Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel by Francine Klagsbrun, Schoken, US $40.00, pp 826, October 2017, ISBN 978-0805242379
Israel’s fourth prime minister (1969-1974), Golda Meir, was a larger-than-life world leader and dominated the world stage much before she before she became the prime minister of Israel and much after she left the office of the prime minister. She was born in Russia in 1898 and moved to America with her parents in 1906. She grew up in Milwaukee but again moved to mandatory Palestine in 1921 with her husband. David Ben-Gurion was instrumental in bringing her to politics. After proving her credentials as a shrewd political and diplomatic negotiator, she rose to become the prime minister in 1969. She resigned after the Yom Kippur war but she always enjoyed international acclaim until she died in. In Lioness, Francine Klagsbrun says that Golda Meir’s American connection set her apart from every Israeli prime minister before or after her. Klagsbrun says that, as an Israeli leader, she used her fluency in English and insights into American culture to touch the hearts, and pocketbook of American Jews as no one else could do. They took pride in her as one of their own, and she taught them to attach their destiny to the destiny of Israel. With her American know-how, she forged a more powerful bond between Israel and the United States than had ever existed.
Like the early Israeli leaders, she could trace her origins and many of her attitudes to Eastern Europe. Klagsbrun says that the mostly insulated Jewish surroundings of her young childhood left her never quite trustful of gentiles, and the widespread anti-Jewishness there imprinted on her mind a lasting memory of violence and fear. But that background was filtered through her American experiences. Enthusiasm, optimism, and self-belief also became part of her outlook and the Yankee sense that through hard work and determination anyone can achieve success.
Unlike the other early leaders and most of Israel’s immigrants, she did not come to Palestine because of persecution. Klagsbrun says that she chose to come and leave the abundance of America behind her. She loved America with its democracy but she needed to work for her own people. That sense of who she was and what she wanted for herself never left her, and it fueled her drive to get ahead. Throughout her career, she denied being motivated by ambition.
Frequently referred to as the mother of the Jewish people, to a great extent Golda saw herself that way. She regarded Israel as the center of Jewish life, and therefore responsible for Jews wherever they lived. She told a meeting of young soldiers after the Yom Kippur War that if they had fought only for the Jews in Israel, the struggle and sacrifice were not worth it. But if they recognized that fighting for Israel meant fighting for Jews everywhere, then, “no sacrifice is too great.” That broad connection between Jews in Israel and those in the Diaspora made the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union especially compelling to her. With her eyes on world Jewry, however, Golda sometimes missed important domestic changes. She continued to preach socialist values long after the country had moved toward capitalism and those principles appeared irrelevant to many Israelis, especially the young.
Klagsbrun says that, ironically, the one ethnic group that might have accepted her ideas rejected them and her as a symbol of the establishment. The Mizrahim, or Sephardim, who had come to Israel from Muslim hands, directed their anger toward her for their lack of mobility. She cared about their welfare, looked out for their health and housing, and, as prime minister, appointed a commission to investigate their social and economic needs. Klagsbrun says that she lacked the imagination to penetrate their culture and lives, so different from hers, and to see them as equals. She wanted them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, out of poverty, through education and hard work and considered them ungrateful for the government’s willingness to help them. They considered her patronizing and blind to their aspirations and hopes. Their disappointment in her and her party helped Menachem Begin and his Likud Party gain power.
Lioness is an insightful and authentic biography of one of the leading Jewish leaders who led Israel in difficult times. Using newly available documents from Israeli government archives, Francine Klagsbrun shines a light on previously unexplored aspects of Golda Meir. Lioness is a meticulously researched and nuanced biography. Francine Klagsbrun’s credentials as a historian are unmatchable. This brilliantly written biography is a must-read for students and experts of the Middle East and world affairs.