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The Only Woman in the Room

The following is a transcript of Episode 135 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Friday, March 24th, 2023. 

So there’s so many stories at play right now during this turbulent moment in Israel. So many sub-threads and narratives, societal risks and opportunities, all buried beneath the headlines, those headlines that describe the situation as merely mass protests against some particular new legislation about judicial reform. 

One of the biggest stories is the question of whether this is going to be a real and lasting wake-up call for the electorate about all the invisible ways that their rights have been protected until now by the court, and the visible ways now that those rights can be eroded by this new emboldened legislature.

The only reason some of my colleagues in Israel feel optimistic right now is because for the first time that many of us can remember, a lot of people are actually and finally talking about democracy and all that it might take in the form of institutions and other formal structures to protect the rights of the vulnerable. After all, just a reminder, democracy is not the rule of the majority as dictated even by fair elections as the current government seems to think. Democracy is measured by the ways that the majority rule respects the rights of the minorities over whom they govern. And all of that seems now at risk. 

Among those I think we can consider vulnerable to a future legislative overhaul, if it’s not bound by judicial review, are women. I go back and forth, for instance, about whether the biggest group at risk right now is Palestinians, which includes women, or women, which includes Palestinians. 

Shani Reichman of the Israel Policy Forum has a good and short explainer out right now at Times of Israel in which she maps the issue of women’s rights and how they’re at risk right now because of the prospect of judicial reform and in the era of this government more generally. She connects the dots between the fact that the government has virtually no women in leadership roles and all the ways that a wide variety of social policies that would emerge from empowering ultra-Orthodox leadership and values more oppressive legislation on religion and state would put women at risk. 

Some of the iconography that attests to this fear is already on display at the protests in the form of women dressed as the Handmaids from the Handmaids Tale walking across highways in Tel Aviv and I, I have mixed feelings about the use of that symbol and about the apocalyptic system that it suggests, but I don’t think that the underlying concern is wrong. After all the same thing happened here in America. First you remake the court and then you overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s not alarmist to connect the dots between procedural changes in governance and the ideological legislative shopping spree that’s inevitably gonna follow. 

As I was reading about this, I was thinking about all the ways that conversations about women’s rights and women’s liberation constantly get leapfrogged in the hierarchy of social justice. The ways they always seem rendered less urgent to whatever is coming next. I think that happened in the past generation with the rise of the movement for LGBTQ equality, and I think it happened again more recently with the shift in focus in many sectors from gender equality as an independent good to subordinating gender equality under the larger umbrella of DEI, diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

And to be clear, I’m not making an argument against either LGBTQ Equality or against DEI. I’m just noticing what happens when one important issue gets sidelined for another, when our societies seem to make choices that subsume one form of inequality under the heading of inequality more generally. I suppose it’s not surprising that this happens, since this is the very grievance that the movement for gender equality has been naming since the outset, that gender inequality is simultaneously prevalent and invisible. 

This is incidentally, one of the original arguments advanced by theorists of intersectionality, well before their ideas got turned into punching bags by the right. Forms of oppression can be structurally linked. And it’s a mistake to think that we can solve for one without addressing the other. And in that context, it seems to me, and again this is a personal observation, the conversation about the advancement in equality of women often seems to get subordinated. 

Gender in general is a never endingly interesting lens for Israeli politics today and in the past. In a few weeks and on this show, I’ll be interviewing Merav Michaeli live in New York. Merav Michaeli is the head of Labor Party and has incurred an immense amount of personal blame for the failure of the leftist parties in the last election, perhaps not surprisingly, as the only third woman to hold the role of the head of the Labor Party throughout Israel’s history. I mentioned earlier the lack of women in the coalition, a government that follows on the heels of the most gender-balanced government in Israel’s history. Not only at the ministerial level, but among the CEOs of the ministries. Most of those women are now out of their jobs, and it cannot be incidental or coincidental that the referendum that rejected the Bennett Lapid experimental government, as it was called, the change government, that it also entails a rejection of this major social and political play towards gender equity and equality.

