Months before her death in 1978, Golda Meir gave an interview on Israeli TV. After the program ended, the cameras kept rolling. One of her interviewers lit a cigarette for her, while the other asked if she ever had time to read a book or watch a movie during her five-year tenure as the fourth prime minister of Israel.
“No one can hear us, so I can say it,” she said. “There wasn’t a month of peace and quiet on the battlefront or the political front to enjoy life as any civilized person deserves.”
So opens the new documentary, Golda, directed by Sagi Bornstein, Udi Nir and Shani Rozanes, which debuts at the Hot Docs cinema in Toronto on Jan. 3. The 90-minute film relies on this surprisingly lengthy off-air interview, plus historical footage and commentary by scholars and associates, to provide a comprehensive, if overly critical, examination of the legacy of one of the world’s first elected female leaders.
The filmmakers have good reason to be critical. A dark side looms over every significant moment of Meir’s leadership. She was ostensibly a feminist icon, but in reality, she rejected gender politics altogether and appointed no women to her cabinet. She rose through the ranks of the Labor party with huge left-wing support, but when she met with social-justice activists from the Israeli Black Panthers, she was blunt and dismissive, further alienating them from mainstream Israeli society.
And then, of course, came the Munich Olympics, in which pro-Palestinian terrorists held hostage and murdered 11 Israeli athletes, and the Yom Kippur War, which many Israelis felt the government wasn’t prepared for. The war, in particular, caused Meir to resign from office after five years.
The directors harp on Meir’s narrow-mindedness and arrogance – she had the option of engaging in peace talks with the Egyptians months before war broke out, but chose not to trust them. The newly elected Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, offered a peace deal if Israel returned to its pre-1967 borders, specifically so Egypt could regain the Sinai Peninsula. Meir refused.
“She did suggest a political settlement based on compromises,” Hagai Zoref, from the Israel State Archives, said in the film. He added, however, that “she never gave the impression that it was very important to her.”
Years later, after thousands died in the Yom Kippur War, Menachem Begin, the first prime minister from the right-wing Likud party, would share the Nobel Peace Prize with Sadat for enacting a very similar deal.
Meir’s stance on the West Bank and Gaza was similarly hawkish. She preferred to keep the regions at bay, maintain the status quo and slowly build Israeli settlements, despite international opposition.
“I don’t need an additional Arab population with the Arab world that surrounds us. It would be an irredenta like no other in history,” she revealed in the off-air interview.
“But I don’t want it to be part of Israel. I don’t want them to be Israeli citizens. I don’t want, like in Lebanon, to wake up in the morning and count: was it a Muslim or a Christian born last night? Then they say, ‘Oh, she’s against Arabs.’ I am not against Arabs. But people are lying if they say they don’t care whether we’re a majority or a minority.”
Audiences unfamiliar with these events would do well to read up on them beforehand, as the film moves briskly, at times feeling more like a history lecture than cinema. Rather than use her biography as a chronological narrative spine, the directors flip back and forth between her personal story and the 1978 interview, using her comments to introduce each chapter.
It’s an engaging plot device, but also a confusing one, especially for anyone unfamiliar with the facts. But for those who follow Israeli history, Golda is a fascinating and personal dive into one of the country’s most storied political figures.