Ever since the 1970s, the entrances to many American Jewish institutions have boasted a single bust. It is not of Theodore Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, or of Israel’s preeminent leader, David Ben-Gurion, nor even of any prominent American Jew—Justice Louis Brandeis or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The likeness is not flattering. Beneath tightly bunned hair, the face is unsmiling, its features decidedly bland. Their owner never graduated college, wrote a transformative book, or commanded an army. Still, that statue embodies an ideal to which most American Jews aspire: at once patriotic yet open-minded, liberal but muscular, courageous and caring. The bust, moreover, is of a woman and not just any woman. With an accent as flat as the Midwestern plains, four packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day and the omnipresent purse that held them, the clunky shoes and grandmotherly attire, she was Everywoman. Yet, in a rags-to-preeminence story so appealing to Americans, that woman rose to become the prime minister of Israel. She was Golda Meir—or, as she’s still colloquially known, simply, Golda.
Until my grandmother’s death at the age of 100, she claimed that the proudest day of her life was hosting Golda for a fundraising event in her Boston home. In 1973, and again in 1974, a Gallup poll named Golda “Woman of the Year,” the only non-American ever to achieve that title, garnering twice as many votes as the runner-up, Betty Ford. Though no feminist—Ben-Gurion once called her “the only man in the government”—she became a poster-child of women’s liberation, appearing under the banner, “But Can She Type?” She served as the subject of two Broadway plays, several documentaries, and a made-for-television movie. Golda characters appear in a variety of productions, from Steven Spielberg’s Munich to season 26, episode 1 of The Simpsons. No fewer than nine English-language biographies have been written about her, in addition to her own memoir, and the recollections of her son. She was—and to a large extent, has remained—an American icon.
Not so for Israelis. For 50 years, the name Golda has been associated with reckless hubris, with humiliation and trauma and the loss of an innocent Israel that can never be retrieved. Most bitterly, the name Golda evokes the memory of the 2,656 Israeli soldiers—83 times the number, proportionally, of Americans lost on 9/11—killed on her watch. Israel has no end of streets and facilities named for Ben-Gurion, for Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Rabin, and Menachem Begin, but there are few Golda Meir boulevards or university halls. New York has Golda Meir Square, complete with that unprepossessing bust, but not Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Only among Israeli children, born long after her death, does Golda elicit any excitement as the name of a popular ice-cream chain.
Now, half-a-century after her purportedly disastrous performance during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, there are attempts to revisit Golda’s legacy, to examine it in the light of recently released documents, and to reflect on the complex human being behind the bust. Spotlighting these revisions is a bold and riveting new film by Academy Award-winning director Guy Nattiv, starring the incomparable Helen Mirren. After portraying Queens Elizabeth I and II and Catherine the Great, Mirren praised her latest character “one of the most extraordinary I’ve ever played.” That estimation is more than illustrated by the movie simply titled Golda.
In the majestic screenplay by British writer Nicholas Martin, Golda begins where any other study of her life would logically end, with the Yom Kippur War. That approach differs radically from the 1982 teleplay for A Woman Called Golda, starring Ingrid Bergman. Over the course of that two-part, four-hour biopic, Bergman’s Golda—looking entirely too fetching and bizarrely affecting an Eastern European accent—appears before curious students in the Milwaukee elementary school she once attended and tells them the story of her life. Her recollections begin in the then-Russian city of Kyiv where, as the four-year-old Golda Mabovitch, she watched her father boarding up windows against pogroms. “What did I take with me from there?” the real Golda later remembered. “Fear, hunger, and fear.”
After a harrowing journey through Ukraine, Poland, Austria, and Canada, the family immigrated to the United States in 1906 and settled in Milwaukee. Golda loved America, a country where, in contrast to Europe, the police guarded parading workers rather than bludgeoning them. Her parents wanted her to leave school and marry, but at the age of 14, Golda fled to her sister in Denver and began attending Zionist and socialist discussions. At one of these she met her future husband, Morris Meyerson. Played in the 1982 biopic by a bespectacled, round-eared Leonard Nimoy, Meyerson was an artistic intellectual from whom Golda gleaned both culture and ideology. Married in 1917, the couple might have remained in America but for Golda’s refusal to be merely a “parlor Zionist.” As she later told a friend, “If a thing has to be done, you don’t waste time with theories and debates. You just do it.” Like the signers of the Declaration of Independence, she dreamed of creating a nation. And what better place to establish that nation than in the Land of Israel, as Jews traditionally knew it, but which the rest of the world called Palestine?
The Palestine that the Meyersons encountered in 1921 was an impoverished, malaria-infested backwater. Though newly mandated to the British Empire which promised, in the Balfour Declaration, to transform it into a Jewish national home, Palestine was already torn between Zionist and Arab claims. Into this maelstrom, the young couple stumbled—or rather, from Golda’s perspective, marched—two of the estimated 40,000 immigrants who came to Palestine either out of socialist conviction or fear of renewed Russian pogroms. Many hoped to go on to America, but the United States was shutting its gates to them. The Meyersons were among the handful of Jews who went the other way, from the Goldene Medina—the gold-plated state—to a wilderness in the Middle East.
