Before Golda Meir accepted the nomination for prime minister of Israel on March 7, 1969, she spent a sleepless night smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and consulting her children on whether to take the job. At age 70, she had plenty to keep her occupied besides her career. She wanted to spend time with her children and grandchildren, and she had serious health issues to address, including shingles and lymphoma. But she also carried a fierce loyalty to the nation she’d helped form. Feeling she must lead it, Meir accepted the nomination, becoming Israel’s first—and to date only—woman prime minister.
Meir held that position until 1974, earning the praise and admiration of her people in the first years of her term and their scorn in the final ones. In October 1973, a coalition of Arab nations attacked Israel, killing 2,656 Israeli soldiers and wounding thousands more. Victory came, but Israelis could neither forgive nor forget the cost of the Yom Kippur War, as the conflict would later be known. They blamed Meir, complicating her legacy in the country she led. Outside of Israel, the politician’s xenophobic comments, chief among them her 1969 claim that there was “no such thing as Palestinians,” also clouded her name.
Forty-five years after Meir’s death in 1978 at age 80, a new film offers a sympathetic glimpse at her time in power, with a particular focus on the Yom Kippur War. Directed by Guy Nattiv and written by Nicholas Martin, Golda is an elegy for the trailblazing female politician, Nattiv tells Smithsonian magazine.
Starring Helen Mirren as Meir, the movie premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February to lukewarm reviews. Deemed a “lifeless” biopic by the Guardian and a “showcase for Mirren and makeup” by the Hollywood Reporter, Golda arrives in theaters in the United States on August 25.
What events does Golda dramatize?
Golda started out as an intense, high-budget war movie, says Nattiv, whose 2018 short film, “Skin,” won an Academy Award. As development progressed, the story shifted toward a tense but quieter narrative centered around Meir herself. The final version takes viewers through the Yom Kippur War’s lead-up, explosion and resolution, all while Mirren’s Meir fills frame after frame with cigarette smoke. Liev Schreiber co-stars as Henry Kissinger, the U.S. secretary of state at the time.
Mirren isn’t the first actress to step into Meir’s shoes. She’s preceded by Ingrid Bergman, who starred in the 1982 made-for-television movie A Woman Called Golda. But that production leaned more on Meir’s early life and work, while Nattiv’s is devoted to the 1973 war. The Israeli director was 4 months old when he and his mother sought refuge in a bomb shelter at the beginning of the conflict.
“It took a while to lick the wounds,” Nattiv says. “The wound of Yom Kippur is so tragic that I think it took a few generations to have the perspective to tell the story.”
Given Israel’s current political turmoil, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s overhaul of the country’s judicial system sparking widespread protests, the director says Golda’s timing couldn’t be better. Right now, Nattiv argues, Israel’s leaders are “blind, like the leaders in the Yom Kippur War.”
This is “a pivotal moment in Israeli history—to do or die, in a way,” Nattiv says. While attending demonstrations with his family, he “met veterans of the Yom Kippur War, who told me, ‘This is Yom Kippur all over again.’”
The director believes that Meir was unfairly scapegoated for the war, with the public ignoring the role played by her advisers and fellow politicians. Depicting an aging, ill Meir during the most difficult years of her long career, Golda is the prime minister’s requiem, Nattiv says. He hopes the film changes the narrative of the war, removing some of the blame from Meir and encouraging viewers to take a more sympathetic view of the woman he calls an “iconic character.”
Meir’s early life
Meir was born on May 3, 1898, in Kyiv, Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire). She was one of three surviving daughters of Moshe and Blume Mabovitch, a religious Jewish couple.
“She came from a very poor family, and she experienced hunger and cold and difficult conditions when she was very young,” says Pnina Lahav, author of The Only Woman in the Room: Golda Meir and Her Path to Power. “It was a traumatic experience for her.”
In interview footage featured in the 2019 documentary Golda, Meir reflected, “I can’t recall anything good or happy. I remember the strife at home, a real … shortage of food. And I remember the fear of pogroms,” or violent attacks on Jews by non-Jewish locals that were common in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s.
