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The ‘definitive biography on Golda Meir’ paints notable portrait of Israel’s female prime minister

Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel” by Francine Klagsbrun

(Schocken, hardcover, Oct. 10, 2017)

Whenever a special revealing work is published, the publishers often use the word, “unexpurgated — complete and containing original material.” The publishers of “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel” did not choose that word but instead called it “the definitive biography on Golda Meir … a beautiful portrait of the iron-willed leader, chain-smoking political operative, and tea-and-cake serving grandmother who became the fourth prime minister of Israel and one of the most notable women of our time.

And every single word is true, however, when you take into account there are 695 pages of text, three pages of acknowledgments, 71 pages of notes and 15 pages of bibliography, there is a lot of material here never published before.

The author, Francine Klagsburn said she wanted a “comprehensive narrative based on original Hebrew as well as English sources that would present an in-depth view of this multifaceted woman.” And that she does chronologically in this well-written and well-researched book. She has presented what she set out to do: “To present a balanced portrait of Golda Meir and her life as it unfolded within the context of her own times.”  

Klagsburn studied more than a thousand documents, telephone transcripts, minutes of American, Israeli, British and Russian government meetings, political party records, magazine and newspaper reports, films, personal papers, oral histories, diaries, cables and private family letters; she read hundreds of books and articles, interviewed dozens of people including her son, daughter-in-law, assistant, grandsons, former neighbors and bodyguards.

Some of the highlights of this book include: growing up in Russia, her mother, her sisters and their move to Milwaukee. When her sister moved to Denver for her health, Golda joined her while attending high school. She met Morris Meyerson and her Zionist roots begin, although not at the same time. She and Morris married in 1917 when she was 19 and Morris was 24. They moved to New York and gathered together their group of 24 to move to Palestine in 1921. After rejections, they were finally accepted on a kibbutz on trial, but that life was not for either of them.

We learn about one man who becomes her lover, David Remez, and her move with Morris to Jerusalem where Menachem is born. Her parents came on aliyah; at age 30, she left Morris in Jerusalem while she moved to Tel Aviv to become secretary to the Women’s Workers Council.

She began an endless stream of trips abroad leaving Morris in Tel Aviv to take care of the children. With Zalman Shazar (who was to become the third president of Israel), she described their relationship as “extremely close friends, a guarded reference to another romance in her life.” 

“Without a doubt, Remez helped her as she climbed up the political hierarchy. A dozen years her senior as secretary-general he had become one of the most powerful men in the Histadrut, second only to Ben-Gurion. … She had deep intensive ties to Remez. Her letters brimmed with tender and shared secrets.”

By the time Morris was 47 and she was 42, they made their final break. Sarah trained with her youth group to join a kibbutz; Menahem became a cellist.

There are many things the average person probably did not know such as her heart attacks; meeting King Abdullah of Jordan; her shopping trips to Macy’s and running her staff like a kibbutz when she was Minister to the Soviet Union.

“She never wanted to be treated differently because she was a woman. … She built her self-image around the work she did, her loyalty to her party and her devotion to Israel and the Jewish people.” 

When she retired at the age of 68, it was because of lymphoma, hidden from all but her family.

She was 70 when it was suggested she be prime minister, and that became a reality in March 1969 when she was 71.

At the time of the onset of the Yom Kippur War, she allowed herself to be persuaded by the military men that they would have time to call up the reserves if necessary.

After the Yom Kippur war, “she opposed the concept of a sovereign Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan but she envisioned a union of Palestinian Arabs with the kingdom of Jordan.”

In 1975, Rina Samuel ghost wrote her autobiography, “My Life”; she saw opposition leader Menachem Begin become prime minister in 1977; she met Sadat the same year when he came to Jerusalem.

She died December 1978 at the age of 80.

Cynthia Ozick calls this book: “A masterwork melding character and history … majestic study … Part biblically reminiscent drama, part novel-like interiority, part American-inspired pioneering, Golda Meir’s story … has no parallel in the annals of nations.”

For those who enjoy history intertwined with the history maker, women who make history and the State of Israel, “Lioness” is a wonderful read.