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May 3, 2021

Book Review: Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel

Last month, news broke that Emmy-nominated Shira Haas (of Shtisel fame) would play Golda Meir in a new miniseries produced by Barbara Streisand, based on Francine Klagsbrun’s 2017 biography of the fourth prime minister of Israel. We thought it would be a good opportunity to share some thoughts with our readers about Klagsbrun’s book, Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel on Golda Meir’s birthday.

The biography is clearly exhaustively researched, yet manages to be thoroughly engrossing. Klagsbrun spellbinds her audience with the story of a Jewish girl who was born in Kyiv (then part of Soviet Russia) in 1898, raised in Milwaukee, and emigrated to Palestine, to become the first woman in the world who was democratically elected to the position of head of state, in 1969.

Meir’s time as Prime Minister was actually the least interesting part of this book, and that is because Klagsbrun does an excellent job of depicting Meir’s childhood in Milwaukee and putting it in the context of American history: when Meir discovered socialist Zionism, Theodore Roosevelt, and then President Taft occupied the White House.

Another strong point of the book is that Klagsbrun brings to the reader’s attention Meir’s indispensable role in establishing the State of Israel.  Like Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion — with whom she worked closely — Golda Meir was what you could call a Founding Mother of the modern Jewish State.  

As the reader follows Meir’s ascent in the Labour Party, Klagsbrun ensures that the dizzying politics and history of the party are (relatively) digestible and easy to follow. Meir also made history in 1956 when she was appointed Foreign Minister – the only woman in the world to hold that position — which she did for a decade. 

Klagsbrun is also frank about Meir’s shortcomings, which is a welcome departure from the breathless hagiography that is generally published about public figures. Moreover, a biography about a Jewish woman who was raised in America and was fundamental to establishing the modern state of Israel is apt at a time where both communities are consuming and producing unprecedented amounts of media about the other in an attempt to understand one another.

Meir’s commitment to African countries (she had scores of namesakes who were born in Congo, Ghana, Togo, and Sierre Leone — and each baby Golda received a small gift from the Foreign Minister) and Soviet Jewry were other high points, as well. Meir left office, surprisingly with a decent approval rating. Only after she died was her reputation sullied by the Yom Kippur War. The incompetence in dealing with what notoriously lives on in Israeli memory the nation’s deadliest war was laid at the Prime Minister’s feet. And though Meir resigned and took responsibility for the fiasco, Klagsbrun brings to light the share that Moshe Dayan (the Defense Minister at the time) bore for the disastrous war. He did not give the Prime Minister complete information, and unlike Meir, he more or less fell apart from the stress of the war. 

With the declassification of several documents, her reputation is improving with a better understanding of the events that unfolded during her tenure, and this book is a great companion to a reexamination of Golda Meir.

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