Barry Newman

The Golda Fascination

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I care little for the biopic film genre, which is why I’ll not be rushing to see the newly released Golda any time soon. It’s more often than not the case that filmmakers of cinematic biographies find the need to embellish, exaggerate or even invent episodes or confrontations in order to provide drama or tension within the story or to give the plot a bit of complexity. I take little enjoyment in wondering where fact ends and fantasy begins in such films, and am to no end irritated by the small printed, asterisked declaimers that protect production companies from lawsuits or charges of misrepresentation.

Golda, at any rate, has been the focus of much attention both in Israel and elsewhere. The media – print, broadcast, digital – has looked at the film and its complex subject matter from multiple perspectives; not surprisingly, the reception has been mixed. But while the acting has, for the most part, been given a thumbs up by most of the respected critics, I’ve yet to read or hear anyone pointing out that Dame Helen Mirren was not the only – or first-tier one actress to portray Golda Meir. In 1982, the three-time Academy Award winner Ingrid Bergman – of such classic films as Casablanca, The Bells of St. Mary’s and Gaslight –  starred in the title role of a made-for-television movie titled A Woman Called Golda, which focused on the stress that serving as the prime minister prior to and during the Yom Kippur war had on Golda’s family. The film was very warmly received and Ms. Bergman won an Emmy award for her portrayal of the Israeli icon.

In addition, Golda’s life was also staged on Broadway. In 2004, Golda’s Balcony opened as an off-Broadway production, ultimately moving into the more prestigious address and becoming the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history.

That the former prime minister’s life was portrayed on film twice is indeed telling.  Although biopics are a relatively popular theme, there are not that many films that cover the life and career of female political or national leaders. Those depicted are, for the most part, individuals of royalty or regality and grace the screen with style and poise – Queen Elizabeth I and II, Margaret Thatcher, Evita Peron. The challenge that I’m sure both Ms. Bergman and Dame Mirren found irresistible was to convince viewers –  throughout the world –  that someone who outwardly appears to be little more than a yiddeshe bubbe had the political acumen and personal charisma required for running a country surrounded on all sides by bloodthirsty enemies. And still had time to make an outrageously delicious pot of chicken soup.

Does that, though, explain the endless fascination that biographers, historians, playwrights and filmmakers have with Golda? Throughout Israel’s seventy-five-year history, there have been more than a few individuals whose personal lives and professional careers would make compelling intrigue and drama. Ben Gurion, the first prime minister and commander in chief during the war for independence. Jabotinsky, the ardent Zionist and revisionist. Begin, the fiery freedom fighter who wrested power away from the seemingly invincible Labor party.  Rabin, whose sincere belief that peace with the Palestinians was possible resulted in his premature death at the hands of an ultra-right zealot. Yet, despite their intense involvement in and influence on Israel’s political, military and industrial structures, they are given relatively little attention outside of Israel. But the story of how a chain-smoking woman who was born in the Ukraine and spent formative years in the United States rose to the top long before feminism was fashionable is one worth telling and retelling.

Oddly, Golda never saw herself as a feminist and appeared truly annoyed when the subject was raised. Asked if she thought there were more difficult demands placed on a woman prime minister of Israel, she shrugged and responded that she has no way of knowing since she was never a man and therefore has no way of making any sort of reasonable comparison. From her perspective, she was simply the duly elected leader of Israel; her gender was of no consequence. Clearly, however, it was to others.

Throughout most of the twentieth century Israel – both before and after independence – was very much a patriarchal society; that Golda was given an honored place in that male-dominated hierarchy was no small achievement. It might, moreover, be mistakenly assumed that Golda was the only woman whose signature appears on Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It wasn’t. The signature of Rachel Cohen-Kagan, an ardent activist for women’s rights and entitlements, alphabetically preceded Golda’s on that historic document. But whereas Cohen-Kagan became little more than a footnote and a tidbit for pursuers of trivia, Golda became truly symbolic of the newly established Jewish state. And the Jewish world has never ceased to acknowledge the risks she took and the burdens she bore in ensuring that no longer will the destiny of the Jewish people be in the hands of others.

Golda’s term in office was, of course, defined by the Yom Kippur War, but her skills were recognized long before she was appointed to replace the deceased Levi Eshkol as prime minister in 1969. Considering that such towering figures as Yigal Alon, Moshe Dayan and Pinchas Sapir were also potential candidates for the position, that she was selected with almost no objections raised is in and of itself worth dramatizing. And this perhaps is what is most endearing about Golda; while others in the Labor party viewed themselves as “princes” expecting one day to be anointed as premier, she never saw herself as a “princess”. She was neither a shining star on the battlefield nor an internationally accredited academic. That she never hid her identification as a socialist nor her disdain for religion added, if anything, to the aura of being someone unique; a politician who was not afraid to speak honestly and openly.

At the time of her appointment as the prime minister, there were only two other women who had achieved a similar national position: Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka and Indira Gandhi of India. If contestants on a quiz show were asked to identify the first female elected prime minister of either of those two countries, I suspect few would come up with the correct response. On the other hand, asking those contestants to identify the first female prime minister of Israel would be regarded as a throw-away question. There lies the fascination with Golda Meir and why her achievements and failures will continue to be studied and dramatized.

While historians and pundits will debate for decades to come the quality of Golda’s leadership during the time of the Yom Kippur crisis, there is little doubt that the performances of two stellar actresses contributed to the prestige the lady truly deserves. Even with the liberties that both films most surely have taken.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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