Helen Mirren brilliantly portrays Golda Meir in a new biopic. But few people know the full, epic story of the woman who became Israel’s only female Prime Minister at the age of 70

At lunchtime, the bombs began to fall. Explosions thundered and fireballs roared across the Golan Heights – the Levantine region seized by Israel after it was attacked by Syria in 1967 – as hundreds of Syrian MiG airplanes dropped their deadly payloads. Some 1,400 of Damascus’s tanks had massed for the invasion, against just 180 for the Israeli defenders.

To the south-west, across the Suez Canal, a terrifying horde of 600,000 Egyptian soldiers, supported by 550 aircraft and a further 2,000 tanks, stood ready to massacre fewer than 500 Israeli troops stationed on the Sinai Peninsula, sharing a pitiful three tanks between them.

It was October 6, 1973: Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat, had declared that he was willing to ‘sacrifice a million Egyptian soldiers’ to recover Sinai, a territory that his country, like Syria and the Golan Heights, had lost to Israel six years earlier.

Egyptian troops began crossing the Canal in rubber dinghies, supported by fearsome air and artillery fire. Anticipating an assault one day from its hostile neighbour, Israel had constructed the spectacular ‘Bar Lev Line’: a 60ft sand barrier defended by 16 outposts bristling with weaponry.

This had been calculated to withstand at least 24 hours of pummelling by explosives from a future invader.

Golda Meir (pictured) is portrayed by Helen Mirren in the new biopic of her life

But the Egyptians blasted it to nothing in fewer than five hours, after deploying high-pressure water cannon to wash away the ramparts.

As Cairo’s troops surged across the border, Israel’s prime minister, like Winston Churchill some 30 years earlier, knew that her country faced an existential threat.

On two fronts, the fledgling state of Israel had been caught unawares by a combined Egyptian-Syrian army – lavishly funded by Soviet roubles – and collectively the size of Nato’s entire European forces.

Within 24 hours of the double invasion, 100,000 Egyptian troops and 1,000 tanks had crossed the Suez Canal into Israel-occupied Sinai, shattering forever the Middle Eastern democracy’s aura of American-backed invincibility. The country’s future stood in peril.

This autumn marks 50 years since the 19-day Yom Kippur War. Capturing this pivotal period in world history, a feted new biopic – called simply Golda – is being released of Israel’s then-leader, Golda Meir.

She is played, thanks to considerable prosthetics and make-up, by Dame Helen Mirren. (Intriguingly, Mirren has so far avoided the row faced by her fellow Hollywood star Bradley Cooper, who attracted widespread – and in my view, utterly unwarranted – criticism for sporting a huge fake nose to play the Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein.)

When we hear the phrase Iron Lady, we Brits instinctively think of Baroness Thatcher. The label was originally pinned, however, on Meir, who at the time of the Yom Kippur War was already 75.

But where Thatcher sought to prove herself by refusing to play up to female stereotypes, Meir made hay with them. She was known as the matriarch of her nation and revelled in the caricature.

The plot will focus on the high-stakes responsibilities and decisions that Golda Meir, also known as the 'Iron Lady of Israel, played by Helen Mirren

The plot will focus on the high-stakes responsibilities and decisions that Golda Meir, also known as the ‘Iron Lady of Israel, played by Helen Mirren 

The ‘Jewish grandmother’ is a comic cliche, of course, but to many Israelis, Meir truly embodied that figure: scolding, affectionate, tough and wisely aphoristic. As the Washington Post aptly put it in its obituary for her in 1978, she ‘possessed the stern, unyielding morality of an Old Testament judge’.

When Meir became Israel’s fourth prime minister in 1969, she enjoyed an approval rating of almost 90 per cent. That, however, crumbled like the Bar Lev Line. Politically, at least, the Yom Kippur War was a disaster. In the end Israel prevailed against what had seemed insurmountable odds, but Meir was widely blamed for an abject failure to prepare for the conflict.

