When Golda Meyerson first arrived in Palestine from the U.S. in 1921, her application to join Merhavia, a collective agricultural settlement like a kibbutz, was rejected — twice.
She was seen as too soft, too American, and that she was married wasn’t an advantage. But later that year, the woman who would become Israel’s fourth prime minister and her husband were invited to become trial members, and she proved her spirit and talent. She may have been the only one to iron her work clothes every night, but she operated a threshing machine in the fields, learned to bake bread, gained expertise in the poultry yard, sat up late into the night talking with fellow members and danced with verve. As she would demonstrate in every responsibility she took on throughout her life, she was organized, hard-working, demanding, a careful listener able to see clearly to the core of an issue and unafraid of making changes.
“Certainly she loved the socialist values of kibbutz life in which everybody shared everything,” Francine Klagsbrun writes in her masterful new biography, “but she was never one to elevate theory over practicality. Usually she got her way.”
“Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel” (Schocken) features on its jacket a striking portrait of Golda, with strands of pearls, a lit cigarette between her fingers and the suggestion of a smile. To encounter Golda was to remember her. Klagsbrun, the author of more than a dozen books and a Jewish Week columnist, makes Golda’s story compelling, and her story is also the history of the State of Israel. She refers to her subject as “Golda,” as she was identified worldwide, and as she preferred being called.
This is a long and deep biography. Whether writing about Golda’s childhood in Milwaukee, her tenure as Israel’s first ambassador to the USSR or intra-party Labor politics, or lesser known events like her unsuccessful run for mayor of Tel Aviv, or more personally, her longtime romances, Klagsbrun captures Golda’s unusual blend of toughness, warmth, intelligence, plainspokenness and passion, along with her remarkable achievements. She had access to newly available archives and unpublished materials, and doesn’t gloss over her faults.
Many have criticized Golda for the events of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when Israel was caught unprepared. After that war, she stepped down as prime minister. Klagsbrun delves into the details of that time. But her Golda is not defined by the Yom Kippur War. (Read an exclusive excerpt from the book here.)
The book opens with a scene in Atlantic City in 1969, at an AFL-CIO convention, when Golda addressed the huge plenary session. Pausing to scan the crowd, she tells them she is looking for the Carpenters sign, as her father was a member of the Carpenter’s Union. The audience then went wild, cheering for 15 minutes — they saw her as one of their own. Frequently, Golda would invoke her humble origins. Her elder sister Sheyna, a lifelong role model, would remind her whenever she was elected to a new office, “Don’t forget that you are the daughter of a carpenter” and “Don’t forget that we knew hunger.”
Golda was born in Kiev in 1898, and knew not only hunger but poverty and fear of pogroms. In May 1906, her family made its way to Milwaukee, where Golda excelled in school, and at age 11 founded the American Young Sisters’ Society, to raise money to buy textbooks for poor children. She graduated as valedictorian of her middle school class and then planned to go on to high school, but her parents wanted her to go to secretarial school. Golda persevered. But when her parents planned a match for her with a much older man, she ran away to join her sister in Denver and continue school there. She cherished her independence. In those years in Denver, in her sister’s home, her interests in Zionism and Socialism were ignited, and when she returned to Milwaukee, she plunged deeply into the Labor Zionist cause, joining Poalei Zion, Workers of Zion, at age 17.
Klagsbrun devotes many chapters to Golda’s unfolding political career, her arrival in Palestine and her interactions on the world stage. Golda is indefatigable on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, fundraising in America (and, in the early days, sleeping on the couches of her supporters), meeting secretly with King Abdullah in Amman before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, resettling immigrants speaking a variety of languages, working on behalf of Soviet Jewry beyond her years as ambassador, facing terrorism on her watch, including the Munich massacre, and addressing the United Nations.
She also offers glimpses of the private Golda: She would wash her hair late every night and use that time to think, share meals with her housekeepers and hide the fact that she had a granddaughter with Down Syndrome.