It helps me understand now, and maybe I’m just late to the game on this, why feminism so often speaks of its history in waves, first wave, second wave, third wave, not merely because they reflect evolving efforts, but also cause they remind us that there’s always periods of retreating back to the low tide in between those waves. 

Of course there’s no way to talk about women, gender, feminism, and Israeli politics without engaging the original matriarch of the whole story. Golden Meir. Pnina Lahav, a professor of law emerita at Boston University and an acclaimed scholar of Israeli history and constitutional law, and I’m pleased to say a personal friend, has a new book out that does exactly this.

The book is entitled the Only Woman in the Room, a title which provocatively combines the reality of Golda Meir’s experience, oftentimes the only woman in the room, with a turnabout against the mockery that Golda often experienced as the butt of a joke that she was, quote, the only man in the cabinet. The book is a biography of Golda that intentionally examines her life’s accomplishments through a gender lens, and I felt that the timing couldn’t be better for a book like this, especially coming from a scholar who has for so long, so carefully studied not only this kind of political history, but all the intersections between political change and the courts, and which is all the stuff of our current news cycle. 

So, Pnina, thanks for coming on the show today. And you know, I have my read about why this book matters now to the world, but maybe you could start by telling us why this book now mattered to you, as the project that you obviously invested so many years in bringing about.

Pnina: Yeah. Thank you very much, Yehuda. I think the good book now comes at an opportune time because what you see in Israel right now, you have a cabinet of 31 ministers. And of these only six are women, in the cabinets that Netanyahu put together. And in this six women, none of them is in a senior position. So I think this sends a message to the electorate and to the world about what the cabinet right now, and the Likud majority think of women.

Women are a marginal element in society. And I would like to compare this, and that’s why one of the purposes of the book is to revive the Declaration of Independence of Israel. That guarantees, doesn’t guarantee unfortunately, but that speaks of and promises gender equality.

So declaration of Independence not only promises a parliamentary government and elections and equal protection of the laws in elections to everyone, including Palestinians and women, but also speaks directly to gender equality. And I wanted to revive that as an important topic, and I wanted to revive it in the context of a very important woman leader.

I want to tell Israelis, look, we do have women leaders who did a great deal. And let us not forget them. We can turn them into role models. Okay. Or restore their impact as role models. That’s what we need to do, rather than say to ourselves, you know, we are helpless and this is a government of men, you know, meaning controlled by men.

It has not been true historically. That’s what I wanted to say.

Yehuda: So, yeah, there’s something paradoxical though, about Golda, because the ratio of women in the cabinet was no better when Golda was in the cabinet, including when she was prime minister. Right, I mean her cabinet was made up of all men. So she’s a weird example because she, she represents in some ways a continuity between a sexist past and a sexist presence. 

So why is Golda actually useful as a feminist story as opposed to, what some might say, she’s a kind of a token story, right? She’s there as a woman, but she doesn’t really represent, a totally different reality than the one we’re experiencing today.

Pnina: Yes. I think it’s a very good question. The answer to that is Golda represents agency. She represents the ability and the energy of trying to change things. Okay? It is true, unfortunately that Golda didn’t do much in terms of women’s rights, and I, I would like you to give me an opportunity to say a few more things about it in terms of her labor legislation.

I think that Golda was a victim of the climate in the society in which she functioned. And she was afraid of all of these men around her who did not think that women’s rights were important and would put her down and not help her, whose help she needed if she tried to fight for women’s rights, which is exactly what happened to Shulamit Aloni. She did not, she was afraid of being marginalized and because she was afraid of being marginalized, she went over to the other side and surrounded herself with men. And these men eventually undermined her leadership.

So labor legislation, when you look at, Golda was the first minister of Labor in the Israeli cabinet from 1949. She specifically asked for the portfolio of the ministry of labor. And when you look at women, she did do lots of things in the labor legislation that maybe we don’t have time to review.

But in terms of women, she passed laws that protected the right of women in the society. So I’ll give you two examples. One is there was a law that prohibited women from, it was a, originated in England, which prohibited women from working at night, so that at night they come home and make dinner for their husbands rather than work. That was the idea originally. 

