The "Golda" Standard of Female Leadership
I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate Israel's 60th birthday: Rhoda as Golda, reminding us all why and how the Jewish state was founded -- and why Israel, today, can never fall to her enemies.
Valerie Harper has already made Golda's Balcony come alive on stage, but the onetime Mary Tyler Moore sidekick has now taken her impeccable portrayal of Golda Meir to the silver screen. Harper's husband, Tony Cacciotti, produced the film version of William Gibson's play, which screened recently at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills at an event sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and Stand With Us.
As I watched the life of the former prime minister unfold onscreen, I chuckled at the thought of how our 2008 obsession with identity politics seems to forget the great leaders -- who just happened to be women -- who have long had the attention of the rest of the world. After all, Oprah is not the most powerful woman in the world; that woman is, as ranked by Forbes, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But Merkel is a conservative. Meir fought for Israel's survival in the Yom Kippur War. Even Condoleezza Rice's term as secretary of state has not been hailed as a great advance for women and/or African-Americans. So is a leader who happens to be a women only hailed as advancement if she pursues a feminist agenda outlined by NOW or the Code Pink sisters?
It raises serious questions when Ms. magazine last month refused to run an American Jewish Congress ad hailing Israel's powerful women leaders: Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, with the words "This is Israel."
Ms. told the Jerusalem Post that the ad was rejected for being too political, as two of the three women were from the Kadima party (which happens to also be the ruling party, hence making the magazine's argument that the ad was unacceptable partisanship all the more ridiculous).
Alan Dershowitz minced no words: "It's pure and simple anti-Israel discrimination. They've run many controversial ads and stories. ... Ms. magazine has become the United Nations of magazines."
After the "Golda's Balcony" screening, I sat down with the delightful Harper -- a self-described "major feminist from way back" and Zionist -- to talk about Golda and the other women who, celebrated or not and each different in their mannerisms to agendas, have led: Merkel, Margaret Thatcher, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Helen Clark, Mary McAleese, etc. "All of these leaders have broken the mold just by being there," Harper said.
How was Meir not compartmentalized in the stereotype of women leaders, I asked?
"Golda was an amazing person, I think, male or female, in that she was both a visionary and an activist," Harper said. "A lot of activists have sort of a vision, but they're so in the doing that they don't get the big picture, and some of the visionaries are very bad when it comes to the practical application and the doing. She was both. She held the vision just so clean and clear and her whole raison d'etre was 'I want a world that's safe for Jews.'
"She said one of the best things she ever learned was from Ben-Gurion: decide decisively," Harper added. "And her style of leadership was to listen to everybody and then think it through and say, 'we're going to do this,' and then she'd stand on it. And if she had to change course, she would do so, because all decisions are not correct."
What advice does she think Meir would have for the leaders of today? "Keep your big picture, and be practical," Harper said.
Harper, a gentile, said she felt a responsibility as an actor to nail the portrayal of Meir. She traces her personal Zionism to her childhood, when her mother tearfully explained to her what had happened in the Holocaust and how the Jews needed a country of their own. "And that 'let's just go along to get along' caused 6 million -- and almost all of the Eastern European -- Jews to be slaughtered," Harper said. "So I guess it's a human stance that I have: what's just and what's right."
In this campaign season wracked by identity politics, Golda's Balcony reminds one that true leaders transcend gender and defy compartmentalization -- be they conservative, liberal, or any shade in between.
Surely, if she were alive today, the original "Iron Lady" Golda Meir would come under criticism for defending Israel from rocket attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah. Surely she'd be no friend of the farcical Human Rights Council at the U.N., and would be the target of condemning resolution after resolution.
And surely she'd repeat perhaps her most sage quote: "The Arabs will stop fighting us when they love their children more than they hate Jews."
Would Ms. magazine approve?
Bridget Johnson (www.bridgetjohnson.org) is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News.