Our Golda

By Sally Susman
Francine Klagsbrun Joan Roth

Francine Klagsbrun
Schocken Books, $40

The assignment to review “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel” arrived as if by divine providence. I’m a secular Jew who knows little of my religion beyond the joys of eight days of gift giving over Hanukkah and the delights of the Second Avenue Deli. Recently, however, my best friend invited me to join her on her 60th birthday celebration trip to Israel later this spring — combining the reckoning of roots with an exploration of the Holy Land while we connect to our ancestors as we age ourselves. Reading and reviewing Francine Klagsbrun’s comprehensive biography of Golda Meir and her role in the creation of Israel seemed like the perfect required pre-travel reading. 

“Lioness” is a straightforward, near-encyclopedic chronology of Golda’s life. The book is meticulously researched and detail rich. At times, those virtues can burden the story. With its 695 pages of text and another 100 page of notes, this reader occasionally felt bogged down and wished for a stronger edit. Still, one must marvel at Ms. Klagsbrun’s intensity in pursuing her subject, Golda. (Note: In the introduction, she explains that her subject always insisted, “Call me Golda,” so this is how the author and I refer to the prime minister.)

We meet Golda as a young American girl having arrived in Milwaukee from Eastern Europe. The anxiety inherent in such a journey is evident in Golda’s sister Sheyna’s comment, “We tasted the condition of immigrants. What lay ahead for us?” 

Milwaukee was a good choice for Golda. “This new world enthralled her. For the first time in her short life, she felt a sense of freedom, or, more precisely, a lack of fear,” Ms. Klagsbrun explains. Descriptions of Golda’s family’s hardships and her youthful drive remind the reader of our country’s strong and proud history of open borders and open arms that welcomed immigrants. 

Golda’s time in the United States was key to her political rise. Her appreciation for the open fields and the demands of dairy farms of the Midwest was a precursor to her love of kibbutz life. Later, Golda drew on her American experience to woo wealthy and generous American donors. She was beloved by most in America — far more universally than in Israel — and was known here as “our Golda.”

Golda was an early Zionist. “By the summer of 1915, she had begun to write glowingly of the idealists who gave up their material comforts to live and labor in the Land of Israel,” Ms. Klagsbrun writes. Through the author’s vibrant descriptions, the reader is swept up in the excitement and urgency of the movement. And, of course, the brutalities against Jews in Eastern Europe were a painful reality looming on the horizon. 

Ms. Klagsbrun captures the stakes in a report of an appearance by Albert Einstein at a Zionist conference. “The future of this land and the future of our entire race are in your hands,” Einstein is reported to have said to the listeners.

During this dramatic and historic time, Golda’s star continued to rise. It’s as if she was born to do this work. In a letter penned during one of Golda’s trips to build support, she wrote, “I ask only one thing, that I be understood and believed. My social activities are not an accidental thing; they are an absolute necessity for me.”

Golda could not afford herself a break from the work. The author recounts the story of when a visiting friend suggested that they meet and relax without talking about Israel for a change. Golda agreed and the two met for tea. The friends sat in silence until Golda said, “What do you want to talk about if not Eretz Israel? There is nothing else to talk about.”

Golda’s passion and commitment took a toll on her personal and family life. Her first marriage ended in divorce, and her children suffered during her long absences. “Golda should never have married because she wasn’t someone who could be at home and be a wife,” said a close friend.

Ms. Klagsbrun explains that Golda would often win over audiences with “her trademark blend of idealism, emotion, and not a little guilt provocation.” She did not, however, respond well to dissent. Her sister Sheyna complained that Golda was obsessed and unyielding. “None dared oppose her,” she said.

Ms. Klagsbrun offers a gripping recounting of the anxious months at the end of 1947 leading up to the delicate vote in the United Nations over the question of partitioning Palestine. Arabs and Jews were lobbying frantically — Arabs to defeat the partition resolution and Jews to uphold it. In the end the partition resolution passed, dividing Palestine into two sovereign Jewish and Arab states.

