(JTA) — Golda Meir, the first and so far only woman prime minister of Israel, is a figure as shrouded in mythology as she is veiled by plumes of cigarette smoke in “Golda,” a new political drama starring Helen Mirren.
Meir has been called Israel’s “Iron Lady,” alternately lionized as a founder of the state, scorned for her dismissive statements about Palestinians and, most notoriously, held responsible for Israel being caught by surprise at the outbreak of the bloody Yom Kippur War of 1973. The film recreates Meir’s experience during the 19 days of that war, which would indelibly mark both her legacy and the Israeli consciousness. Directed by Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, who won an Oscar for his 2018 short film “Skin,” “Golda” opens in theaters across the United States on Friday.
Generations of Israelis, including many who fought in 1973, have blamed Meir for a traumatizing war. But Nattiv offers a different portrait, building on recently declassified wartime documents that reveal how she was disastrously misinformed by her complacent military commanders. He presents Meir as a steely, ruthless yet vulnerable woman, tortured by guilt and motivated by the belief that she was defending her country from extinction.
“She was the scapegoat of the war,” Nattiv told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “The notion was that she was the only person responsible for this debacle, this failure, and it wasn’t true.”
Nattiv himself was 4 months old when war broke out on Oct. 6, 1973 — Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar — and his mother took him to a bomb shelter while his father headed to the front.
In a colossal intelligence failure, Israel was surprised by a two-front attack from Egypt and Syria, which sought to regain territories they lost in 1967. Many Israelis were overconfident after their young country’s swift victory over three Arab armies in the 1967 Six-Day War. But in the first 24 hours of the Yom Kippur War, thinly manned Israeli positions were overwhelmed along the Suez Canal in the southwest and the Golan Heights in the northeast.
Eventually, Israel won a costly victory: 2,656 Israeli soldiers were killed and 12,000 injured, a heavy toll for a small state. The Arab forces saw 8,258 killed and nearly 20,000 wounded. The national trauma of 1973 turned the public against Meir, previously admired for her long political career that included being a founder of Israel’s Labor Party and raising $50 million from Jewish Americans for the establishment of an Israeli state.
“Golda” frames Meir’s experiences as flashbacks during her testimony to the Agranat Commission of Inquiry, which investigated Israel’s military failings leading up to the war. Although the commission cleared her of wrongdoing, she decided to resign. Four years later, after secretly battling lymphoma for 15 years, Meir died at 80 years old.
Nattiv sought to humanize her with a focus on the isolated, agonizing days of war taking place in the twilight of her life, spent in between war rooms and hospital beds.
“I wanted to show the most pivotal moment in her life and in this country’s life, this junction that shaped her whole image, while she was sick and had to make difficult decisions,” said Nattiv. “I wanted to tell her story through loneliness.”
Nattiv also shows Meir in the place where her political edge converged with a tender instinct: her intimate home kitchen. Like the real Meir, Mirren’s version cooks for the select group of advisors who enter her home. The prime minister was known for serving cheesecake and apple strudel to her powerful guests on Shabbat evenings, accompanied by consultations and debates around the table. The practice became known as “Golda’s Little Kitchen” or her “Kitchen Cabinet.”
Among Meir’s kitchen guests was then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, played in the film by Liev Schreiber. Nattiv recreates the tense conversations in which Meir pressured Kissinger to send aid for the Israeli army, whose reserve ammunition was rapidly exhausted in the early shock of the war. The United States, at first hesitant to lose its own access to oil from Arab countries, agreed to send weapons and aircraft to Israel when the Soviet Union began resupplying Egypt and Syria, drawing the Yom Kippur War into the Cold War.
In the film, Kissinger tells Meir that he is an American first, secretary of state second, and only third a Jew. Meir replies, “You forget in Israel we read from right to left.”
This quote was taken directly from history: The 100-year-old former diplomat has long publicly recounted Meir delivering the line. (He has not publicly said whether the coercion came with a bowl of borscht and a dollop of Holocaust guilt, as shown in the film.)