And there was a case just before the cabinet was looking at the legislation. There was a case in which a woman was sexually attacked at night as she was coming back from the bus to her home. The ministers in the cabinet suggested that, why don’t we just impose a curfew on women so that they don’t go out at night and therefore be protected? And in the cabinet, Golda, the Minister of Labor said, if you want to curfew anybody, why don’t you curfew the men? It is the men who are attacking. Okay? So that’s one example. 

But I think the more important example is the issue of maternity leave. In the United States, you still do not have maternity. In Israel, Golda fought for maternity leave from the beginning. And when the law was passed, the women’s rights law was passed in 1954, the idea, of maternity leave was ingrained into the law, incorporated into the law so that women have a right to maternity leave. Now men also have rights, but in the beginning, it was only women. 

And I always like to experiment with this. I like to ask Israelis, you know, who look down at Golda as just, you know, an old woman who wrote about the Yom Kippur war, and that’s it. I ask them, do you like maternity leave? Do you think it’s an important thing? Young people, men and women, yes. They will not do without maternity leave. Materni leave is crucial. But they don’t know that it’s Golda who fought for it.

So that’s what I wanted to revive. I wanted to show people Golda did a great deal for us. Let’s not forget it.

Yehuda: She also, I think, credit her with advocating for the right to an abortion, early on in Israel’s history.

Pnina: She did not advocate for it openly, but she did support it. Okay. So that when the attorney General of Israel declared that doctors will not be persecuted for having performed an abortion if there was no negligence, that was in 1951, I believe, Haim Cohen, when he did that, she supported him wholeheartedly.

And then many, many years later, when the issue of abortion became an issue in the United States, some of the right-wingers in Israel thought that it would be nice also to fight abortion in Israel. In Israel, it was not an issue. It still is not an issue. Golda in the cabinet, in the protocols was saying to the religious ministers who were against abortion, I’m, I’m surprised at that because under Jewish law, you know better than I do, abortion is not, prohibited. But they wanted to join the forces and to prohibit it. 

She said, you guys are playing with my own body. That’s what she said. Okay, even though she, you know, she was already 70 something, she had this abortion when she was 20.

Yehuda: So I guess the, it’s not that I want to push back, but I want to, I want to flesh out even further the complexity of using her in this way. You know, you’re arguing that she represents agency and that a lot of why she doesn’t appear to be kind of a feminist icon, is partly because of the way she was manipulated by others or a fear of being undermined. 

But there are a couple of examples that you allude to in the book that make that thesis hard. One of which is early on in her life, in her career, when she and her husband, who, they later divorced, but when she and her husband moved to a kibbutz and she joins the team of, are those arguing that the women should be in charge of the kitchen? So that’s like a weird story for a person who’s connected with agency.

And the second, which appears later in the book, is her very disparaging comments that she gives about the second-wave feminism. Actually, I think she calls them crazy people who are burning their bras.

So there’s something, I don’t know, disappointing about someone who is associated with agency but seems to be fighting against the feminists of her own time, then to position her as something of a feminist icon. So maybe you could talk that through a little bit.

Pnina: Yes. I think these are very, very good questions. So, first of all, about her behavior during her kibbutz years. It’s not only that, but she also spoke against gender equality or, you know, put it down in the first speech she ever gave in Yiddish, because she didn’t speak Hebrew yet, to the first convention of the Labor party. 

So she did that. She did that as a political actor. That is what she wanted to do, was to carry favor with the powers that be. None of them were feminist. She was always afraid of a backlash. Always. And that fear of a backlash brought her to say things and associate with people who were not always in favor of feminism. She was a political person. She was a political actor. She understood that the powers that be are not in favor of equality. And so she was always walking between the lines. 

The other issue that you raise, which I think is very important and I’d like to talk about, I also talked about it in my book, is her disparaging comments about the feminist movement in the seventies.

Now this, this hear you hear the voice of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. You hear the voice of the Prime Minister, but also of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The feminist movement in the United States at a certain point in time in the second wave associated with and sympathized with the Palestinian issue.

