Good as Golda?

While highlighting former PM's positive attributes, Burkett busts myth of sentimental Jewish grandmother.

golda book 88 (photo credit: )
golda book 88
(photo credit: )
Golda By Elinor Burkett HarperCollins 483 pages; $27.95 'The next Golda?" is a headline used more than once the past few months in reference to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, as she vies to become Israel's first female prime minister since Golda Meir. But that comparison is a mixed blessing; few public figures here have left behind a legacy as mixed, and Golda's historical stock in particular has suffered in recent years. That's not necessarily the case in the Diaspora, where more admiring and sentimental portraits, such as the stage drama Golda's Balcony, still paint her as the wise and tough bubbie who guided Israel through some of its darkest hours. Although this new biography is clearly intended primarily for a foreign readership - "...she came long before Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Corazon Aquino and Angela Merkel, long before Hillary Clinton commenced a bid for the American presidency," writes its author, journalist Elinor Burkett - it's the first such full-scale work in English to incorporate more recent Israeli views and research about Golda. For the most part, Burkett does a thorough job in using this material to create a fair and balanced portrait of a figure who could be both admirable and maddening, able to remarkably rise above the barriers placed at the time on her gender to become the Jewish state's "founding mother," yet often could not transcend the limitations of her own constricted personality and worldview. The book's introduction focuses on Golda's first official prime-ministerial visit to the US in 1969, during which she was feted by the Nixon White House, the Washington establishment and the US media in a manner that far outstripped the receptions accorded her predecessors. It's an appropriate starting point, since Burkett stresses the degree to which her subject's American background, especially her unmatched ability to woo its wealthy and influential Jewish community, played a key role throughout her career. She was born in Kiev in 1898 as Goldie Maibovitch, and her family moved shortly afterward to Pinsk. Like many of the Zionist leaders raised in the Pale of Settlement, the constant threat of pogroms seared in her the need for Jews to develop their own means of self-defense and a stubborn refusal to compromise that security. In 1906, the Maibovitch family immigrated to America, eventually settling in Milwaukee's Walnut Street "shtetl" quarter, where, Golda later recalled, "I was able to rid myself of the terror I had in Pinsk, and Kiev... The America I knew was a place that a man could ride on a horse to protect marching workers; the Russia I knew was a place that men on horses butchered Jews and young socialists." But America was not where she saw her destiny. Feisty and independent from her earliest years, Golda found an outlet for her energies in the burgeoning Labor Zionist movement, in particular the Poale Zion socialist party which prepared its members for life on one of the agricultural collective communities sprouting in Palestine. Before that, she met and married Morris Meyerson, "a private, introspective man who worked sporadically as a sign painter and seemed more comfortable with Chekhov and Mozart than with political badinage." The union with Meyerson, who was in almost every way her opposite, was doomed from the start, and after the birth of their children Sarah and Menahem, the two essentially lived apart until Meyerson's death in 1951. In 1921, the couple immigrated to Palestine and settled in the Jezreel Valley's Kibbutz Merhavia. Despite her commitment to socialist ideals and genuine disregard for material comfort, Golda was too independent and ornery for a collective lifestyle. She found her relief again in Zionist politics, when David Ben-Gurion picked her to join the Histadrut's Women's Council, and gave her the token female seat on its Va'ad Hapoel executive committee. The 1920s and '30s, when Golda's ideological outlook took shape (and was rigidly cast in iron) receive only sketchy treatment here, perhaps reflecting the lack of Hebrew-language primary source material in Burkett's bibliography. She does take note of Golda's affairs with such Labor Zionist luminaries as David Remez and Zalman Shazar, activities that earned her the sobriquet "the mattress" among resentful colleagues. Still, "Golda had earned her seat at the table with her perfect English, her way with foreign Jews and non-Jews alike, and her gift for natural oratory," writes Burkett. Her stock soared considerably when she was left temporarily in charge of the Yishuv (Palestine's Jewish community) after the British authorities arrested most of its other leaders during the 1946 "Black Sabbath" roundup. It was at this time that her advocacy of a tougher, more defiant line against the British started earning Golda the reputation of being "more of a man" than many of her male peers. Two years later her place in the leadership was secured when she was sent on an emergency fund-raising tour of the US to prepare for the War of Independence and returned with the then-astonishing sum of $50 million. "Someday, when history will be written, it will be said there was a Jewish woman who got the money which made the state possible," Ben-Gurion famously noted. During the same period, she was entrusted with a vital mission to which she was arguably far less suited - secret negotiations with Jordan's King Abdullah in an effort to prevent his entry into the war. While her failure may have been inevitable, Golda's lack of first-hand experience with Arab language and culture, and her generally inflexible personality and outlook, were certainly no help: "Moshe Dayan, who met with the king six months later, alleged that Golda herself had destroyed any opportunity for peace with her curt manner." AFTER THE state's establishment, and a brief, equally unfruitful stint as its first envoy to the Soviet Union, Golda was appointed minister of labor, the job she described as her favorite position, and the one in which she arguably made her greatest contributions to the state. Despite the tremendous strain on the country's struggling economy, she fiercely resisted any attempt to curtail the massive influx of Jewish immigration from Arab lands, and her concern for social welfare led her to push for the establishment of a National Insurance program. But as much as Golda could be so compassionate in a more general manner, she could be equally ruthless playing the political game - amply demonstrating this in 1955 when she aided Ben-Gurion in pushing Moshe Sharett out of the foreign minister's chair by allowing herself to be put in his place. A masterful party in-fighter, she