New York Times Arts
The New York Times

March 16, 2003

Always a Lioness, Protecting Her Beloved Israel

In "Golda's Balcony," William Gibson's one-woman play about Golda Meir, the title character is no longer prime minister of Israel as she speaks to posterity: `

"The picture you have of me as Mommile Golda, who makes chicken soup for her soldiers, it's a nice picture and I do make chicken soup, but let's empty it all out for keeps, right now. At the bottom of the pot is blood.''

Meir, who was elected in 1969, when she was 70, describes the extremes she faced as the protector of Israel and as a mother who hated war. The New York premiere of the play, directed by Scott Schwartz, with Tovah Feldshuh as Meir, opens at Manhattan Ensemble Theater on March 26.

Shimon Peres, a former prime minister of Israel and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, remembers Meir in this article.


FOR most of her days, Golda Meir was not favorably inclined toward me. She believed I was conducting my own independent foreign policy, with disregard for the Foreign Ministry, which she headed at the time. It was only in the wake of the Yom Kippur war in 1973, during the time she served as prime minister, that her attitude toward me changed, arising from the fact that I was the main anchor of her government's policy. We drew even closer after she left government in 1974 and I became head of the Labor Party. I used to seek her advice, which she gave wholeheartedly.

I knew she had lived through a distressing period. The Yom Kippur war, the most devastating of all the wars of Israel, shook her to the core. When

many and mighty fell apart, she confronted the situation steadfast as a rock and as brave as a lioness. At least outwardly. In her heart of hearts, of course,
she never recovered from the torment of having been

Aaron Leichter

Associated Press
Tovah Feldshuh, left portrays the former prime minister of Israel Golda Meir, right in 1973, in the one-woman play "Golda's Balcony" by William Gibson.
caught off guard by a cruel and surprise attack for which we paid dearly. She was also consumed by ill health. In seclusion and in private, in the small hours of the night, she fought a terminal disease with fortitude. But to the eyes of the world, none was prouder or stronger than she - revealing not a trace of despondency, never succumbing to grief or pain.

With a play about Golda Meir
about to open, an old associate
and sometime adversary recalls
the leader and the woman.

I saw her the day before she died in 1978. President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt had sent me a message with a request that I transmit it to Prime Minister Menachem Begin. I went to consult with Golda. She was confined to her bed at Hadassah Hospital. Generally, when I used to visit her, she would set everything else aside and welcome me immediately, expressing herself in her distinctive straightforward manner, punctuated by humorous sarcasm. (When I told her that Begin had been awarded the Nobel Prize for peace, which he shared with Sadat, she retorted flippantly that Begin "deserved an Oscar, not a Nobel Prize.")

On this occasion, her security guard told me she had asked that I wait. It took about 20 minutes before I was admitted to her room. She ended our lively conversation by recommending that I pass on Sadat's note to Begin. (There had been a minor breakdown in the negotiations between Egypt and Israel, and Sadat hinted that the crisis was not serious.) I left the room and asked the security guard why it was that she had asked me to wait.

He replied that Golda had felt unwell and did not want me to see her in that state. She decided to make herself up so that I would not notice how ill she was. As I said, this was the day before she died.

Golda was admired even before she attained high office, and admiration for her did not cease after she left it. All her life she pushed toward specific goals, toward objectives that were sometimes divisive. She attempted to alter reality, but she never ran away from it. She left the United States and came to Israel. She left the city and joined a kibbutz. She abandoned all bourgeois tendencies and thus necessarily became part of the labor movement.

Moreover, Golda dealt with setbacks - lack of work, sometimes lack of bread and at times lack of even an apartment. She ran various campaigns, some of which led to rifts; she was at the center of heated discussions; she headed a war administration, acted as supreme commander during a bitter time for Israel and also embarked on peace negotiations. These were demanding and controversial situations that raised many dilemmas. But at no time was her prominence and greatness ever in question. Besides, she was a master at radiating personal strength and concealing sorrow.

Yet, more than any other prime minister, Golda revealed an aspect that leaders generally make apparent only to their biographers - the human side. She reminded us that we are responsible for our children and are indebted to our parents. That not to kill is also a strategic goal. What she gave to politics was a sensitive soul, not just an incisive mind.

She was blessed by a keen sense of observation and was an excellent listener. In public, she was quick to discern between friendly advice and motives of rivalry. She could sit and listen for hours, sifting the chaff from the wheat. But taking a neutral stand in relation to people or situations was not in her nature.

She was also highly articulate. This was in evidence in whatever language she spoke, be it Hebrew, English or Yiddish; and in whatever forum - in private conversation or on a public stage, in person or on screen. Irrelevant, too, was the makeup of her audience - an African or an American, a kibbutznik or a millionaire. Her word was magical: it had the power to tear down barriers, to open hearts and to penetrate deeply into the souls of all those in attendance.

When Golda opened her mouth to speak, a metamorphosis took place. Her small physical stature would recede, giving way to an imposing and powerful persona, which generated a climate of confidence and faith, creating a world where excitement replaced fear. Without wasting words and doing away with written notes, she would make her political stand clear in a few simple words: declaring, "We do not wish to rule over a million Arabs who do not want us to"; or sarcastically pronouncing, "The Arabs have become so rich, they can buy anything - even anti-Semitism"; or again, when she remarked that "we shall never forgive the Arabs for forcing us to educate our children to fight them back."

At the same time, the unequivocal voice of peace and motherhood could be eloquently expressed, as when she turned to Sadat in the Knesset and said, ``No mother wants to bring a child into the world fearing that he may fall in battle.''

In times of crises, she showed not a sign of human weakness. She was one to break crises, not to be broken by them. She stood at the head of one of Israel's fiercest battles, the Yom Kippur war. It was an era when hearsay preceded bad news, and bad news was rife. At a period when Israel was caught unaware by a surprise military assault, she symbolized everything that was the opposite of despair: exuding inner peace, contagious faith, confidence that no matter how critical the crisis, it could be overcome.

Throughout her life, Golda was an exemplary mother and an outstanding leader who never feared battle but never ceased to strive for peace. Because she shunned compromise and remained true to herself, she became world renowned, admired by millions and living proof that it is possible to rise to unparalleled heights without jeopardizing one's principles.

The words of Ezekiel could not better encapsulate her essence. "And say, What is thy mother? A lioness: She lay down among lions, she nourished her cubs among young lions."