While Meir was tough with her allies and brutal to her adversaries, “Golda” portrays the prime minister as a victim of her own advisors in the film. She is shown taking the fall for the egregious errors of her military leaders — in particular Chief of Military Intelligence Eli Zeira and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan — to protect the public’s faith in its army.
Documents declassified in 2020 showed that Zeira ignored intelligence warnings that Cairo and Damascus were poised to attack, withholding the communications from the government in his belief that the chance of imminent war was “lower than low.” Meanwhile, Dayan objected to fully mobilizing troops in the hours before the war, according to his testimony to the Agranat Commission, which was declassified in 2008.
“Golda” does not address the widely leveled criticism that Meir could have avoided war altogether. For months preceding the attacks, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made repeated overtures for a peace settlement if Israel agreed to return the Sinai Peninsula, which it seized during the Six-Day War. He was rebuffed.
Documents released in 2013 showed that Meir did offer to discuss ceding “most of the Sinai,” but since she was not willing to return completely to the pre-1967 borders, Egypt rejected the talks. In back-channel communications with Kissinger, Meir vowed to prevent any peace initiative that required recognizing Egyptian sovereignty over the Sinai, according to Israeli historian Yigal Kipnis, author of the 2012 book “1973: The Road to War.”
As a result of the bitter war, Israel and Egypt signed a disengagement agreement in January 1974. In 1979, following U.S.-brokered negotiations at Camp David, Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty. Egypt became the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel, and Israel withdrew fully from the Sinai Peninsula.
Nattiv credits the ensuing peace to Meir, with a title card at the end of the film reading, “Her legacy of saving her country from annihilation leading to peace serves as her memorial.”
But critics such as Kipnis have argued that peace might have been achieved sooner with negotiations before the conflict that, he has suggested, could be called the “unnecessary war.”
Meir will always be a controversial figure in Israel, said Nattiv. Whatever judgment the audience makes of her, he believes it is important for Israeli audiences to absorb how leadership blinded by hubris and power can poison a society. He referenced the current political crisis in Israel, in which Prime Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court have triggered mass protests that have been ongoing since January.
“It’s kind of crazy that today we see the Yom Kippur of democracy in Israel,” said Nattiv. “The blindness again, the same debacle that happened in 1973 is returning now.”
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A queer Israeli textile artist’s Lavender Diaspora sukkah explores identity in Brooklyn
The sukkah, created by queer textile artist Hilla Shapira, was unharmed: Its light purple walls were made of ripstop, a lightweight and water-resistant fabric. Its soft and pillowy decorations — which included Jewish symbols like hamsas as well as depictions of the four species — were made of dacron, a durable, polyester batting that held up in the deluge as well.
Shapira said the project — titled Lavender Diaspora — was meant to channel her identities as a queer person who grew up in a religious household in Israel, and also as an immigrant in the United States, where she studied art in Michigan before moving to Brooklyn.
“I try to find parallel relationships between what it is to be queer and Jewish, and to be a person from Israel,” Shapira, 33, told the New York Jewish Week. “It’s especially relevant when we’re talking about Sukkot, which is a holiday that the Jewish people were celebrating in the in-between space, between Egypt and Israel — they were on the way somewhere, but in something that is temporary and stuck in this kind of forever nomadism.”
Speaking at a Shabbat dinner hosted by The Neighborhood: An Urban Center for Jewish Life, the Brooklyn-based organization that commissioned the sukkah, Shapira said she had designed her structure to celebrate communities that find themselves on the outskirts of society.
She was speaking on the first night of Sukkot, the weeklong holiday in which Jews build a temporary structure called a sukkah, meant to commemorate in part the structures that the Israelites lived in as they wandered through the desert from Egypt to Israel. Throughout the holiday, which ends at sundown on Saturday, Jews eat, pray and even sleep in the sukkah.