turned those same skills against Ben-Gurion a decade later, when he ended up clashing with Mapai's veteran leadership and left it to start the Rafi faction. That next year Golda stepped down from the Foreign Ministry to become Mapai secretary-general, a seeming last stop before easing into retirement. But in 1969 she was thrust back into the public arena following the death of prime minister Levi Eshkol; with the leadership succession contest deadlocked between Dayan and Yigal Allon, Golda was asked by party elders to step into the premiership as a supposed interim appointment. Suddenly, the woman who was once denied the chance to serve as Tel Aviv mayor because of gender objections from the religious parties was now one of the world's first female national leaders, and of a country in a near-perpetual state of war no less. She became an international media favorite, the Jewish grandmother as world leader, a figure beloved for such quirks as her plain wardrobe (especially her clunky "Golda" shoes), acerbic wit, constant smoking and propensity for holding meetings in her tiny Jerusalem kitchen, a literal "kitchen cabinet." This is the beloved Golda of myth; the reality was rougher. As Burkett notes: "Golda had risen in the labor movement because of her political skills, her loyalty and her prowess as a fund-raiser, not because she was inventive or imaginative. 'She wasn't there to be a revolutionary,' said Yossi Beilin, but to continue the policies of the past. Each time a problem grew into a crisis, then, her first reaction was to stick an old Band-Aid onto a newly gaping wound." This was evident in her famous confrontation with the Black Panthers, Sephardi activists out to rectify what they saw as decades of Ashkenazi discrimination against Jews from Middle Eastern backgrounds. Ironically, the Golda who had once fought so fervently to provide for Mizrahi immigrants became their main target, in part because "the charge of discrimination cut too deep in a woman whose vision was clouded by her own progressive self-image and her utopian fantasy of a Jewish homeland in which all the scars and ruptures left by 2,000 years of exile would vanish in a paroxysm of brotherhood." IT WAS in the arena of peace and security where Golda's decision-making is most debated. As it is alleged her rigidity and lack of diplomatic creativity had scuttled any chance to reach an arrangement with Jordan's Abdullah in 1948, similar charges are laid against her for failing to take advantage of possible peace overtures from Egypt's Anwar Sadat in the early 1970s. Those hawks came home to roost in October 1973, when the Egyptian army caught Israel by surprise with its lightning strike across the Suez Canal. Although Burkett properly spreads the blame around for this blunder, especially on Dayan and Military Intelligence chief Eli Zeira, there's no excusing the fact that Golda, normally so decisive and sure of herself, in this crucial instance dithered over whether to call up the troops or order a preemptive strike. She redeemed herself somewhat by providing strong leadership during the war, especially in contrast to Dayan. But in its aftermath she again demonstrated an increasing inability to read, or adjust, to the shifting tides of public opinion, this time by her initial tone-deaf reaction to the outrage that greeted the release of the Agranat Commission report. Despite leading Labor to an electoral victory at the end of 1973, as the protests grew she realized her time had passed; exhausted and disillusioned, she stepped down in April 1974, dying four years later on the very day that Sadat and Menachem Begin accepted the Nobel Peace Prize which in some ways had come at her expense. What to make of Golda? I think Burkett is right to excuse her of the very serious charge that she missed a real chance with Egypt prior to the Yom Kippur War: "In retrospect," the author rightly notes, "it is clear that Sadat wasn't trying to forge a settlement as much as manipulate the Russians into providing him with more military equipment." Still, while Golda might have made an effective premier during her prime years in the 1950s, the correct conclusion here (and most elsewhere nowadays) is that it would have been better for her and the country had she not taken up the job when she had. While during her years in office it was famously said in a country still flush with the victory of the Six Day War, "We never had it so good," Golda ended up putting the country in a holding pattern, permitting it to drift rather than moving it forward in crucial areas - for example, settling the debate between Allon and Dayan over policy toward the territories, rather than allow the creeping annexation that now has had to be painfully undone. Still, none of this, even the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, undercuts her truly tremendous achievements, the scope of some of which became evident only years later - such as her early and steadfast advocacy of Soviet Jewish immigration. Burkett takes Israelis to task for, first, putting Golda on a pedestal for "all the wrong reasons - for how safe her towering strength made them feel and for the aplomb her edgy wit lent them - rather than because they heard their own hopes and dreams reflected in her exhortations about socialism, equality and self-sacrifice" - and then, making her a convenient scapegoat as "Golda the Intransigent, who let them down," because "it was easier to rewrite history to blame everything on an old lady who was dead, than to face inconvenient truths." There's truth to that. Less so, I think, to Burkett's contention that "in this age of the nonsectarian televised confessional, the tragedy of Golda Meir seems more personal than political." Tragedy? Yes, as amply recorded in these pages, Golda was an unsuitable wife, an inadequate parent, a notoriously hot-and-cold friend and colleague and even a difficult sibling to her closest relation, her older sister Sheyna. There's no reason, though, to believe she would have been any different as a frustrated Milwaukee Jewish hausfrau. Her triumph is that in an age when plenty of women who achieved little or nothing also had failed personal lives, Golda managed to reach amazing, and still unmatched, heights. Which brings us back to her potential successor. Seemingly every bit the loving wife and devoted mother that Golda was not, Tzipi Livni has enjoyed during her rise to power the benefit of recent attitudinal changes to women in the public sphere that the former could only have envied. Still, if Livni is going to make that final jump up into the Prime Minister's Office, she would do well to look back at Golda for inspiration, especially in developing the kind of political and oratorical skills any effective national leader most possess. And until Livni does so, she can forget about being as good as Golda. [email protected]