There is an axiom in journalism that you never know when you’re going to do the one thing for which you will be remembered above all others. Few lives exemplify that lesson better than that of Golda Meir, Israel’s first female prime minister. By any reasonable historical standard, hers was an extraordinary life of achievement in which, as much as any other person, she exemplified the saga of the Jewish people during the 20th century.
Yet few accorded her the status of “founding mother” of Israel alongside her longtime colleague David Ben-Gurion or even her political rival, Menachem Begin. The reason for that was the tragedy of the Yom Kippur War for which so many Israelis blamed her. Now, 50 years after that trauma, a new film and two new books are making the argument that it’s time to restore her reputation and give this extraordinary figure her due.
For Diaspora Jews, especially Americans old enough to remember her as one of the most iconic Israeli leaders of her generation, Meir was more than just a Zionist heroine and the woman who had raised the money to help fight the 1948 War of Independence, and absorb refugees from Europe and the Arab and Muslim worlds. She was everyone’s Jewish grandmother, combining tough love and tender care for the Jewish people.
A heroine abroad but not at home
But to most Israelis, her reputation was very different. Polls have consistently shown that she is considered among the worst prime ministers ever to serve. That damning verdict was the fault of the Yom Kippur War that happened on her watch. Meir was judged a failure for having chosen to sit back and let Egypt and Syria launch attacks on the Jewish state on the holiest day of the year. The 2,656 Israelis who died in that war, along with the 7,251 wounded and 294 who fell into the hands of the enemy as prisoners—staggering numbers for what was then a country of only 3.3 million where most served in the armed forces—were laid at her feet.
She was re-elected as prime minister, albeit with a diminished majority, in an election held only weeks after the firing stopped in December 1973 and even absolved of responsibility for the country’s failures by the Agranat Commission that investigated the conduct of the war. But the postwar mass protest movement against the government and its leaders—chiefly, Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan and Meir—created such a furor that she felt forced to resign in April 1974. She died four years later, in 1978, and her standing among Israelis never recovered.
The families of the fallen never forgave her, nor did many of the veterans who felt the war—its prelude, the confusing “war of the generals” that took place during the 18 days of combat and then its ending just as Israel had finished turning the tables on its foes—illustrated the bankruptcy of the country’s establishment, of whom the then-75-year-old prime minister was the leading symbol. The war was the crucial turning point that made the subsequent mahapach or “upheaval” of 1977 when the election victory of Menachem Begin and the Likud Party ended the long rule of the Labor Zionists that dated back to the beginnings of the pre-state era of Israeli history.
Nor was Meir beloved by the Israeli left. They improbably blamed her and her justified hardline stand against her nation’s enemies—particularly, the Palestinian Arabs—for the failure to make peace before October 1973.
Born with the surname Mabovitch in the Russian empire in what is now Ukraine in 1898, she immigrated with her family to the United States as a child, and grew up to be a teacher and Socialist Zionist activist. She made aliyah in 1921 with her husband, Morris Meyerson, and over the course of a lifetime of service to Labor Zionism and then the newborn State of Israel, she played a key role in all of the political and diplomatic struggles of the young nation. She served as Israel’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union; Minister of Labor; its long-serving foreign minister (1956-66); and then its prime minister from 1969 to 1974.
That record of accomplishments was either forgotten or judged as insignificant when compared to the anger that Israelis felt about the first of their wars in which they weren’t able to claim complete victory. Indeed, Israelis still seem to think of it as not just a setback but a moral judgment of biblical proportions in which they were severely punished for their post-1967 Six-Day War hubris.
That this would be so is one of the cruel ironies of history. By any military standard and even those of politics, Israel did emerge from the war as a victor. Its troops were closer to Cairo and Damascus at the end of the war than at the beginning. And the tactical triumphs of the Israel Defense Forces were nothing compared to the long-term strategic results of the fighting. Israel’s victory essentially ended the threat of another conventional military conflict in which the largest and most powerful Arab nation—Egypt—might launch a strike aimed at destroying the Jewish state. By contrast, Egyptians, whose forces, by any objective standard lost the war, still think that they won, although that delusion helped pave the way for the country’s president, Anwar Sadat, to make peace with Israel a few years later.
Correcting the record, at least about Meir, is the objective of the recently released film “Golda,” starring English star Helen Mirren, who portrays the prime minister underneath layers of makeup; a bodysuit; and a prosthetic nose to rival the one worn by Bradley Cooper in his impersonation of Leonard Bernstein in the new film “Maestro.” Adding to the pro-Golda campaign is Golda Meir, a biography by historian and current U.S. State Department Special Envoy for Combating Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt; and Eighteen Days in October, a new history on the war by Uri Kaufman.
The case for Golda
The project of Israeli film director Guy Nativ, “Golda” limits its scope to Meir’s life during the Yom Kippur War. It benefits from good performances from Mirren and Liev Schreiber, who does a reasonable impression of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and the rest of a largely Israeli cast. But it comes across more like a heavy-handed cinematic version of a stage play for which one needs to do some serious preparation if you’re not going to get lost in the deluge of details in even this cribbed version of a very complex subject.
Still, it does put across a couple of key points about Meir’s toughness and the strain she suffered as she tried to navigate an unforeseen and potentially existential crisis while undergoing treatment for lymphoma, something that was concealed from the Israeli public. They had no idea that their aged leader was clearly laboring under more handicaps than chain-smoking eight packs of cigarettes a day, blundering advisers and brutal American pressure throughout the crisis. Dayan’s terrible performance under pressure and the way Israeli military intelligence failed the country are also starkly portrayed.