Seeking safety from both persecution and poverty, Meir’s family immigrated to the U.S., settling in Milwaukee in 1906. Meir thrived in her new environment. As a teenager, she resisted societal expectations for young women in favor of education and independence.
“Her parents didn’t allow her to go to college; they didn’t even want her to go to high school,” says Francine Klagsbrun, author of Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel. “They wanted her to get married, as girls [did at the time].”
At age 14, Meir enrolled at a Milwaukee high school, but familial conflict over her decision, coupled with her mother’s attempts to find her a husband, became too oppressive. Meir had been writing about her plight to her 23-year-old sister, Sheyna Korngold, who was newly married and living in Denver. In 1912, Sheyna and her husband encouraged Meir to come live with them, promising to make sure she was fed, clothed and—most importantly—educated. The next year, Meir ran away to Colorado.
Finding her way to the Middle East
In the kitchen of the Korngolds’ Denver duplex, which served as a hub for Jewish immigrants, Meir learned about politics. “I was fascinated by the people who used to drop into their home and sit around talking til late at night,” wrote Meir in her 1975 autobiography, My Life. “Some of them were anarchists, some were socialists, and some were socialist Zionists.”
She was most sympathetic to the last of these groups, adding:
I understood and responded fully to the idea of a national home for the Jews—one place on the face of the earth where Jews could be free and independent—and I took it for granted that in such a place no one would be in want or be exploited or live in fear of other men.
Zionists believed Jews should form a community in Palestine, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. Though their movement was largely secular, it was based in religious history. Zionists wanted Jewish people to reclaim “the holy land, where the Jews had their kingdoms in the old biblical times,” says Mark Tessler, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.
Driving the Zionist movement were currents of both liberal enlightenment among Jewish people and antisemitism in Europe. As a teenager, Meir felt those forces pulling her into the movement from her sister’s kitchen in Colorado.
“She was involved from the beginning and always, always wanted a Jewish state,” Klagsbrun says. “She saw the suffering of the Jews in Russia and in countries in Eastern Europe. She saw the persecution of the Jews, and she felt very strongly … that Jews needed a place, a homeland where they could be safe.”
While in Denver, Meir dated Morris Meyerson (also spelled Myerson), a poetry, art and music enthusiast five years her senior. They loved each other, but when he proposed marriage, she refused on account of her youth and her plans to return to Milwaukee to reconcile with her parents. By 1915, she’d moved back to Wisconsin, staying in touch with Meyerson via letter while finishing high school and training to become a teacher. Meyerson didn’t share Meir’s enthusiasm for Zionism, which “was beginning to fill my mind and my life,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I believed absolutely that as a Jew, I belonged in Palestine.”
At the time, the term “Palestine” referred to a land, not a nation, inhabited mainly by Arab peoples. About 25,000 Jews lived in Palestine in 1880, after which Jewish migration to the area increased, spurred especially by the 1897 Zionist Congress. Between 1882 and 1903, some 20,000 to 30,000 Jews immigrated to the region from the Russian Empire; another 35,000 to 40,000 arrived between 1903 and 1914. These individuals began setting up the institutions necessary for self-government, Tessler says, “and then the British come in and take control of everything.”
During World War I, Arab forces seeking to create a unified Arab state successfully revolted against Ottoman governance of Palestine. Though the United Kingdom had agreed to honor Arab independence following the uprising, British leaders instead split Palestine with France. In 1922, the League of Nations legitimized the occupation by issuing a mandate that made Palestine akin to a British colony.
Meir dedicated the wartime years to political activism. She worked with Labor Zionists in Wisconsin, collaborating with her father on “a variety of relief activities” for Jews, who “were suffering in many places,” she later wrote. After the conflict ended, she helped organize a march protesting pogroms in Eastern Europe.
“I think it was while we were marching through town that day that I realized I could no longer postpone a final decision about Palestine,” she recalled. “The Jews must have a land of their own again—and I must help build it, not by making speeches or raising funds, but by living and working there.”