Later that evening of the vote, Golda spoke publicly, addressing her comments to the Arabs: “You have fought your battle against us in the United Nations,” she said. “The partition plan is a compromise: not what you wanted, not what we wanted. But now let us live in friendship and peace together.” Despite the victory, Golda is reported to have looked sad that evening and said, “We expect there will be war.” As I write this review, over 70 years since the passage of the resolution, the question of the separate states in Palestine and the two-state solution is still bitterly debated and fiercely fought over.

In 1969, Golda became prime minister following the death of her predecessor, Levi Eshkol. She had only just settled into office when Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt launched a brutal war against Israel that he called a “war of attrition,” claiming to not recognize the cease-fire established after the Six-Day War fought in 1967. “Against the backdrop of the new war, she found herself and her country squeezed by superpower manipulations that often had less to do with Israel and more with their own jockeying for dominance in the Middle East,” explains Ms. Klagsbrun. “The superpower machinations placed Israel in a strange position.” 

I’d also say a strategic position and one that Golda, as premier, managed and manipulated superbly. The demands of office on Golda — then 70 years old and having previously retired — energized her. She was at the top of her game dealing with world leaders. She was hosted at a state dinner by President Nixon. She was hosted by then-Governor Reagan in California, where she charmed the crowd. She turned serious in her remarks and spoke of her willingness to travel anywhere to make peace with Arab leaders. The problem, Golda explained, was that what the Arabs wanted could “not be settled by compromise — they want us dead. We have decided to stay alive.”

While reading “Lioness,” one cannot help but draw parallels for women in leadership today. Golda was elevated by her early leadership in women’s organizations, but then later found those groups limiting. Like many women leaders, Golda had a troubled connection and vexing association to the feminist cause. Interestingly, as I write this review, Merriam-Webster announced that “feminism” was the most searched word in its online dictionary in 2017. Golda wrote extensively on feminism, and Ms. Klagsbrun summarizes much of it, concluding that “she sets herself apart from the ‘feminists,’ whom she portrays as radicals, viewing men as their ‘enemy.’ ”

Golda had a macho manner, built her credibility by taking on the toughest tasks, and was once described by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, as “the only man in the cabinet.” Still, despite Golda’s gruff exterior she could be softhearted and given to random acts of kindness. She was an emotional speaker often moved to tears. One wonders how Golda managed these contradictions in her own mind. What advice would she offer Germany’s Chancellor Merkel as she clings to office or to Hillary Clinton as she dwells in the aftermath of defeat? 

Ms. Klagsbrun is something of a lioness herself — a literary one. To describe this biography as meticulously researched would be an understatement. The level of detail is incredible. Ms. Klagsbrun offers not only dates but also times. She describes not only what Golda owned but what she gave as gifts. The conversations quoted have such precision that the reader can almost hear the intonation. 

Of course, this is not surprising, as Ms. Klagsbrun is a scholar and the author of many books on Jewish subjects, an essayist for The Jewish Week who spent more than a decade reviewing documents and interviewing Golda’s intimates. In many cases, she contradicts Golda’s own memory. “Almost every account of Golda’s life, including her own, erroneously portrays her as a delegate” to a historic Zionist conference, she writes. The author is a truth-teller unafraid to contradict Golda’s version of events.

In an interview with the British historian James McDonald, Ms. Klagsbrun explained her motivation: “I approached this project knowing that in Israel there any many negatives about her, and that’s not the case in other parts of the world. I didn’t set out to prove that what we think in America, where she’s still very much admired, is the right way — I just really wanted to understand her. I wanted to write a book that was fair.” 

With “Lioness,” Ms. Klagsbrun has achieved her own lofty goal.

Sally Susman is a regular book reviewer for The Star. She lives part time in Sag Harbor.

Francine Klagsbrun has been a summertime visitor to the South Fork for many years. “Lioness” won a National Jewish Book Award earlier this month.

Golda Meir opening the Tel Aviv-Netanya road in Israel in 1950. Rudi Weissenstein, Photo House
Golda Meir as the Statue of Liberty in an Americanization pageant held in Milwaukee in 1919 to welcome new citizens. Wisconsin Historical Society