The Lipstadt biography is the polar opposite of the movie. The latest in the Yale University Press “Jewish Lives” series, Lipstadt’s book makes a powerful argument for Meir’s centrality in Zionist and Jewish history. A highly respected historian of the Holocaust prior to becoming the chief Jewish apologist for the Biden administration, her slim volume does justice to her subject’s complicated life story without engaging in hagiography.
That includes not sparing readers unpleasant details about her personal life, which included a failed marriage; affairs with prominent Labor Zionists like David Remez, who gave her career an important early boost; as well as her rigid partisanship and adherence to a Socialist economic system that had outlived its usefulness long before it was dumped by Meir’s successors 20 years later. Lipstadt is also critical of Meir’s hostility to feminism (despite her own experiences navigating between career objectives and motherhood) and gives those who consider her too right-wing in her approach to Israel’s security challenges—her statement that “there was no such thing as Palestinians” before 1948 remains controversial but was nevertheless entirely accurate—a full hearing.
Bizarrely, Lipstadt deems the war to be merely “an ignominious end to a storied career,” and devotes a scant six of the book’s 232 pages to a discussion of the conflict that was the crucial event of Meir’s career. That’s an absurd decision that diminishes its value. Anyone who wants a fuller picture of the Israeli leader’s legacy will have to look elsewhere.
Though not a Meir biography and authored by an informed amateur rather than a professional historian, Kaufman’s book makes a much better case for reviving Golda’s reputation.
Utilizing a vast store of original research, including declassified documents from several archives, Kaufman’s portrait of the war is a staggering story of Israeli official incompetence that was eventually overcome by the steady nerves of a few leaders, including Meir, but mostly the heroism of the rank-and-file officers and soldiers of the IDF. After reading it, it’s easy to see why most Israelis viewed the war as not so much a difficult fight but a damning verdict on the political and military establishment that had run their country without challenge for so long.
That Meir chose not to strike first and fully mobilize Israel’s army before the Egyptians and Syrians attacked for the sake of not alienating the United States was in complete contrast to her past stands in which she almost always disdained those, like her Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who were more worried about international opinion than Israel’s military advantage.
Still, it’s difficult to blame her for succumbing to American pressure at the beginning of the war, given Israel’s dependence on the United States for resupplying arms in the face of the Soviet Union’s full commitment to the Egyptians and Syrians. Lacking any expertise in military affairs, she was also completely dependent on the faltering Dayan and the rest of her advisers, like Military Intelligence Chief Gen. Eli Zeira, whom just about everyone agrees was the most culpable of them all.
Nor is it certain that an Israeli first strike just prior to the war would have worked since, as Israel’s military leaders soon realized, they hadn’t accounted for the ability of their foes to use Soviet missiles that, at least initially, neutralized the IDF’s edge in the air and on the ground with tanks that were equally vulnerable to the new technology. Yet once the Egyptians and Syrians had dissipated the advantage they gained from achieving near complete surprise, the Israelis were able to improvise solutions and eventually achieve military victories.
As the Nativ film and the Kaufman book both persuasively argue, despite mistakes, Meir deserves full credit for ably managing the relationship with a Nixon administration that was ambivalent about Israel as well as riding herd on generals who fought each other as much as the enemy. Meir’s telling Dayan to “forget about it”—in English, not Hebrew—when, seemingly unhinged, he suggested using Israel’s nuclear weapons, makes clear that it was the 75-year-old woman who was the toughest and most level-headed person in the cabinet room.
Even Kissinger, who, though no Zionist, was relatively sympathetic to Israel, was prepared to let the war start on the Arabs’ terms and end in such a way as to deny the Jewish state the complete victory its soldiers had earned. Kissinger’s equivocal role in the war is also a subject of unending debate. He may have facilitated and ensured Israel’s resupply of arms that were necessary to sustain its defense; however, he also ruthlessly exploited that dependence to achieve his own objectives. He made a crucial blunder of his own that rivals any of those made by either side in the fighting. Kissinger’s failure to use his rescuing of Egypt’s doomed Third Army in the last days of the war to force the Saudis to renounce the Arab oil boycott of the West that had a devastating impact on the lives of ordinary Americans.
But in remembering the Yom Kippur War, restoring Golda Meir’s image is far from the most important issue. The main lesson is rejecting overconfidence and the contempt for their enemies that convinced Israel’s leaders that a surprise attack was impossible. Equally as important is avoiding ever being put in a position again where Israel’s security is dependent on the sometimes dubious goodwill of other nations.
Fifty years later, Israel is in a far stronger position than it was on Yom Kippur 1973 for a great many reasons. Still, it continues to face pressure from friends as well as foes—like a potentially nuclear Iran. Meir had many shortcomings, and it’s unlikely that the generation that lived through that crisis will ever be persuaded to forgive her. But her successors would do well to emulate her cynicism about the world and the necessity for self-reliance. Though some dismiss her attitudes as relics of a bygone era of Tsarist oppression and the Holocaust, Meir’s relentless insistence on defending her country’s interests and, wherever possible, preferring tangible strategic assets to the sympathy of an international community that is just as unsympathetic to Israel today as it was a half-century ago makes just as much sense now as it did then.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.