Meyerson agreed to follow Meir to the Middle East. They married on Christmas Eve in 1917. In 1918, Meir attended the first convention of the American Jewish Congress as a delegate—a moment she later identified as the beginning of her political career. Finally, in 1921, she began the journey to Palestine, with Meyerson and her sister Sheyna in tow. The group endured a “doomed,” “wretched” voyage across the Atlantic and then Europe. It ended when, on a sweltering July morning, Meir caught her first sight of Tel Aviv.
Meir’s life in Palestine
After first living on a kibbutz, or commune, for three years, the pair settled in Tel Aviv, where Meir gave birth to their first child, a son named Menahem, in 1924. The growing family soon moved again, this time to Jerusalem, where Meir had her daughter, Sarah, in 1926.
Meir first held public office as secretary of the Women’s Labor Council (also known as the Council of Women Workers), which trained women in agricultural work and other occupations. In 1928, she moved back to Tel Aviv without her husband, marking their marital separation.
The Women’s Labor Council and its U.S. sister organization, the Pioneer Women, were “the first and last women’s organizations for which I ever worked,” Meir wrote. While she believed in gender equality, she was unwilling to call herself a feminist.
“I am not a great admirer of the kind of feminism that gives rise to bra burning, hatred of men or a campaign against motherhood,” Meir explained. She did, however, highly regard women in the labor movement, writing, “That kind of constructive feminism really does women credit and matters much more than who sweeps the house or who sets the table.”
Meir’s role in the creation of Israel
Meir’s political stature grew in the 1930s, when she helped found Mapai, the Labor Party of the Land of Israel. At the time, conflict between the region’s Jewish and Arab communities was on the rise, in part due to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which outlined the British government’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
By 1947, the United Nations proposed partitioning Palestine into two independent Arab and Jewish states. The “present situation in Palestine is one which is likely to impair the general welfare and friendly relations among nations,” the general assembly stated in a resolution. To support the establishment of an Israeli state, Meir traveled back to the U.S. to raise funds, securing about $50 million in pledges from Jewish Americans who “listened, wept and gave money” to the cause, she wrote. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, later said Meir “got the money to make the state possible.”
On May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence. In response, a coalition of neighboring Arab countries, including Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, invaded the new country. By the end of the fighting, Israel had claimed 77 percent of the land formerly occupied by British-mandated Palestine, pushing out half of the territory’s Arab population, according to the U.N.
The following year, Meir was elected to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and asked by Ben-Gurion to be deputy prime minister. She opted instead for minister of labor, using her position to dole out construction projects and build housing for the massive influx of Jewish immigrants to Israel. These efforts alienated many Mizrahi Jews, also known as Arab Jews, who, like hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, were pushed out of Jerusalem neighborhoods by Ashkenazi Jews of European origin.
At Ben-Gurion’s request, Meir ran for mayor of Tel Aviv in 1955 but lost after two city councilmen didn’t vote for her, one simply because he refused to accept a female mayor. The next year, she accepted a position as Israel’s minister of foreign affairs. Ben-Gurion famously called Meir the “only man” in his cabinet. Amused, she later wrote that he obviously thought “this was the greatest possible compliment that could be paid to a woman. I very much doubt that any man would have been flattered if I had said about him that he was the only woman in the government!”
By the early 1960s, Meir was beginning to slow down. In 1963, she was diagnosed with lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. Two years later, she announced plans to retire, declining yet another invitation to serve as deputy prime minister, this time from then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. In 1968, Meir left her position as secretary-general of the Labor Party, exiting the government at 70 years old.
Only one year passed before Meir was pulled back in—this time, to the top seat.
Prime Minister Meir
On February 26, 1969, 73-year-old Eshkol died unexpectedly from a heart attack. “I couldn’t imagine what would happen now,” Meir wrote, “or who would take his place as prime minister.”
Eshkol’s cabinet held an emergency session. While Meir waited for its conclusion, an Israeli journalist approached her.