In 1974, the year after the war, she resigned, her reputation in tatters. Israel eventually agreed to return Sinai to Egypt in 1979 as part of a peace deal which still holds today, though it retains control of the Golan Heights.

So who was this trailblazing, epoch-defining Zionist, the third woman to lead a country in the 20th Century (after Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike and India’s Indira Gandhi) and still the only female ever to have run a Middle Eastern nation?

Golda Mabovitch was born in 1898 in Kyiv, then part of the Russian Empire – often a mercilessly antisemitic place. Her earliest memory, she said, was of her father hurriedly boarding up the family’s front door amid rumours of an imminent pogrom. Moshe Mabovitch, a near-penniless carpenter, and his wife Bluma were often only a few meals from starvation. The couple had known appalling tragedy: five of their eight children, four boys and a girl, had perished in infancy.

In 1906, when Golda was eight, the family escaped the prejudice and privations of the shtetl and emigrated to Wisconsin – though Golda never lost her taste for sweetened black Russian tea. (She was also a lifelong chain-smoker.) The move proved a wise decision: many of their friends and neighbours’ families would go on to be murdered in the Holocaust.

Possessed of a stolid, pudgy face and heavy-set eyes, Golda later wrote: ‘Not being beautiful was the true blessing. Not being beautiful forced me to develop my inner resources. The pretty girl has a handicap to overcome.’

An early example of her extraordinary self-belief came when she flouted her parents’ command to leave school at 14, begin working and find a husband. She had graduated middle school as her class valedictorian but parents Moshe and Bluma were unimpressed.

‘It doesn’t pay to be too clever,’ her father warned her. ‘Men don’t like smart girls.’

Following a furious row, the teenage Golda took a train across the US to live with her married sister, Sheyna Korngold, nine years her senior, in Denver, Colorado. There she enrolled in high school.

The Korngolds were part of Denver’s intellectual class and the young Golda listened rapt to invigorating debates on Zionism, socialism, literature, women’s suffrage, trade unionism and the other Left-wing topics.

‘To the extent that my own future convictions were shaped and given form,’ she later candidly wrote, ‘those talk-filled nights in Denver played a considerable role.’

After reconciling with her parents, she returned to Milwaukee two years later to finish her schooling. But while in Denver she had met the man who would later become her husband, Morris Meyerson, a sign painter and ardent socialist, with whom she had two children.

Initially Golda worked as a teacher in Milwaukee until, in 1921 and electrified with visions of building a free Jewish state, she and Morris moved to live on a kibbutz (an agricultural Israeli settlement), in what was then known as Mandatory Palestine.

A trade-union fireband, in 1934 Golda joined the executive committee of Israel’s equivalent of the TUC.

By the time Israel signed its Declaration of Independence in 1948, establishing itself as a country in the aftermath of the Second World War, she had become a celebrated figure on the domestic stage – and was one of the signatories to that declaration.

Within a year, she was elected to the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, and was immediately appointed Labour Minister, then Foreign Minister some years later.

Since Israel’s state officials were required to adopt Hebrew surnames, she abandoned her married surname, Meyerson, and took up the Hebrew ‘Meir’, which means ‘one who shines’.

Yet tragedy soon struck. In 1966, Golda was diagnosed with lymphoma and was forced to resign as a minister. Yet she remained an MP and, when prime minister Levi Eshkol died in 1969, Meir, then 71, was an obvious candidate to succeed him, despite her age and health. Being a septuagenarian, she said, ‘is no sin but it’s not a joke either… Old age is like a plane flying through a storm. Once you’re aboard, there’s nothing you can do. You can’t stop the plane, you can’t stop the storm, you can’t stop time. So one might as well accept it calmly, wisely.’

Her first major test as leader occurred three years later, at the Munich Olympics.

On September 5, 1972, eight members of the terror group Black September infiltrated the Olympic Village to reach the Israeli athletes.