You know, that was the time when the Palestinians and the Israelis were fighting for the support of public opinion, okay? And what she saw is that the feminist movement is is full of leftists. And the leftists were in favor of equality. They did not really look into the situation too deeply or in great detail, but rather they saw Israelis oppressing the Palestinians and therefore we are not going to support the Israelis. Rather, we are going to support the Palestinians. Okay. That was the feminist movement’s position, more or less. 

And she was very hurt by that and therefore she decided she was going to go against the feminist movement. So this was a political move and political maneuver that had nothing to do with her views about feminism. And I think here I would fault her. I think it was a huge mistake on her part, and she shouldn’t have done it.

A woman who is Prime Minister does not put down feminism because she came on the shoulders of feminism. So it was, you know, too bad.

Yehuda: Yeah, it was too bad.

I mean, this is I found to be kind of one of the revelations of the book, is when you talk about her interview with Oriana Fallaci in the seventies, in the same interview she disparaging feminism, where she also says, actually, referred to as the only man in the cabinet has been something that bothered her, that it wasn’t an acceptable, it actually got under her skin.

So I guess you’re arguing that’s the real Golda and the other Golda is politically calculated. But couldn’t somebody make, couldn’t somebody make the reverse argument? How do you know, like, you know, when you’re trying to read this history, how, what makes you feel the sense of confidence that Golda really represents a woman of, ultimately feminism without the name, even though she’s making all these political calculations in order to survive. 

Pnina: Yeah, I think that you should like, look at what she did. Look at her performance, you know? Here is a woman who rose to the top and was making decision at the top for herself and for the country. And in the international scene.

So what did she represent? She represented the best of feminism, a woman who takes her luck, her lot into her hands and is acting. And she was also a great role model. She was a mother, she was a grandmother. She could cook. She didn’t disparage cooking. Okay.

And she, at the same time, she made very, very important decisions about war and peace. So, you know, her life speaks to women’s liberation and women’s equality.

She also gave us a role model. And she talked about it many times of the tension between family and work and career. And she always insisted you can have both. Don’t think that you have to give up, you know, one of these very important activities in a woman’s life.

Yehuda: I wanna come back to that in a second, but, it strikes me that like, if we zoom out from Golda and feminism more generally, it seems as though there’s basically three boxes in feminism, to reduce something very complicated to try to get something simple. There’s rhetoric of feminism. There’s particular achievement and agency, and then there are particular political positions that advance women. 

And it kind of feels like Golda has basically one and a half. She has the box of achievement and she has some particular political positions that advance women. But she kind of refused to engage in the rhetoric of feminism. And on a different set of issues, you might argue that she took anti-feminist positions.

So it’s kind of, I don’t know, it’s not surprising in some sense that there are certain schools of feminist thought that would say you actually need all three in order to be a serious feminist. And I guess you’re trying to argue within this world of these different commitments, one can discern a more complex feminism out of Golda.

Is that a fair, is that a fair reading?

Pnina: It’s more or less, yeah. Okay. So first of all, I would like to correct by saying that’s from my perspective, which also is in my book, Golda is quoted many times, both in Parliament as she spoke to the Knesset, and in the cabinet for saying that women are 50% of the population, five zero, and therefore they are entitled to as much representation and a voice as men.

She said it many, many times. She was quoting Ada Fishman Maimon. But it’s important to understand that she was talking about it. For example, when she was talking about the right of women to serve in the military, which was a big issue in the early fifties, may become a big issue again. She always insisted women are 50% of the population. So in terms of the rhetoric she did that. 

In terms of agency, I think she proved to us that she is putting her money where her mouth is. And in terms of the political positions, her view always is, I mean the other rhetoric that she used always was, “The best is the enemy of the good.”

So she would always say, this is a phrase that she bought from David Remez, her famous lover. So the best is the enemy of the good. Let’s not climb the high tree of women’s liberation and women’s rights. Let’s just do it on the ground.

Yehuda: You know, one of the things that surprised me in the book that you know, which I, I really admire that you went there, cause it’s courageous to talk about it, is cause you mentioend one of her lovers, and there multiple, and they were men in high places, you engage with the question of her domesticity as you talked about before. And she wrote this essay, which I’d never heard of before called Borrowed Mothers, about the

Pnina: Exactly. It’s a very important essay.

