez Canal will seem enough,” she asks Sharon, “when the gates of Jerusalem are beckoning?”
Sadat, as she predicted, obliged. In a move that is still studied in US military academies today, Sharon crossed the Canal, threatened an undefended Cairo, and cut off the Egyptian Third Army from behind. Thirty thousand Egyptian soldiers were in danger of dying from thirst. The maneuver infuriated Kissinger who wanted to preserve enough of Egypt’s honor to enable it to make peace while avoiding a catastrophic superpower showdown. The Russians, in fact, had begun moving their Blue Water warships into the Eastern Mediterranean, going eyeball-to-eyeball with those of the US Sixth Fleet, and purportedly delivering nuclear weapons to Egypt. America’s armed forces went on Defcon 3 alert, two stages before all-out nuclear war.
Liev Schreiber as Henry Kissinger in Golda.
“My mission is to contain the Soviet Union,” Kissinger, steaming, informs her. “The greatest threat to civilization the world has ever known.” He tells Golda that she must accept a ceasefire immediately. Her response provides the film’s most stirring soliloquy:
“When I was a child in the Ukraine, my father would board up the windows of our house to protect us from the Cossacks. … They would beat Jews in the street—for fun—to celebrate Christmas. My father would hide us in the cellar. We’d stay silent—hoping the killers would pass us by. My father’s face, Henry, I will never forget the look on his face. All he wanted was to protect his children. … I am not that little girl hiding in the cellar. If they want to fight, I will fight! The Russians don’t frighten me. This time we will not go meekly. This is my country and I will die here. I am Israel!”
Golda vows to kill every last Egyptian soldier, creating “an army of widows and orphans,” but Kissinger can no longer be moved. Israel must accept the ceasefire, period. It was duly signed on October 25th and marked with direct talks between Egypt and Israeli generals, 101 kilometers from Cairo. The Yom Kippur War was over and, with it, the final and most fateful chapter of Golda’s life.
Golda Meir remained in her post for another eight months while the people of Israel seethed. Though the Agranat Commission accepted her claim that she acted solely on the defense establishment’s advice and cleared her of any personal responsibility for the war, the population resented the blame placed almost solely on the army. The country, devastated emotionally and economically, was further traumatized by terrorist attacks that killed 52 civilians and wounded 150. Later that year, terrorist leader Yasser Arafat, a holster on his hip, received a standing ovation from the UN General Assembly, which went on to equate Zionism with racism. Succumbing to Arab pressure, 24 of the African countries with which Golda helped establish relations cut ties with Israel. In 1977, the degraded Mapai Party for the first time lost an election to Menachem Begin’s Likud, ending what many Israelis still regard as the state’s golden age.
Such painful events are barely touched upon in either of the Golda films, which prefer to conclude her story with Sadat’s historic visit to Israel in November 1977. The subsequent peace process resulted in the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, a year after Golda’s death.
Yet her legacy endures—especially now, on the 50th anniversary of the war. Though her standing remains highest in the United States—the Israel National Library reports more searches for her name in English than in Hebrew—in Israel, too, her record is being reconsidered. Here was a woman without military experience who had to rely on men whose expertise on military matters was above reproach. Here was a woman who, when many of those men buckled to pressure, remained clear-headed and strong. And here was a woman who, contrary to long-held wisdoms, repeatedly held out her hand for peace.
Some critics have been unkind to Golda. They take issue with the film’s concentration on her career’s least illustrious period and with the allegedly one-dimensional depiction of a personality known to be compassionate one minute but backbiting the next, alternately maternal and coarse. Most expressed discomfort with the director’s obsession with Golda’s cigarettes—they are practically actors—which earned the film a PG-13 rating for “pervasive smoking.” I, for one, would have liked to see more of Golda’s insecurities about her lack of higher education, military experience, and Hebrew eloquence. I would have welcomed more of the swift-witted Golda who once quipped to Kissinger, arriving in Tel Aviv after exchanging kisses with Egyptian and Syrian leaders, “Why, Mr. Secretary, I didn’t know that you kissed girls, too!”
Nevertheless, Golda must take its place alongside other outstanding portraits of leaders in crisis. Like Gary Oldman’s Churchill in Darkest Hour and Bruce Greenwood’s Kennedy in Thirteen Days, Helen Mirren’s Golda Meir offers a profile of greatness in the face of overwhelming adversity. These are films that, rather than merely report and redramatize facts, show us character. And Golda—the woman, not the myth—should continue to generate our interest as well as our respect. The Everywoman behind the bust should still be revered.