They immediately killed two members of the Israeli Olympic team, seizing a further nine hostages. Their brutality was unrestrained: weightlifter Yossef Romano, who was using crutches after suffering an injury, was shot and then castrated.

As she stood in the Knesset, Meir’s voice shook with fury and indignation. She angrily denounced ‘these lunatic acts of terrorism, abduction and blackmail, which tear asunder the web of international life’ and vowed to do ‘whatever is necessary’ to rescue the hostages.

The murderous siege lasted 20 hours and ended only when West German police attempted a botched rescue. The terrorists realised they were under attack, and although the police killed five plotters, all the hostages were slaughtered at point-blank range.

The monstrous cruelty of this atrocity, along with the fact it took place in the Olympic Village –intended as a sanctuary for the world’s athletes, where politics are put to one side – stunned the world.

But what came next enraged Meir still more. The three surviving terrorists were arrested, yet within a month, they were freed by West Germany in what she saw as a craven and immoral hostage-exchange following a hijacking.

Meir was appalled by the speed with which the international community seemed to forget the murders. She authorised Mossad, Israel’s feared national-intelligence agency, systematically to assassinate anyone who had been involved: an operation code-named ‘Wrath of God’. The story of these assassinations eventually became the subject of Munich, Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated 2005 film.

As prime minister she met such world leaders as President Richard Nixon and Pope Paul VI in pursuit of peace, and in 1973 she hosted a hugely symbolic meeting with the West German chancellor, Willy Brandt, in Jerusalem – the first visit by a German Chancellor in office to Israel.

But fate had other plans for her. That October, when Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked her country on Yom Kippur, Meir found herself an elderly war leader. Her face was beamed on news bulletins across the world as billions of people watched yet another conflict raging in the Middle East.

The day before the attack, the Israeli military had informed Meir that Syrian forces were assembling on the Golan Heights. Meir believed the meaning of this was obvious: war was imminent.

We now know that King Hussein of Jordan had secretly warned her that Egypt and Syria were planning to attack. Hussein had met Egypt’s leader Sadat and Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad two weeks earlier, then travelled to Israel to relay his suspicions.

But all her military advisers, including Israel’s intelligence services, had believed the operations at the border were a false alarm. Surely the Arab states would not risk another war so soon after the 1967 rout? And so, against her better instincts, Meir did not immediately mobilise the army. (Since 1948, Israel has relied on a large number of on-call reservists.)

It was only once Syrian troops crossed the border at Golan that Meir hurriedly demanded a full-scale mobilisation of Israel’s armed forces.

Like so much that takes place in the Middle East, the Yom Kippur War was a proxy battle, between the era’s two superpowers, America and the USSR. Both supplied arms to their respective allies, even if it took President Richard Nixon several days to promise Meir that ‘all your aircraft and tank losses will be replaced’.

Thanks to Israeli military tactics, the Egyptians’ and Syrians’ large initial gains were soon reversed. Israeli troops advanced to within 20 miles of Damascus and shelled the capital city. On October 25, a UN-brokered ceasefire was agreed.

Yet the price in blood was heavy. Up to 2,800 Israelis died and perhaps 8,800 were wounded – a devastating loss for such a small country – while the Arab nations suffered 18,500 dead and 35,000 wounded.

Meir’s career is often said to have ended in failure. Following elections, driven in part by the public’s anger over the failures in the war, her governing coalition could not muster a majority the following year.

Four years later, on December 8, 1978, she died of lymphatic cancer in Jerusalem at the age of 80.

But she was decidedly not a failure. She was not to blame for the war and as prime minister during the Munich massacre she was decisive, speaking for Israel on the world stage and ensuring that vengeance was swift.

‘All I want to do is play great women and Golda was one of the greatest,’ said Helen Mirren in Jerusalem last month.

Now a new generation will come to learn about the triumphs and disasters of this remarkable leader’s extraordinary life.

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