Yehuda: About the complexity and nuances of the choices that women make. But you also talk about her appearance, which is a way of acknowledging that she’s actually an embodied human and you say she kind of gets mocked later in life for her dowdiness, but that it’s also an unfair characterization.

Did you have any ambivalence about talking about either the domesticity or Golda’s embodiment? Because it’s the thing that somebody could get mocked for, it’s almost dangerous to introduce it into the context of a political biography,

Pnina: Yeah, I, I actually, I thought about it a great deal. I also had arguments with it you know, with students when I was presenting my book in Israel, in workshops. I thought it was very important. The reason I thought it was very important is because many writers wrote about. I’m talking mostly about men, not only, but mostly about men.

And they translated the negative impressions that they had of Golda to her looks, which is again, is a misogynist idea and an ageist idea. You know, here’s an older woman, she doesn’t look too good, we can dump on her. And there was very little she could do. Because she understood that she’s not, you know, the attractive lady, you know, that Israelis might expect.

I don’t know, even this is not so strong. But I was ambivalent about it, but I decided to say to Israelis, look, don’t go there. Don’t go there. She was, what was good about her is that she was herself. The authenticity. She said, I’m myself, that’s the way I dress. Very simply. I don’t look too good. Even though she was quite beautiful and attractive when she was young. And I have these horrible shoes, which we can talk about if you want to ask me a question about that. You know, that was also an accident and her loyalty to her job.

And so I am I what I am. This is the strength in her. She did not try to change herself. She did not try to dye her hair. She did not try to, you know, go to the hairdresser every other day, like Sara Netanyahu does. She was herself, she felt comfortably as herself. 

I think, actually, that was a great moment, actually. A feminist moment, actually. She said to women, you can be yourself and still be Prime Minister. I think that’s very important.

Yehuda: One of the other myths that I found interesting that you kind of unmasked is, you know, she’s famous for having disparaged the Black Panthers, Hapanterim Hashchorim, a kind of version of Black Liberation, but Mizrachi, middle Eastern Liberation Movement. She’s famous for having said they’re not nice and what you pull the context to say that’s not what she said.

What she really says is, people who throw, I believe, Molotov cocktails, is not a nice thing to do, or they’re not nice. 

Pnina: Not nice. Yeah. Very firmly. 

Yehuda: So that’s interesting. It’s interesting that because the very phrase “they’re not nice” has an effect of signaling that, it’s its own kind of domestic line. It sounds unsophisticated. It sounds like a disparaging of people who come from Middle Eastern descent. It kind of sounds like that was basically the veil under which Golda was living at all times. Right. 

So I, I saw this as part of the feminist story. Is that too much of an overread, the way that she was characterized in this way?

Pnina: I think it would because, and thank you for asking this question. The person who said they are very nice was, Simchon, I don’t remember his first name, but he was a functionary at the labor Party. And he came to Golda at that time and said, you know, I met them, the Black Panthers, and actually they’re very nice.

And her immediate response was, they’re not nice. And so people pulled this out and said, Golda said about the Black Panthers that they’re not nice, but the context was, somebody else said it, it was somebody else who was, Shaul Simchon, I think was his name, he was a Moroccan activist in Mapai. He met them and told Golda they are nice people, and her response was, people who throw Molotov cocktails are not nice. So that’s the way it happened. 

Golda’s daughter was married to a Yemenite Jew, you know, Israeli. If you look at his picture, you can see the guy was quite dark. And she embraced him as a son and she promoted him and she poured love over him and the grandchildren.

There is no trace of discrimination there or prejudice. And I can tell you as a Sephardic Jew myself, as a Mizrachi Jew myself, I can detect prejudice. There is no trace of prejudice there.

I think that she was really, you know, from this perspective, she believed in egalitarianism.

Yehuda: So I guess I have a Pnina Lahav question next, which is, I think what might have been one of your earlier books, if not your first book, was about Agranat. Agrana was the justice of the Israeli Supreme Court in the 1970s, I believe, the Chief Justice.

