In her excellent biography Golda, Elinor Burkett gives her readers an entirely new definition of the word “tenacity.” Her subject, Golda Meir, the first female head of the state of Israel, achieved all that she did through sheer force of will. And she did so with little support from her family — father, mother, sister, husband, or children — and, for most of her career, in extremely poor health. Adored in America, she was reviled in Israel for her role in the Yom Kippur War, but it’s ultimately hard not to have sympathy for this woman from another time, doing the best she could in a modern world that had disappointed her.
Born Golda Mabovich in Kiev at the very end of the 19th century (she became Meyerson upon her marriage and Meir under pressure from David Ben-Gurion to Hebraicize her name), she was shaped by her first memories of pogroms in the Russian empire. As a young girl, she and her mother and two sisters followed her father to Milwaukee, where he had moved to find work. After 15 years in the United States, Golda made aliyah to then-British Mandate for Palestine, where she lived until her death in 1978.
Golda was heavily influenced by her older sister Sheyna, who introduced her to Labor Zionism, which informed Golda’s drive to establish and work for the state of Israel — and led her to try to join a kibbutz upon her arrival in Tel Aviv. But she and her husband’s first application was rejected, as was their second. Golda eventually managed to wrangle a place on the communal farm, but she and Morris were never fully accepted as kibbutz members, in part because of the perception of them, as a married couple, as hopelessly bourgeois Americans. Yet Golda persisted, thus establishing a pattern she would follow her entire life. Motivated by idealism, Golda tries to do something; Golda is rebuffed; and then Golda “bashes heads together” to get her way. Working her way up through pre-state quasi-governmental organizations and later the Israeli state apparatus, Golda would do it again and again.
Interestingly, Golda’s commitment to Israel was purely a matter of ensuring self-determination for Jews, so that they wouldn’t ever again have to rely on other countries for their survival. Her experiences of the pogroms of her youth and the Holocaust of her middle age solidified her militancy on this topic. It’s somewhat hard to imagine, given the influence that the ultra-religious now have on Israel, but its founders were largely completely secular. On erev Yom Kippur in 1973, as the war brewed, Burkett relates how Golda sat down to dinner with her family — on a holiday when even the least observant religious Jews generally fast.
As might be imagined, this ambition — as it could only somewhat accurately be described — didn’t leave much time for even a semblance of a personal life. Indeed, Golda was never as much wed to Morris as she was to her work. Although she did manage to make time as a younger woman for a few lovers (a fairly typical practice among the early, free-love Socialist Zionists, for whom divorce was equally rare), she and Morris gave up acting like married couple less than 10 years after emigrating. Morris died in 1951, and Golda never remarried — or it seems, ever had another intimate relationship. Golda’s children judged her especially harshly for her lifestyle, and while they were certainly justified in feeling so — and Golda admitted as much — Burkett doesn’t address their father’s abandonment, arguably as complete. Morris struggled with employment his entire life; he certainly had the time to step in for Golda. But in 1938, he moved to Persia, leaving their two children to her.
Softening her edges a bit was her famous wit. The stories are legion of her one-liners and quips, and the press hung on every one. On her 80th birthday, in the midst of peace process negotiations, she declared, “I wouldn’t want the West Bank even if it were given to me as a birthday present.” When Henry Kissinger, mediator after the Yom Kippur war, whined about her public coldness towards him (“When I reach Cairo, Sadat hugs and kisses me. But when I come here, everyone attacks me.”), Golda rejoined, “If I were an Egyptian, I would kiss you, too.”
But she couldn’t joke away her health problems, though she tried valiantly to ignore them until she was ordered into recuperation. She suffered from obesity; heart and circulatory problems; a twisted leg, and later phlebitis and blood clots; migraines; gallbladder attacks; kidney stones; a broken shoulder; and lymphoma. These weren’t helped by her three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. And as with everything else she deemed inconvenient, Golda barreled through her illnesses, often cutting short treatment to attend to a matter of state.
In the book, Burkett manages the near-impossible: building suspense in the story of the founding of Israel, an incredibly painful narrative. I actually found myself wondering whether the new state would be able to overcome its challenges. But I shouldn’t have, because Golda was always there, willing it into being behind the scenes.