Klagsbrun writes extensively about Golda’s connection to America, and not just to its Jews. In an interview, she says “Under her premiership, the Israel embassy in Washington became one of the most influential embassies in the capital. She developed a connection to the United States to a greater extent than had any prime minister before her, and set the stage for the close relationship that still exists.”
Throughout her career, Golda relied on her strategic instincts. One time that she did not was in the summer of 1973, when she feared war. As she did not see herself as a military expert, she listened to her generals’ reassuring words. Klagsbrun explains that Golda is most criticized for not making peace before the Yom Kippur war broke out with Anwar Sadat of Egypt, and for not striking preemptively.
“From all I have read, and there are experts who agree with me, the only way to have made peace beforehand was to return all captured territories and solve the Palestinian refugee problem before any negotiations could even take place,” Klagsbrun tells The Jewish Week. “Golda was not a ‘greater Israel’ person looking to expand and take over all of the West Bank, etc. She was willing to give a great deal back, but only after negotiations. And she wanted to keep some parts of the territories, but only to create more secure borders. At the time, many other Israeli leaders felt the same way. So I disagree with criticisms that she could have made peace beforehand, given Sadat’s conditions.”
As for striking first, Klagsbrun continues, “Kissinger had warned many times that if Israel struck Egypt or Syria preemptively, [Israel] would get no aid from America when they needed it. Golda knew they would need aid, so she did not take the chance. Also, Egypt and Syria had anti-missile shields, so they could have destroyed Israeli planes striking early — they were on guard this time, unlike the way they had been in the 1967 war.”
“I hope that my book will sway minds,” she says, referring to those who continue to blame Golda. These days, Golda is more highly regarded outside of Israel than in her homeland.
With candor, Klagsbrun reports on Golda’s marriage to Morris Meyerson, and their profound ties but fraying connections once they moved together to Palestine. She had access to letters from his family that hadn’t been previously seen. Other biographers have also written of Golda’s romantic involvements with other men, including David Remez and Zalman Shazar — which Golda never spoke of publicly.
In our interview, Klagsbrun recounts interviewing Golda’s son and daughter, Menahem and Sarah (both are now deceased), in coffee shops in Tel Aviv and later on, when she gained their trust, in the modest house Golda lived in when she wasn’t living in an official residence. In her last years she shared the house with Menahem, and then Sarah and Menahem shared the house, and now grandchildren live there. Klagsbrun says there are boxes of intimate, private letters in Yiddish in the basement of the house — Menahem said he would burn them before he died. But he died a few years ago without burning them, and as far as Klasbrun knows, they remain in the basement.
A few years ago, when Menahem, who resembled his mother, was visiting New York, Klagsbrun took him to lunch. At the end of the pleasant meal, she asked again about whether she might see the letters, and he gave her a cold and deep stare. She says she was certain she saw Golda’s scowl in his face.
Klagsbrun, who grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, recalls listening to the radio with her parents when the State of Israel was declared, and then dancing in school. She never met Golda, but was aware of her, although she doesn’t recall that she thought she was so unusual — Israel was considered a different kind of country, with women serving in the army. When Klagsbrun first traveled to Israel in the 1950s, Golda was foreign minister.
Working on this project for about eight years, Klagsbrun admits that she did begin to inhabit Golda, to think like her and quote her. “I couldn’t totally identify with her — she was a lot tougher than I. But I came to respect her thinking more than I ever had before. I know, for example, that she would not have agreed with Netanyahu on many things,”
“Golda didn’t love the Arabs (almost nobody used the term Palestinian then), but I am sure she would not have approved the degree of settlements and expansion that exists now. She wanted to make peace with the Arab countries, such as Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, etc. and would have been willing to give up land for peace if negotiations could have taken place. At that time, dealing with the Arab countries rather than the Palestinians was considered the way to peace.”
Francine Klagsbrun is speaking about “Lioness” on Thursday, Oct. 19 at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., at 6:30 p.m., and on Thursday, Oct. 26 at JTS, 3080 Broadway, at 7:30 p.m.