The Neighborhood has partnered with 12 other Jewish communities and organizations to celebrate and host events in the unique sukkah, including Romemu Brooklyn, Lab/Shul, Jews of Color Initiative and the Prospect Heights Shul.
“We were really excited to think about not just a sukkah as an art object, but really also as a place to bring different communities and groups of people together in this temporary structure,” Rebecca Guber, the founding director of The Neighborhood, told the New York Jewish Week.
“We also thought about what were some different perspectives that we could bring into this stuff,” she added. “We wanted something that brings in young families, that would be comfortable if you’re a more observant Jew and that also feels kind of wild.”
Located in the courtyard of Luria Academy, a Jewish day school in Prospect Heights, students will use the sukkah for their meals and programming during the day. In the evenings and on the weekend, The Neighborhood will use the sukkah for its own programming, which includes the launch of a Sukkot zine in partnership with Ayin Press, a family-friendly music jam, a dance event and more.
As a queer woman who grew up in an Orthodox home in Israel — as well as an immigrant to the United States — Shapira said she’s often searched for a sense of belonging. “The sukkah I tried to create is a space that is offering an alternative, or making a suggestion for a communal space for all the ‘shoulders’ of society,” she said.
Lavender, the color of the walls of the sukkah, is a symbol of LGBTQ resistance and activism. The other half of the title, Diaspora, refers to both the dispersion of the Jewish people as well as the feeling of marginalization experienced by Jews, LBGTQ people and other minorities — the sukkah is meant to be a temporary space that alleviates that feeling.
The Neighborhood is a community hub that primarily partners with other Jewish organizations to create innovative Jewish cultural and spiritual events for Jewish life. The Lavender Diaspora sukkah was funded by UJA-Federation New York. (UJA-Federation is also a funder of 70 Faces Media, the parent company of the New York Jewish Week.)
“What really resonates for us is the way that this sukkah welcomes everyone in — whatever position you feel you occupy in the Jewish community — maybe some people feel like insiders, other feel like outsiders, we really hope this can be a place where many different people can feel welcomed, and that their perspectives and identities are being honored,” Guber said.
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Displaced by ethnic violence, India’s Bnei Menashe Jews construct sukkahs nonetheless
(JTA) — The temporary shelters that Jews erect during the holiday of Sukkot are meant in part to recall a time when Jews had nowhere permanent to live. In Northeast India, that symbolism is heavy with additional meaning this year.
That’s because large numbers of Bnei Menashe, the Jewish community that lives there, have fled their homes in the state of Manipur since ethnic unrest broke out in early May.
According to the Israeli organization Shavei Israel, about 2,000 people from the Jewish community have been displaced. A different nonprofit that works with the community, Degel Menashe, cites a smaller number, 700.
But either way, the community has been ravaged, with three locations that have been home to large numbers of Bnei Menashe decimated in the violence. Synagogues and homes have burned to the ground, and the number of displaced people has only grown with time.
Now, as the conflict enters its sixth month, what many believed would be temporary displacements in the Manipur hills or the neighboring state of Mizoram are becoming permanent.
“Despite these challenging times for the Bnei Menashe and even in the farthest reaches of northeastern India, they have continued to uphold the ancient tradition of building Sukkot in honor of the festival,” said Michael Freund, chairman and founder of Shavei Israel, which helps “lost tribe” communities return to Israel.
Shavei Israel distributed pictures showing members of the community constructing sukkahs out of bamboo. Their efforts come as their own safety in their areas where they live is in question — or already compromised.
“[For] the Bnei Menashe and the rest of the people who have left Imphal, I don’t think there is any chance of them returning back because there is no security,” said Isaac Thangjom, the Israel-based director of Degel Menashe, which assists Bnei Menashe communities in Israel and India, referring to Manipur’s capital city. “If you ask me honestly, the separation is complete.”