“I know how you must feel,” she recalled him saying. “But I have just come from the Knesset. Everyone says there is only one solution. Golda must come back.”
Within a few days, the Labor Party pressed Meir to return to politics.
“I honestly didn’t want the responsibility, the awful stress and strain of being prime minister,” Meir wrote. She called her son and his wife in the U.S., then summoned her daughter and son-in-law to her Jerusalem home, where “we sat up all through the night, talking, smoking and drinking coffee.” By the morning, the family all agreed: She had no choice but to take the job.
In her first years as prime minister, Meir experienced high approval ratings. She escalated Israeli attacks on Egypt as part of the War of Attrition, a border conflict in which the Arab country attempted to regain control of the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had taken during the Six-Day War in 1967. Meir’s intensification of attacks prompted an intervention by the Soviet Union and the U.S., which helped negotiate a cease-fire agreement in 1970. Meir’s refusal to back down earned her people’s respect.
“She could be vicious,” says biographer Klagsbrun. “She was like an animal, a lioness … crouching, ready to kill anyone who hurt her people, very protective. … She could be tough, very, very tough. She could wither you with just a look.”
Meir’s people lauded her devotion to their nation and representation of Israel with “straightforward talk” on the world’s stage, says fellow biographer Lahav. “She would not mince words when it came to the interests of the state of Israel.”
In some instances, Meir’s nationalist zeal tipped over into xenophobic comments about Palestinians, whom she saw “simply as an enemy to be defeated,” wrote Jordana Silverstein, a historian at the University of Melbourne in Australia, for the Conversation in in 2021. Speaking with the London Times in 1969, Meir denied Palestinians’ existence, saying, “It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” As Al Jazeera reported in 2019, “For her critics, Meir’s jingoistic comments concerning Palestinians remain one of her defining—and most damning—legacies.”
Israelis didn’t refer to their leader as “prime minister” or “Ms. Meir,” but simply “Golda,” because that was what she wished to be called, Lahav says. Meir was a smart politician, but she was also friendly and charming, with a good sense of humor.
In the documentary Golda, diplomat and politician Colette Avital recalled the first time she sat next to Meir, at a table with ten men:
It was a hot summer day. There was a fan that made a terrible noise. It annoyed Golda, so she said, “Jacob, get up and turn it off.” Ten men got up, one after the other. They turned the button right, left, nothing worked. She let everyone get up. And once they were done, she got up and pulled the plug. That was Golda.
Lahav says Meir “connected with the people very well. She would reach out to people. She would not maintain a distance,” and she didn’t expect unconditional respect. “She wanted the conversation.”
During these fruitful years of Meir’s time in office, tensions at Israel’s borders were inching toward eruption, with the coalition of Arab nations eager to reclaim territory lost during the Six-Day War and to end the blockade of the Suez Canal. The prime minister’s reputation would not protect her from what was to come. As Motti Ashkenazi, a former captain in the Israel Defense Forces, said in the documentary, “Her achievements, in one field or another, are disproportionate to the price my generation paid: the generation of the Yom Kippur War.”
The Yom Kippur War
In the early 1970s, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat threatened to renew war with Israel, few in the country—Meir included—took him seriously.
“To see that an attack is coming forward—that was competent and showed ability on the part of the enemies—that was very difficult for us to understand,” recalls Lahav, who had left Israel to study in the U.S. at the time.
In the spring of 1973, military intelligence reaffirmed Egypt’s intent to invade, leading Meir to approve a nationwide state of alert. But no attack occurred. In September, the prime minister met with King Hussein of Jordan, who warned Meir that Egypt and probably Syria would attack, leaving Israel to fight a two-front war. She was worried but didn’t have military expertise, Klagsbrun says, “and her military people were reassuring her that the danger was not there.”
Meir also consulted Kissinger, the U.S. secretary of state under President Richard Nixon, who advised her not to launch a pre-emptive strike before Egypt attacked. As the Soviet Union had supplied Egypt and Syria with weapons, the situation had broader implications for ongoing Cold War tensions. If Israel attacked first, it could lose the U.S.’s support. The new Golda film shows Meir and Kissinger’s tense interactions on the issue, emphasizing their relationship as both politicians and fellow Jews.
