There have been three prime ministers of Israel who have had a profound impact on my political and historical views, as well as my Zionist passions. The prime minister I most admired was David Ben-Gurion, who against all odds guided the yishuv to statehood and enabled Israel to survive and indeed to prevail against seemingly insuperable economic and social obstacles during its first decade.
Ben-Gurion’s political skills were second to none on the world stage during the twentieth century. In fact, I rank Ben-Gurion and France’s Charles de Gaulle as the most effective political leaders of my lifetime.
The two Israeli prime ministers whom I most loved were Golda Meir and Menachem Begin. It may seem odd to readers that I group Meir and Begin together, since they had different political origins and ideologies. Meir was the archetypal product of Labor Zionism — the kibbutz movement, the Histadrut, and the Mapai/Labor Party, which was the predominant governing political force in Israel during its first 30 years.
By contrast, Begin emerged from the Revisionist Zionist movement, founded and led by Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky, and became the leader of Irgun, the paramilitary force of rebellion during the pre-statehood years. After statehood, he led the Herut Party, which evolved into the Likud, the party that prevailed in the 1977 elections, enabling Begin to become Israel’s prime minister.
Yet what linked Meir and Begin together was the profound sense of “ahavat Yisrael” — love of the Jewish people — that they both communicated to Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. Even more relevant to the present crisis in Israel is their vivid contrast to the current prime minister of Israel, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is a corrupt voluptuary who has attempted to use his position as prime minister to enrich himself financially. By contrast, Meir and Begin were leaders of unassailable integrity and ethics, who never sought to use their governmental and political positions to amass wealth.
Netanyahu is a leader of offensive selfishness, whose political maneuverings are motivated above all by his desire to maintain near-autocratic control over the State of Israel. By contrast, Meir and Begin always gave the condition of Medinat Yisrael a higher priority than their own political fortunes. Begin demonstrated this unselfishness most vividly during the Altalena affair. They both venerated democracy, unlike Bibi Netanyahu, a Viktor Orban want-to-be.
And the cabinets of Meir and Begin, for the most part, were characterized by individuals of competence and character. This is another vivid contrast to Netanyahu, whose cabinet features political thugs and lowlifes like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich.
I have thought of this contrast with Bibi often during the crisis of last few months, where the image of Israel has suffered so badly in the Diaspora, a result of Netanyahu’s political authoritarian leadership and financial aggrandizement. I agonized over the need for an alternative vision of Israel to be presented to the American public.
Then I went to see the premiere of “Golda” last Saturday night. It was indeed the answer to my prayers.
Golda Meir was a woman whose contrast to Netanyahu could not have been more profound. Yes, she was the original Iron Lady, years before British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher earned that sobriquet. But she had an authentic Jewish leiv and n’shama — heart and soul — that transcended all other qualities. This combination of strength, character, and inner magnificence enabled Golda to lead Israel to a hard-won survival during its most agonizing period — the Yom Kippur War.
The movie “Golda” conveyed all this. Yet it also exemplified something else of particular significance to me as a historian.
I find particularly offensive movies of historical biography that present a totally distorted picture of its subject. This was particularly true of the movie “Oppenheimer,” which was based upon the book “American Prometheus,” by a revisionist journalist and historian, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, who opposed both FDR and Harry Truman’s unconditional surrender policy and Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb. The movie “Oppenheimer” ignores the postwar history, which has totally vindicated Truman’s decisions. And its brief out-of-context portrayal of Truman is deplorable.
So I went to see “Golda” with a feeling of trepidation that the movie, like “Oppenheimer,” might present a distorted version of history. I need not have worried. The director, the Israeli Guy Nattiv, has given us a work of remarkably strict adherence to history, unlike most movie productions. And the role of Golda Meir was flawlessly played by Helen Mirren, the greatest actress of my lifetime. Both Mirren and Nattiv have earned themselves Oscar nominations.
I left the movie Saturday night in tears, due to my vivid remembrance of the days of the Yom Kippur war. Yet I also had a sense of joy and happiness, due to my memories of Golda Meir. The movie should be de rigueur for viewing by Jews throughout the world. And above all, Jews should proudly recommend its viewing to their non-Jewish friends.
Alan Steinberg of Highland Park was the regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of President George W. Bush. He also was executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.