The Bnei Menashe identify as descendants of a “lost tribe” group, tracing their origins to the Israelite tribe of Menasseh. In 2005, a chief rabbi of Israel affirmed their identity as a “lost tribe” group with historic Jewish ties, but researchers have not found sufficient evidence to back the claim. Bnei Menashe Jews began immigrating to Israel in the 1990s, and because of their “lost tribe” status, they all undergo formal Orthodox conversions upon arrival. Around 5,000 remain in the states of Manipur and Mizoram today, and about 5,000 have already immigrated to Israel.
Many have struggled to gain entry into Israel over the past two decades, and they are now asking the Jewish state to expedite the immigration process to help them escape the violence.
Israeli authorities have yet to comment publicly about the situation and did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Israel has recently been seeking to advance its relations with India.
Conflict erupted in May when tribal groups in Manipur launched a protest against the ethnic majority Meitei’s demand for Scheduled Tribe status, which is traditionally reserved for minority tribes. The Bnei Menashe Jews belong to the minority Kuki tribe.
The Kukis (about 16% of the population and majority Christian) say the Meiteis (53% and majority Hindu) already have outsized privilege and political representation in Manipur.
According to local reports, unofficial “but very real” borders have been drawn between what have become Kuki and Meitei areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been criticized for failing to control the situation. In August, opposition lawmakers called for a no-confidence vote over Modi’s handling of the situation, but it was easily defeated.
Some 190 people have died in the conflict since May, according to local media, including at least one Bnei Menashe community member. Over 60,000 are displaced.
Several other Bnei Menashe Jews are hospitalized with injuries, according to Shavei Israel.
In the face of displacement, the Bnei Menashe Jews have remained religiously observant, even as some fled with nothing more than their prayer books and the clothes on their backs, a Mizoram Jewish community member told JTA in June.
“It was so sudden,” said Ariella Haokip, a Bnei Menashe community member taking shelter in Thingdawl, Mizoram. “Funds were sent to us to buy special items for Rosh Hashanah and now for Sukkot. In spite of our misery, it is comforting to think that we are remembered.”
Some are currently staying at government shelters, others at schools and homes of other community members, or rented homes paid for by nonprofit groups. In Thingdawl, Mizoram, one young member has begun organizing Hebrew classes for displaced members, said Thangjom.
Both Shavei Israel and Degel Menashe have been working since May to provide continued support to the Bnei Menashe Jews through donations of food, mattresses, mosquito nets, infant formula, medicines and other necessities. Both organizations have arranged shelters for displaced families. Additional financial support has poured in from Jewish and Christian organizations in the United States and Israel.
For some, the High Holiday season also represents a new beginning, as Degel Menashe races to construct homes for several Bnei Menashe families. Lalam Hangshing, chairman of the Bnei Menashe Council-India, donated a piece of land of about 200 acres in Churachandpur on which nine homes are being constructed.
“It was hoped that it could be ready by Rosh Hashanah but there were some unforeseen delays and challenges,” said Thangjom. “Each family will be allotted a piece of land to grow or raise something of their choice so that it can be a source of livelihood for them.”
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Alice Shalvi pioneered religious feminism in Israel. Everyone else is still catching up.
(JTA) — I first met Alice Shalvi, the mother of religious feminism in Israel, in the mid-1990s during a meeting of ICAR, the International Coalition of Agunah Rights, a coalition that she founded to advocate for women denied a religious divorce by their husbands. She was in her early 70s at the time, and had been fighting for agunah rights for 20 years.
I was in my mid-20s, and new to the cause. I was there as co-chair of Mavoi Satum, which a group of us founded in 1995. This coalition was meant to be advancing systemic solutions to this awful problem. But, of course, we were stuck. As stuck then as we are now.
At one point in the meeting, Professor Shalvi started to cry. “I am 72 years old. I have been talking about this for so long,” she said, “and nothing is changing.” She was crying because the suffering of women didn’t seem to matter to our people. Then she turned to me and said, “It’s up to you and your generation to fix this.”
At the time, I felt her passing the mantle, and I didn’t want to let her down. But I’m sure I did. At least on this front. On others, too, despite our best efforts.
