Fear, Hunger, and Fear.
"Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us." "When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons. " --Golda Meir
Francine Klagsbrun's extensive biography of Golda Meir, Lioness, is a conventional, laudatory telling of Meir's life, which almost literally leaves no stone unturned. Klagsbrun delves into the details of Meir's life from birth to death, from Russia to the United States. She covers Meir's adoption of Zionism, her emigration to Israel, and her role in the development of the Israeli state. Klagsbrun's previous works, The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day (2002) and Married People: Staying Together in the Age of Divorce (1985) reveal a conservative point of view regarding religion and politics, which is also evident in Lioness. Klagsbrun edited Mario Thomas's feminist children's book Free to Be You and Me (1975), writes for the Jewish Week, is a contributing editor of the Jewish feminist magazine Lilith, and sits on the editorial board of Hadassah magazine. It is clear from her writings and affiliations that she shares Meir's belief in Zionism. Her sources do not include critiques of Zionism, its eurocentric, nationalistic roots, or its role in Israeli expansionism and the occupation of Palestinian territories. Although she has much to say about Meir's life--699 pages worth--she seeks mainly to honor her, rather than to critically investigate her actions and beliefs. She does not address the impact of Meir's unquestioning belief in Zionism on her more difficult political decisions and the long-lasting effect of those decisions on Israel and Palestine today.
Becoming prime minister of Israel in 1969 was a first for a woman, but Meir cared little for what that meant. She governed like the men who came before her--willing to dismiss the rights and culture of others in favor of her own. Klagsbrun presents her as a steadfast, even stubborn, leader whose bigoted attitude toward Palestinian peoples extended to her own darker cousins, Sephardic Jews, whose roots are in the Iberian peninsula, and Mizrachi Jews, who are descended from Middle Eastern and North African nations.
Other works about Meir describe her as a woman full of contradictions. Elinor Burkett's biography Meir (2008) describes her as a stalwart Zionist with an iron will, but also as "a lonely, sickly figure, a terrible mother... [who] neglected her husband, [and] alienated loved ones." Letty Cottin Pogrebin, writing for the Jewish Women's Archives online encyclopedia, describes Meir as "no particular friend of women." She was a "queen bee," Pogrebin says: "a woman who climbs to the top, then pulls the ladder up behind her," whose unwillingness to embrace women's issues is disappointing.
Klagsbrun notes that Meir was aware of the gendered aspect of her struggles, yet never aligned with feminists. Like many women from the nineteenth century to the present, Meir feared being thought of as a man-hater--in other words, a lesbian. Klagsbrun does not question such fears, although they arise from heterosexist, male-supremacist thinking, which labels women who bond with each other as sexually suspect. Of course, Meir was neither a man-hater nor a lesbian, as Klagsbrun demonstrates, chronicling Meir's many affairs, failed marriage, and ideological alignment with men who were Zionist nationalists.
Meir described her early traumatic life in Russia as one of "fear, hunger, and fear." This traumatic period, writes Klagsbrun, was the impetus, justification, and source of Meir's Zionism. She immigrated to the US in 1906, when she was eight. She was introduced to Zionist activism in Denver, Colorado, where she lived briefly with her sister and brother-in-law, and it was in Denver where she met her future husband, Morris Myerson, an internationalist and anarchist. After the couple moved to Palestine in 1921, their relationship became distant.
Klagsbrun explains that between the two world wars, politically minded European Jews were divided between Bundists, Jewish socialists who believed socialism would cure anti-Semitism, and Zionists, who insisted that the only way to combat anti-Semitism was for Jews to establish their own homeland in Palestine--never mind the more than 700,000 indigenous Palestinians who had lived there for generations. Thus, as an Israeli nationalist, Meir claimed that there were "no Palestinians, but Arabs who lived in the region," and that "nobody heard of a Palestinian entity before 1967." Famously, she insisted, "It was not as though there was a Palestinian people considering itself Palestinian and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist." Although Klagsbrun rarely explores or challenges Meir's Zionism, she does explain that Meir backtracked on these claims, asserting that what she meant was that there was no Palestinian state before 1967. Meir--and Klagsbrun--do not believe that the Palestinians' claim to the land is as legitimate as the Zionists'.