And the thing he’s kind of most famous for is the Agranat commission following the Yom Kippur War, which for all intents and purposes, ends Golda Meir’s career. It indicts, her leadership, not totally directly, but results in major indictments and resignations of the IDF and the Yom Kippur war is viewed as kind of the end of Golda Meir’s political career.

So what’s going on? You know, Agranat, what’s the full circle story that you’re trying to do here of telling the story of Agranat, the Agranat Commission, and then going back to Golda, who’s essentially the object of that commission.

Pnina: Yeah. Israelis tend to blame Golda for the Yom Kippur War. It’s a theory that’s ingrained in the Israeli psyche, unfortunately. Okay. And I think what it does is it helps Israelis, I’m sorry to say, not look at themselves and ask themselves, are we also responsible for the Yom Kippur War. Why is that? For our arrogance and for our hubris and for our expectation that if the Arabs dare attack us based on the 67 War, if they attack us, we are going to smash them in 24 hours. 

That was the what the chief of staff always said, and she accepted it as given. So I think what’s important here to understand is, first of all, Golda, as I said before, was worried about the way that the military will treat her as a woman who never served in the military and was expected not to know anything about military matters.

So what she did is she surrounded herself with generals and she deferred to their judgment. And what I wanted to show is this deference to the judgment backfired during the Yom Kippur war because they assured her the intelligence in Israel, which were very admired, assured her that there is a very low likelihood of a war erupted.

And if a war were to erupt, we are going to be able to smash them in no time, and both of these were wrong, and, but she relied on their judgment. And when she would raise issues and say, you know, you know, I’m not really very happy about the Soviet delegations leaving, what is going on here? They would tell them, Golda, relax. You don’t know anything about it. Let us take care of this matter. Okay? So they were putting her down in a very indirect way. 

And that created a dynamic there in the cabinet that in methods of security, she should not intervene. Like a secret pact between herself and the cabinet.

And that’s what happened. And therefore, when the Agranat Commission is looking at the matter, the Agranat Commission concedes that she did everything she could, but it was quite limited to prevent the war. At the end, I’m saying, you know, I mean, there is of course this matter of diplomacy. Did she invest in enough diplomatic effort? That’s another matter. Okay. 

But the last few weeks before the war erupted and when the war erupted, the Agranat Commission was quite clear that she had a sense that something is going on. She was worried and the generals demanded that she deferred to their judgement. 

That’s the way it happened, and that’s a feminist issue, that a woman is not supposed to know anything about the military matters, and therefore she should keep her mouth shut. That was the message that she got.

Yehuda: Right, and it’s self-fulfilling, because then the result of the Yom Kippur War is, “Look, you can’t be in charge of military decision making, women can’t be in charge of military decision making,” and since then, as far as I know, I don’t think there’s ever been a woman who’s the Head of the Ministry of Defense, right, in Israel. I mean, it’s not much better here in the United States. 

Pnina: Absolutely.

Right, the perception that military matters are run by, and have to be led by men, but it comes, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. What’s particularly grotesque about it today, is that more than half, I believe, of the current Israeli ministers did not serve in the IDF. In some cases, in the case of Ben Gvir, who’s in charge of the police, he wasn’t allowed into the IDF because of his radical views. He was considered a danger. 

And so you have people who, like Golda, may not have had the quote unquote expertise or background in this line of work, but are effectively entitled to run the security apparatus in the state. So it feels like we haven’t made a whole lot of progress in 50 years since Golda.

Pnina: That’s true. Yeah. What the chief of police recently, I heard him in a speech, said about Ben Gvir, is not only was he not recruited into the military and knows nothing about the military, but also he never ran even a kiosk, the chief of police said, you know, a kiosk, he never ran anything. And now what he does is it interferes with the operations of the police. That’s the scary thing.

Whereas Golda, if you look at Golda and you look at her trajectory, she was involved in organizations and actions from the beginning. That is, from as soon as she joined the Histadrut. So she was familiar with various complex organizations and bureaucratic operations. That was the kind of people who were recorded into the Israeli cabinet at the time, whereas today, what you see, so she didn’t serve in the Army. That’s true. But she know how things were run. She knew how the Mossad was run. 