Shalvi, who died Monday morning in Israel at age 96, fought crucial fights decades before the rest of the world caught up with her, before the religious community had any kind of language for what she was doing, before there was any kind of feminist movement to speak of in Israel.
She pioneered feminist ideas in Israel in the early 1970s when there were only a handful of women doing such work — Marcia Freedman, Naomi Chazan and a few others. And she was the only one coming from the religious world, and able to see the need and potential for change before everyone else.
Starting in 1975, Shalvi began running the Pelech School for Haredi Girls, a religious feminist school, before Orthodox feminism existed as a movement — before Women of the Wall, before women’s tefillah (prayer) groups, years before Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and Kolech, Israel’s Religious Women’s Forum, existed, before anyone even dared to put the words “feminist” and “religious” together in a sentence. Before even the Conservative movement had women rabbis. Everyone else is still catching up.
She also worked in the non-religious arena, creating, in 1984, the first feminist lobby in Israel, the Israel Women’s Network, which still pioneers on many fronts.
She also dared to work on issues of peace, taking positions that were considered pas nisht, or “unsuitable,” in the religious world — and for the most part still are. She dared to see Palestinians, especially Palestinian women, as equal human beings. This was not a position that religious Israelis, or Israelis in general, were comfortable with. It’s still an uphill battle. She spoke and acted from a place of humanity first.
And she could remarkably work on a multitude of fronts, all at once, including education, academia, advocacy, politics and peace.
Alice Hildegard Shalvi was born in Essen, Germany, on Oct. 16, 1926. She, her mother and brother joined their father in London in 1934, and she later earned degrees in literature and social work. She immigrated to Israel in 1949, taught at Hebrew University and led efforts to create an English department at Ben-Gurion University. Denied the deanship because she was a woman, she mobilized female faculty members in protest.
Professor Shalvi was my formal mentor when I was on the Jerusalem Fellows, a program in Jewish education. We would meet regularly and talk about feminism, politics, religion and Israel. It was a privilege to spend those hours in one-on-one conversations. Prof. Shalvi always talked to me with complete honesty, passion and belief in what she was working for. She entrusted me with her vision, and made me feel like she believed that I would hold it for her and continue to birth it in the world.
By the time changes started to take place in Orthodoxy for women — evidenced by Shira Hadasha, a Jerusalem congregation dedicated to halachah (Jewish law) and feminism, and Orthodox women in clergy roles — she had already moved on to the Conservative movement, serving as rector of what is now the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, a graduate school and seminary associated with the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. She needed to go where her vision was valued and welcomed and celebrated, instead of where everything was a fight. She was highly criticized for that decision and was treated by some as a sort of traitor to the Orthodox feminist cause. But she deserved to be in a place that supported her and brought her comfort and respect, and she had earned that right.
She offered words of support for me when I took a similar leap and enrolled in Reform rabbinical school. Even though I am no longer in rabbinical school and do not associate with the Reform movement in any meaningful way, I do not regret the decision to step away from an Orthodox version of feminism and try on other hats. She inspired me and so many others to take leaps, be courageous, live from the heart and ignore the haters.
I am so glad that she found her well-deserved place in the world, and that she received many well-deserved honors and accolades along the way, including, in 1991, the Ministry of Education’s Education Prize in 1991 for teaching Talmud to girls and insisting that Pelech alumnae serve in either the IDF or the National Service. In 2007, she won the Israel Prize for her life’s work, and in 2019 a National Jewish Book Award for her memoir, “Never a Native.”
She left an incredible legacy of activism that has birthed generations of change agents in Israel.
I have often thought over the years that I wanted to be Alice Shalvi when I grew up. I loved her unstoppable courage, her ability to wear many hats, her resilience in standing up to the haters and naysayers, and her constant belief that she could make a difference. I’ve tried to follow that kind of path, though I have not had nearly the kind of strength and fortitude — and successes — that she had. But her personality and vision continue to have a permanent resting place in my heart. And I will continue to endeavor to carry her torch in this world.
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