Golda Meir, Israel's first and only female prime minister, has always provoked strong and gendered reactions. David Ben-Gurion famously said that Meir was "the only man in the cabinet," and her good friend Richard Nixon said, "she acted like a man and wanted to be treated like a man." Although she was a trailblazer, second-wave feminists in the 1960s disliked her, and she returned their ire, describing them as "crazy women who burn their bras and... hate men." Meir resented attempts to turn her into a feminist icon and, despite the fact that her political life had begun in Zionist women's groups, forcefully stated that she had never belonged to any women's organizations.
Meir has long fascinated biographers and historians, and as the 120th anniversary of her birth approaches, a slew of publications and events are being planned in her honor. One book in particular has garnered critical acclaim: Francine Klagsbrun's seminal new biography, Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel. This 824-page volume is distinguished by the inclusion of materials from recently declassified American, British and Israeli documents as well as by interviews with Meir's close associates and both of her children.
Golda Meir was born Goldie Mabovitch in 1898 in Kiev to Moshe Mabovitch, an impoverished carpenter, and his wife, Bluma. One of Meir's earliest memories was of her father boarding up the family home during the 1905 pogrom, which ultimately killed more than 100 Jews. Fearing further persecution, the Mabovitch family fled to Mlwaukee, Wisconsin. Meir prospered in America. At age 10 she founded the American Young Sisters' Society to raise money to purchase textbooks for the poor, and soon after, she graduated as valedictorian of her junior high. When her parents planned for her to train as a secretary and arranged a marriage for her to a much older man, Meir ran away to join her older sister in Denver and attend high school. It was in her sister's home that she was first exposed to socialism and Zionism; when she returned to Mlwaukee at age 17, she became active in Poalei Zion, "Workers of Zion"--a worldwide movement of Marxist Zionist Jewish workers. Over her parents' objections, she obtained a teaching certificate in 1917 and then married Morris Meyers on, a sign painter and later a bookkeeper. Enraptured by the idea of a Jewish state, Meir persuaded her reluctant husband to make aliyah. In 1921, the couple set sail for Palestine.
Their initial years in Palestine were challenging. Their application to join Merhavia, an early kibbutz, was rejected twice as...