Meir herself exemplified this colonialist mentality. After emigrating to Palestine she assumed the role of fundraiser extraordinaire, as she traveled back to the US to raise millions from American Jews. She was a passionate and mesmerizing speaker, able to move large crowds with her pleas to support Jews in Palestine. During this period she struggled with the conflict between her roles as mother and activist, although according to Klagsbrun, Meir did not make the connection between this conflict and the social constructs that created it.
What Klagsbrun does explore in depth are the machinations of the early Zionists to establish their state, the role that Meir played as Israeli ambassador to the USSR (1948-1949), the internal politics of Israel, and Meir's political struggles and leadership. Although she was not religious, the plight of Soviet Jews, who were discriminated against yet forbidden to emigrate, softened her resistance to right-wing and religious groups. She was an architect of the "right of return," an Israeli law that gives any Jew (at least, as determined by the Orthodox rabbinate) the right to emigrate to Israel and become a citizen. She was also the major proponent of Israel bonds, urging Americans to invest in them to subsidize the state of Israel.
Meir served as minister of labor from 1949 to 1956. In this position, she was ahead of her time. She supported increasing housing, strengthening infrastructure, and developing the National Insurance Act, which, Klagsbrun points out, "supported widows and orphans benefits, industrial accident insurance, maternity protection. These were first steps. Later she introduced health and unemployment insurance, disability and other and other aspects of social insurance." However, although these social benefits were ostensibly for all residents, discrimination denied non-Ashkenazi Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians many of these advantages. In 1956, under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion during his second term as prime minister (1955-1963), Meir became foreign minister. She was asked then, as were all members of the foreign service, to Hebraicize her name. This is when Golda Meyerson became Golda Meir--but she preferred to be known simply as Golda.
In 1968, after much turmoil, controversy, and political infighting, Meir was elected secretary general of the newly established Labor Party, the result of a merger among several leftist parties. However, she resigned six months later due to internal conflict and political differences. In 1969, Levi Eshkol, the Labor prime minister, died, and Meir replaced him.
During Meir's second term, in 1973, the Yom Kippur War devastated the country, and the Labor Party blamed her for the losses. Right-wing and religious opposition to peace efforts hardened, and Jewish settlements appeared in the West Bank and Gaza, occupied during the Six-Day War of 1967.
Just as Meir refused to acknowledge the rights of Palestinians, she rejected the claims of the Israeli Black Panthers, a social justice organization for Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews, who experienced skin-color and geographic discrimination in Israel. Klagsbrun argues that the 1975 UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, declaring that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination," is heinous--implying that the Israeli persecution of Palestinians and discrimination against Jews of color is justified in the interest of protecting the state--in other words, maintaining colonial power. (The resolution was revoked in 1991). This mentality has resulted in the ongoing occupation of Palestine.
Meir resigned from office on April 10, 1974, and died on December 8, 1978, of liver failure. Her compassion for her people did not extend to or bridge the gap between Israel and Palestine. Although she was never identified as a warmonger, neither was she a peace maker, as she consistently rejected overtures of reconciliation. Her denial of Palestinian legitimacy is part of her legacy. This biography presents an in-depth study of Golda Meir's journey to becoming one of the first women in national leadership, but fails to challenge the Zionist ideology that is at the foundation of the state of Israel as well as the obstacle to a true resolution with the Palestinian people.
Reviewed by Eleanor Roffman
Eleanor Roffman is a Middle East peace activist who has been doing this work since the late 1970s.
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|Title Annotation:||Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel|
|Publication:||The Women's Review of Books|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2018|
|Next Article:||Victims and Heroes.|