“He said she treated him like a Jewish aunt [would],” Klagsbrun explains. “He cared about Israel, but he was a diplomat, and he was an executive of the state, and he wasn’t going to make special concessions to Israel. But the United States didn’t want Israel to fall.”
On October 6, 1973, Arab forces attacked Israel, surprising soldiers who were with their families for Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. When the phone rang that day, “I was told that there is no doubt it is starting today … and I knew that we weren’t ready for it to start then,” Meir recalled in an interview. “Those were terrible hours. Some people can easily take themselves out of the equation. I can’t. And I often said, I will never be as I was before the Yom Kippur War.”
Though Egypt, Syria and Jordan initially gained ground in the conflict, Israeli forces quickly mobilized, driving the Arab armies back with support from the U.S. military. Both sides suffered heavy losses. A cease-fire negotiated by the U.N. on October 22 failed to end the fighting, so Kissinger and his Soviet counterparts arranged a second, more lasting cease-fire. By the 19-day war’s end on October 25, Israel had sustained 10,000 injuries and deaths, while Egypt, Syria and Jordan had suffered 30,000. Lahav says the “very bitter war” made Israelis understand they weren’t invincible and that their nation was vulnerable.
“Many people were killed, on both sides,” said Israeli journalist, activist and politician Uri Avnery in the documentary. “And just as Golda came to power in one day, she came crashing down after the war.”
The conflict’s losses shocked Israelis, says Lahav, and “they blamed [Meir] for everything that happened.”
Meir had always fallen in line with her people’s attitude toward the border, preferring to “go hand in hand with the Israeli public,” Lahav says. She thought peace with Egypt could wait until the Arab nations came around to negotiating directly with Israel, thereby recognizing its statehood, and she was not alone. Her cabinet and the public supported that view. But after the Yom Kippur War, Lahav recalls, Israelis changed their tune, saying, “If we had [had] good leadership, if she [had] prepared us well, [the war] wouldn’t have happened.”
In March 1974, Meir attended a commemoration ceremony for soldiers killed in the Yom Kippur War whose burial places were unknown.
“It was pouring rain,” said Meron Medzini, who served as the prime minister’s spokesperson, in the documentary. “Suddenly, voices were heard from the audience: ‘Murderers!’ … For the first time, I noticed that she lowered her gaze. Golda never lowered her gaze.”
Meir was forever changed by the conflict that killed so many of her people. She blamed herself, Klagsbrun says, for not following her instincts and listening to people who told her not to worry about an attack.
On April 10, 1974, Meir called a meeting of the Labor Party.
According to Medzini, “She sat down, she was sad and she said, ‘Friends, for five years I have headed this government, and it hasn’t been easy. It took a lot of nerves and strength—more strength than I have, and I’m at the end of the road.’ She got up, took her bag and left. No one followed her out.”
On June 3, at age 76, Meir left office. Her family protected her from the press, and she spent time treating her cancer. From the sidelines, she watched Menachem Begin, head of the right-wing Likud Party, become prime minister in 1977, deposing the Labor Party for the first time in Israel’s history. Begin would go on to negotiate peace with Egypt—an act that earned him and Sadat the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. On December 8, 1978, as Begin was traveling to Oslo to accept the award, Meir died in a Jerusalem hospital at age 80.
The Yom Kippur War—“the last chapter” in Meir’s life, as Avital described it, and the centerpiece of Nattiv’s new biopic—defined her legacy in Israelis’ collective memory. Had Meir resigned in 1972, Avnery said, she would have remained an undisputed national heroine.
But she did not. She continued in the position that had fallen to her, a job she’d never expected to hold. As Meir recounted in her memoir, “I became prime minister because that was how it was, in the same way that my milkman became an officer in command of an outpost on Mount Hermon. Neither of us had particular relish for the job, but we both did it as well as we could.”