From Pogrom to Power; Reviewing Golda Meir’s ‘My Life’

To know my mother is to know and love history. From the Biafran-Nigerian war to the Watergate scandal, she regaled us with stories from across the world. Evenings in my house were sometimes pleasant. Sometimes because most evenings, mother slept off on the couch, tired and sore from shuttling between work and grad school. It didn’t help that we lived so far away from both locations. But in all of these, she would occasionally find the strength for her stories. Of all the stories she told, her favourite was the Israeli-Arab wars. She regaled us with stories of Moshe Dayan, the one-eyed general, and Golda Meir, Israel’s first and only female prime minister. So, this year, after many years, I chanced upon Golda’s autobiography.

The autobiography opens with Golda’s childhood in Russia which was characterized by abject poverty, antisemitism, and a dream of a better world in America. I think it sad when one’s memory of childhood is filled with recollections of hunger, a feeling of being different, and a constant fear of a pogrom. Through her lens, we meet Sheyna, Golda’s revolutionary elder sister who at age 14, joined the socialist-Zionist movement though outlawed in Kiev. As I read through this chapter, I draw parallels with pockets of movements we’ve had in Nigeria. Movements are always spontaneous; however, their sustenance is ensured when a leadership structure is put in place. Sheyna believed nothing in life should be left to chance. It wasn’t enough to believe in something, having the stamina to meet obstacles and overcome them ranked higher than belief. 

The next chapter tells of Golda’s move to Milwaukee, USA, conflict with her parents, and introduction to politics. The conflict was over her desire to pursue a profession to which her father replied, ‘It doesn’t pay to be too clever; men don’t like clever girls’. This is a reminder of how the world has evolved though a certain demography still holds this maleficent belief to be true. As the conflict continued, Golda left home to live with Sheyna whom I found to be a more interesting character (at least in their younger years). Her stoic philosophy was to never be excited, to always be calm and to act cooly. I believe our lives have all been predestined. Hence, it was not a coincidence that Golda’s move to Denver exposed her to a political community where the members spent hours discussing socialism, literature, and Zionism.

Chapter 3 describes Golda’s active participation in politics beginning from fundraisers for the earlier returnees and soldiers to formally joining the Labour Zionist Party eventually leading to her ‘return’ to Palestine. I paused at this chapter to think how bold and revolutionary for a young girl of about 20 years to move across continents for a cause she believed in. Is there a middle ground for idealism?  

In Chapter 4, we see the difficulty of pioneering a movement in a desert. The returnees were met with hunger and an intense lack of resources. The rest of the book focuses on Golda’s public life in Palestine, Israel, and the rest of the world. The book dives into the models of development used in Tel Aviv like the establishment of Kibbutz where men and women jostled for equal burdens, sharing the tasks equally. She explored other subplots like her marriage (and its demise), parenthood, and feminism. On feminism, Golda asked the age-long question, can women have it all? – being a wife, mother, and stateswoman. She gave her feminist manifesto which she described as not being about bra-burning, hatred for men, or a campaign against motherhood but equipping women and girls with skills to enable them to contribute to their society.

I find that the argument for and against feminism has largely remained unchanged over the years. She notes (and I strongly agree) that women need not be better than everyone before being treated as equals. She recalled being described as a man in the cabinet prompting me to recall how powerful women have historically been called men (by men). All through the book, one can see Golda’s constant struggle with guilt over her absence from her children.

My life is filled with lessons for nation-builders. While many will not experience the establishment of a state like Israel, the principles remain the same. For the pioneers, impossibility was nothing. Irrespective of the hardship or danger they faced, the thought of leaving (Japa) never crossed their mind. It would be hypocritical of me to juxtapose their struggle for a new nation with the Japa movement. Nigerians have often come back to the country when the nation experienced an economic upturn. What is largely lacking though is a national consensus on what growth and development mean to us. The lack of political access for young people, rule of law, and justice will always be a drawback to nation-building. Japa is not all doom, all through the book, we see how the diasporan Jews sent bonds and remittances for the new nation.

As one who is enthusiastic about quality education, I drew inspiration from Israel’s first minister of education. His goal was for all Israeli children aged 4-18 to receive free education of the highest quality entertaining no arguments about budget shortfalls. I contrast this with the scene in Nigeria where only 250bn is allocated to basic universal education whereas lawmakers padded the budget with 5 times the budgetary allocation.

The book covers Israel’s refusal to kowtow to Hitler, their disappointment with the UK, and the lifeline given to them by the USA. The climax of the book was the recognition of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent return of exiled Jews from around the world. Of all the returnees, the Yemenite Jews were the most striking to me. Yemenite Jews weren’t allowed to be educated, so they learned to read by reading the bible. Due to the rarity of books, they learned to read upside-down, from every angle the books were held. Their story exemplifies tenacity, perseverance, and a can-do spirit. Golda’s tenure as the labour minister was herculean. She was tasked with providing social welfare to returning Jews while creating employment opportunities for them.

On Africa, Golda noted how the rich lived in staggering affluence with a great contrast to the poor. She had similar reservations as Lee Kuan Yew had about Nkrumah who both described as full of flowery and unrealistic speeches and who was chiefly concerned about being the symbol of African liberation (sic-Azikiwe). Israel’s attempt to build strategic partnerships and allies in Africa did not pan out as they envisaged. Perhaps the most evident sign of Mrs Meir’s influence in Africa is in the hundreds (maybe thousands) of babies named after her.

To do an in-depth review of this autobiography would be tantamount to writing an abridged version of the book itself so I will be drawing the curtain here. However, for everyone interested in history, politics, and nation-building, I 100% recommend this book.

Be sure to check this post and this review

  • Chukwuma Nwokoye
    Posted at 20:12h, 14 April Reply

    Wao, I love the lessons drawn from the book, I think these kinds of books should be recommended for our youths, new political appointees and elected officials.
    Dear Chizzy m, perhaps you can do the abridged version, it will have its audience. Keep reading and giving your insights, it will get to the right places and inspire the changez we need.

  • Jewel Kenechukwu
    Posted at 15:49h, 02 May Reply

    Wow…..very well written review. Felt like I was already ready the book. Welldone girl!

    • Chizzy Nwokoye
      Posted at 21:58h, 08 May Reply

      Thanks Jewel
      I understand the book is a lot so going through all the pages might take forever.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the review

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