B I O G R A P H Y
What is most notable about Netanyahu’s vision is what it lacks. There is no Martin Luther King-style dream, no Ronald Reagan-like shining city on the hill and no Zionist utopia. In short, there is no hint of messianism, secular or religious. In this sense there is something distinctly un-Jewish about Netanyahu’s thinking. In his psychological and ideological realm, there are no moral edicts, no metaphysical yearnings. The world is a cold, hard place that only understands power. Therefore, in order to survive, one must strive to grow ever stronger. Strength radiates, weakness alienates. A small, persecuted people like the Jews must continually enhance the strength that will prevent their annihilation. There is no room for delusion or belief in goodwill. What Israelis must do, day and night, is stay strong – and survive.
After I met the son, I came to know the father. More than twenty years ago I visited him a dozen times in the small limestone-clad home in Jerusalem in which Bibi was raised and forged. In one of the many fascinating conversations I was privileged to share there, this historian of the Spanish Inquisition told me: “When I shave in the morning, the ant in the sink sees my huge
‘The only man in the cabinet’ The life of Israel’s first woman prime minister ABE SILBERSTEIN
THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM Golda Meir and her path to power
376pp. Princeton University Press. £28 (US $35).
OVER HIS LONG career, Joe Biden has made a habit of telling the story of his first meeting with Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister from 1969 to 1974, when addressing a Jewish audience. The story ends with Meir dramatically revealing Israel’s “secret weapon” to the then freshman US senator from Delaware: “We have nowhere else to go”. One year Biden repeated this both at the conference for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – the conservative pro-Israel lobby – and at a gathering for the centre-left J Street. He had correctly wagered that Israel’s first – and to date only – woman leader attracted warm feelings from across the spectrum.
shadow and scurries away to safety. It does so because it has a biological mechanism that allows it to identify dangers and persevere. Jews don’t have this mechanism”. Historically, Benzion believed, Jews were as innocent as children. Whether Manhattan intellectuals, Tel Aviv liberals or Hebron settlers, they couldn’t see the world for what it really is. That is why they failed to perceive the looming catastrophe of Nazism; and that is why, he was convinced, they were continuing to ignore the looming catastrophe he saw in the spectre of a future Palestinian state, along with the twin threat of Iran’s nuclear programme.
Preventing catastrophes is the life mission of Benzion Netanyahu’s son. And, in his own eyes, he has succeeded. Bibi formally adopted the two-state paradigm so that he could hollow it out – and sweep it aside. He turned the Arab Spring from a considerable threat into a substantial opportunity that allowed him openly to befriend Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) of the UAE and to nurture covert relations with Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia. Moreover, by transforming an essentially socialist economy into a turbocharged capitalist one, he has helped to raise Israel’s per capita GDP from $20,000 in 2002 to $51,000 in 2022,
Among historians, however, as well as many Israelis, Meir’s reputation is more chequered. She is often portrayed by political and diplomatic historians as hawkish and intransigent, traits that are said to have contributed to Israel’s missed diplomatic opportunities with Egypt prior to the calamitous Yom Kippur War of 1973. Among those concerned with social issues, Meir is most associated with a founding generation of putatively socialist leaders who are alternately criticized by the right for building too large a state and by the left for oppressing Israel’s marginalized communities.
Golda Meir, 1970
The Only Woman in the Room: Golda Meir and her path to power, an engagingly written apologia by the legal scholar Pnina Lahav, fits awkwardly into this picture. Its likely audience will consist of those who already admire “Golda” (as she is referred to throughout the book) and scholars who are unlikely to be persuaded by Lahav’s narrative, which is mainly built on secondary sources, memoirs and a smattering of archival documents.
The book is structured along clear chronological lines and divided into four parts. The first two concern Meir’s early life in the Russian empire – where she was born as Golda Mabovitz – and her childhood and teenage years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Denver, Colorado, where she joined her sister in flight from their parents’ stifling traditionalism, and where she met her future husband, a young sign painter named Morris Meyerson. We also follow the newly married couple on their arrival in Palestine Abe Silberstein is a writer and critic living in New York
surpassing Japan, the UK and Germany. Within twenty years the Jewish state has become a powerhouse not only in advanced technology and cybersecurity but also in natural gas. According to Netanyahu’s narrative the formula of survival by power-building seems to have succeeded.
Yes and no. True, for more than a decade Bibi has endowed Israel with strategic, economic and political stability. Under his leadership, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, fewer Israelis – and Palestinians – were killed in acts of terror than during the previous decade. Fewer Israelis were unemployed and more Israelis enjoyed a higher standard of living – including Palestinian Israelis. But on the other hand the enormous build-up of West Bank settlements during Netanyahu’s reign has led to the creation of a one-state condition that – as well as immiserating countless Palestinian communities – imperils the very identity, legitimacy and longevity of the Jewish democratic state. Meanwhile, Tehran’s nuclear weapons programme has made giant strides over the past few years, bringing Iran to the cusp of nuclear power. Moreover, while Netanyahu has concentrated on warding off external catastrophes, an internal catastrophe has been brewing inside in 1921, where Meir quickly learnt the ropes of the emerging Zionist polity and became a trusted ambassador for the Jewish Agency abroad.
The final two sections concern Meir’s time in politics until her death in 1978. Drawing on her prestate service to the Zionist movement, she was first elected to the Knesset as a member of the dominant socialist party, Mapai, in 1949. She rose up the ranks, becoming minister of labour, minister of foreign affairs and finally prime minister. Lahav is to be credited for keeping Meir in constant focus throughout her narrative of this tumultuous period, which included the Suez Crisis, the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War.
Meir was often compelled to choose between an emerging women’s rights movement, embodied by her arch rival on the left, Shulamit Aloni, and the largely male establishment in which she thrived, invariably siding with the latter. Lahav presents Meir as a pragmatic leader who, while conscious of women’s issues, subordinated them to the party’s or nation’s interest. She certainly faced sexism in a political arena dominated by men who, despite their professed egalitarian socialist Zionism, were terribly chauvinistic. The author analyses these examples well, including David Ben-Gurion’s backhanded praise of Meir as “the only man in the cabinet”.
Yet Lahav leaves much work for future feminist chroniclers to do. While she is alive to Meir’s “alterity” and “otherness” as a Jewish woman at this period in history, she dedicates comparatively little attention to Israel’s own “others”, over whom Meir wielded immense power: Palestinian citizens – second-class passport holders who lived under a military regime until 1966 – and Middle Eastern Jews or Mizrahim, who were severely mistreated and looked down on by the Ashkenazi leadership. Meir was heavily involved in creating policies that affected both communities, such as the settling of newly arrived Mizrahim for prolonged stays in dreadful transit camps and the neglect of the Arab citizenry’s land development needs. When Lahav does touch on Meir’s attitudes towards Mizrahim specifically, it is much too briefly and defensively. The author also indulges in an excess of psychoanalyzing, from the reasonable (Meir consciously drew on her “maternal image” throughout her career) to the wildly speculative (Meir’s hardline opposition to creating a Palestinian state was “perhaps” influenced by her American education about that country’s civil war).
The Only Woman in the Room could have benefited from a little more distance and a little more nuance. Even in its partisan sympathies, however, it remains an intriguing portrait of this most unlikely of influential twentieth-century leaders. n
JANUARY 13, 2023
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