And that’s what we don’t have today. It’s the experience the people in power had in those days

And the experience that people in power don’t have today. They have ideologies. But they don’t know how to run it.

Yehuda: This is the generalized decline of both of our societies, America and Israel, around the notion of statesmenship.

Pnina: Yeah, exactly.

Yehuda: The notion that there’s some discipline that is sometimes about expertise and sometimes about disposition, more than it is about expertise that is connected to government and, you know, all of the ways in which that can turn into forms of elitism and stratified society. So it’s not like perfect on its own, but where we are seems to be in a totally different planet now. 

Now, when we were communicating before the show, you also mentioned that one of the things that’s striking to you about Golda and her leadership is the ways that she’s the antithesis of the kind of corrupt politics of today. Netanyahu is associated with pretty significant corruption trials that are ongoing. 

This is a live question in the past 24 hours because his own attorney general has now warned him, he had to sign an agreement before becoming Prime Minister that he’s only Prime Minister on condition that he does not interfere with the judicial reform processes because it’s a form of self-dealing. 

If he facilitates a bunch of a court system that is gonna review his own indictment, then the whole thing is a corrupt enterprise. And you, you see Golda as kind of the antithesis to this. And I believe you have something to share on it. Yeah.

Pnina: Yeah. So, yeah. So thank you very much for asking me about it. So, I just want to say this is correct. So if you look at the activities of the legislature in Israeli legislature in the last few days, they are passing a law that permits the reception of gifts and the reception of donations, very lucrative donations. And thereby they are encouraging corruption and undue influence on Israeli politics. 

Golda stayed away from corruption. She was not the only one, of course, but Golda represents another generation, a generation of very modest people who did not try to use the their positions in an act to promote themselves.

And the reason I wanted you yo ask me a question about it is I found a letter in the Israeli archives from October 56. That is the Sinai War. Okay. She was minister of foreign affairs. She was in Israel, in the United States fighting Eisenhower and John Foster Dallas, who were insistant that Israel withdraw from the Sinai.

And here is a letter from Teddy Kollek who was then CEO of the Prime Minister’s office. And he says, for proletarian reasons, I’m translating, for proletarian reasons, the Minister of Foreign Affairs decided this time to come to the United States by herself, meaning she’s not being accompanied by anybody.

Maybe when she travels again, she will be sufficiently experienced to understand that it’s not exaggerated to take a secretary with her who has experience about work in the United States. And therefore, despite, he says to the Israeli council, despite the limitations on manpower in the ministry, please find the appropriate person who could help Golda during her time in the United States. 

So what you see is, here is Golda. She does everything by herself. She doesn’t take a butler. She doesn’t say take a secretary. She expects herself to do everything plus the regular work. And there are lots of other examples of Golda coming back from the United States and declaring all the staff that she brings with her as gifts to her grandchildren, et cetera.

Very, very modest. Very humble. In contradistinction to, if you wish, the life Netanyahu leads with the 80,000 shekels that his wife just got from the parliament, 80,000 shekels for her wardrobe. 

You know, we were talking, you were mentioning the issue of appearance, okay? Golda’s appearance was very humble. She did not dye hair. She did not go to the hairdresser. And compare it with Sara Netanyahu, whose blonde hair, everybody who knows a little bit about dying your hair knows how much money it should cost to have this beautiful blonde hair. Now you should be thinking about it.

Yehuda: Yeah, if you’re a woman in politics you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You’re gonna be criticized, 

Pnina: Well, not exactly, not exactly. You have to know the limits. It’s a question, what you said before of, uh, you know, statemanship or compromise or whatever. You have to do it in the right way. And not go overboard. And maybe Sara Netanyahu goes overboard and Golda did not go overboard, but Golda really did not want to use the public funds for anything that would improve her situation. That was the point.