A Woman Called Golda did an admirable job of showing the hardships of that move. Not just disease, scarcity, and Arab attacks, but also Zionist bureaucracy immiserated the Meyersons’ lives. Initially rejected for membership in Kibbutz Merhavia in the Jezreel Valley, they were eventually admitted to the hardcore socialist community where Golda thrived as a chicken farmer and wheat thresher. It was there that she received her first political role on the kibbutz steering committee. Her husband, by contrast, never fitted in, and in failing health, took his crestfallen wife to Jerusalem. As a young mother of two, Golda struggled there with poverty worse, she claimed, than anything she’d experienced in Russia. Only an offer to head the women’s section of the Histadrut Labor Federation saved her career. Her marriage, however, did not survive her relocation to Tel Aviv.
There, as a compelling public speaker, fundraiser, and political factotum, Golda found her metier. She began to represent the Zionists abroad and to solicit contributions for them in the United States. During World War II, she helped recruit both Jews and Arabs into the British army while opposing that army’s efforts to crush Jewish self-defense groups. She tried, although her efforts were futile, to rescue European Jews from the Holocaust. It was only at the war’s end, with many Zionist officials languishing in British prisons, that Golda gained prominence. As the struggle for Jewish statehood loomed, she held several secret meetings with the Emir (later, King) Abdullah of Transjordan (later, Jordan), in an effort to keep his British-trained and -commanded Arab Legion out of the fight. Historians would later argue over the wisdom of sending a woman to negotiate with a misogynous Arab monarch, and debate whether or not Golda succeeded in her mission. The Arab Legion in fact fought bravely in Israel’s War of Independence, from 1947 to 1949, winning every battle. Israel nevertheless prevailed, thanks in part to the $90 million Golda raised in American synagogues and homes such as my grandmother’s in Boston.
Israel was independent, but Golda, who soon Hebraized her last name to Meir (Illuminated), remained Golda. The bun, the cigarettes, the purse, and the frumpish shoes became her trademarks. Scarcely striking, she was rumored to have an impressive list of lovers, including labor leader David Remez and Zalman Shazar, later to become Israel’s third president. And while hardly diplomatic, she served as Israel’s first ambassador to Moscow where, though strictly secular, she visited the city’s main synagogue and stirred the hopes of oppressed Soviet Jews. Elected to the Knesset in 1949, she spent seven years as the Mapai Party’s labor minister, overseeing the absorption of hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, many of them from Middle Eastern countries, and securing vital loan guarantees from the United States. Then, in 1956, she became foreign minister just in time for the Suez Crisis in which Israel colluded with Britain and France in an abortive attempt to topple Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser. Israel emerged from the morass with its reputation bruised and Golda’s record tainted.
Her story might have ended there and been largely forgotten. But Golda was not one for defeat. She pressed on with her foreign-minister role, forged relations with Sub-Saharan Africa, negotiated the first sale of US armaments to Israel, and met with President Kennedy. Still, by 1966, she was exhausted, receiving treatments for lymphoma, and suffering from the swollen feet which became her albatross. The constant squabbles with younger Labor figures, especially Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, wore her down. The Six-Day War, fought the following year, saw Golda largely removed from decision-making. Retirement beckoned when, in March 1969, Prime Minister Eshkol suddenly died and the internally divided Mapai party desperately needed a compromise candidate.
Elected by an overwhelming Mapai majority, Golda became the first female prime minister to make it on her own merits (unlike Indira Gandhi and Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike who inherited the post from their fathers). But the course of her premiership never ran smoothly. Along with the cockiness that characterized Israeli public opinion in the post-1967 period were the widening social divisions and the lingering resentment of the Mizrachi—Middle Eastern and North African—Jews whom Golda once worked to absorb. The Black Panthers, embracing the American model, accused her of bigotry and she, in turn, labelled them “not nice guys.” The leader who, back in 1948, bemoaned the exodus of Palestinian Arabs from Israel, in 1969, publicly denied the existence of the Palestinian people. That same leader had to grapple with the hijacking of airliners, the attacks on school buses, and the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Games by terrorists from that nonexistent people.
Typical of many Israeli politicians in the period, Golda was leftwing on social issues but hawkish on security. She ground through a war of attrition waged by the Egyptians against Israel’s Bar Lev Line of emplacements along the Suez Canal, and in 1970, she managed to reach a ceasefire. Its terms were quickly violated by Cairo, though, which advanced Soviet surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) into the semi-demilitarized zone. President Nixon’s refusal to react strongly to this threat only stiffened Golda’s obduracy.
Newly declassified documents from the Israeli archives have shown that, despite her hard-nosed façade, Golda made repeated peace overtures to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who routinely rebuffed them. Such gestures unfortunately made little impression on Western leaders, above all US President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Both felt that Israel had retreated from its earlier willingness to cede captured Arab territory for peace and that Golda had not been sufficiently flexible. They even accused her of having a Masada Complex. That diplomatic deficit would play a pivotal role in the crisis that confronted Golda on October 5th, 1973.
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.
“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.