Yehuda: I mentioned earlier that it strikes me that a lot, it seems kind of obvious, a lot of the reasons why Merav Michaeli in particular is being blamed for the Labor party loss in the last election, even though you can, it’s literally like, it’s just a downhill arrow for the Labor party since 1992, and there are so many variables as to why the political system has changed, is because she’s a woman. And because of the ways in which she is unlike Golda, very explicitly a new wave feminist, the way she talks, the way she dresses, the way she shows up, her radical ideas about family and so forth. 

So that’s data point number one. Data point number two is, it feels as it feels as though, in general, Labor party, but also left more generally, has spent the last couple of decades less on winning elections and more on getting out of jail free through the Supreme Court. So that’s why, that’s partly why post-Barak, the right has been focused on kind of closing that door. We know we can beat them at the polls, and now we can beat them entirely by, you know, getting out of jail free. 

So why don’t you, you’ve been generous with your time, but I would love if you could give some, what are the key takeaways that you would want Israeli politicians, who might look towards Golda as a model of both reclaiming power, but also getting out of this suggestion that just because somebody fails, they’re a woman. What are the key takeaways that you would want people to kind of hear from the legacy of Golda Meir that could apply towards Israeli leadership today?

Pnina: Well, that’s a, it’s a very difficult question to answer, right? It’s maybe the million dollars question. There is a danger, we’ve seen it in the United States to, of backlash to feminism, and the backlash to feminism can be very, very cruel and very difficult on the woman. So how you navigate it is not an easy answer.

She chose compromise and giving in to the male dominance. Maybe this was not the right idea, but when you look at what Merav Michaeli did, that, maybe that’s not a good idea either. To Merav Michaeli’s benefit, I would say, that Merav Michaeli managed to change the Israeli language. That is, that whereas Israeli language until Merav Michaeli was male-oriented and male dominated, you always said he, and he’s doing this and he’s doing that.

And Israel is a very gendered language, so it’s much easier to see it in the Hebrew, Merav Michaeli brought back the woman. Okay? So when she says he, she also says he or she. And I don’t know if you remember that Bennett, when he became Prime Minister, he also used this trick. The trick comes from Merav. And now when I look at the newspapers, I see it all the time. You, they absorbed it, they accepted it. 

So this is a great time, from my opinion, you know, that the language has changed as a result of Merav’s contribution. And that eventually will make a difference. But these are very, very slow processes. But it was a fear of backlash. And it’s the fear of backlash that she was experiencing, Golda.

I also, you know, I may also say this. Golda was minister of foreign affairs and knew about ministry of foreign affairs, and she understood the art and the practice. And she was trying to cater also to the United States leadership, the Senate and the Congress.

And so sometimes she would say things that would please a particular senator or would please a particular congressperson. And we didn’t always like it. So some of some of her actions and her speeches should be understood in the American context rather than in the Israeli context.

And I think that’s also very important. She had her legs, her feet in two cultures and was moving back and forth.

Yehuda: I thought I would just conclude with this one quote that you have in the book from Golda, which I thought captured so much of what you’ve talked about today, which, in which there’s a certain conservatism, to Golda, a certain conservatism, but it’s rooted in self-confidence, which is kind of an interesting thing like, you know, don’t just look at appearance, look at competence. Don’t, you know, I’m here, don’t pass me by. Forget about everything else, and I can be in charge. 

And she has this line where she says, you quoted in the book: “What I condemn in the young is their presumption in saying that everything you’ve done is wrong, so we’ll redo it all from the beginning. Well, if they were to do it all over again better, I wouldn’t even mind. But in many cases, they’re no better than us old people and can be even worse.”

And I kind of, I kind of love that.

Pnina: Yeah. She was in the midst of a generational transition in Israel, and she was responding to that. And she was hurt because she was a revolutionary in her time. And suddenly after 30 years, she finds herself in the position of a dinosaur. A person who is not in touch out of touch with the population. And the young generation not valuing and appreciating what she has done. She was very hurt by that.

Yehuda: Well, thank you so much to all of you for listening to our show, and special thanks to my guest today, Professor Pnina Lahav. The book is called The Only Woman in the Room. You can find it anywhere.

Identity Crisis was produced by David Zvi Kalman, was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance for Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by Socalled, Maital Friedman is Vice President for communications and creative. 

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically about a week after every episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online

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