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Book & Movie Reviews: Golda’s disservice to Golda

By Mitchell Bard
(August 30, 2023)

You may take the following with a grain of salt, as I thought Barbie was the dumbest movie I’ve ever seen, and it has earned more than $1 billion. I had low expectations for Barbie, but that was not true for Golda, which I hoped would capture the complex woman who played a critical role in Jewish history from the days of the Yishuv until her resignation after the 1973 war.

If you also hoped for such a portrayal and to learn about the challenges Golda Meir faced before and after the attack on Yom Kippur, you are better off reading a book. Oh, wait. No one reads books, so I guess you’ll have to scour the Internet (I suggest starting with the Jewish Virtual Library).

Helen Mirren is a great actor and does a good job channeling Golda. The nonsense over her being chosen instead of a Jewish actor is forgotten when you see the first closeup and observe her mannerisms and reactions throughout the film.

Golda’s assistant and friend, Lou Kedar (played by Camille Cottin), whom I suspect few people have heard of, gets more screen time than anyone but Mirren.

Considering Golda is a movie about the former prime minister managing a war that Israel could have lost, there is almost zero action. The most energy expended is Mirren walking up and down stairs to stand on the roof for no apparent reason and puffing constantly on cigarettes. Director Guy Nattiv was so obsessed with Golda’s smoking that he included repeated shots of ashtrays in the film.

Rather than war scenes, we get men standing around a headquarters table with maps, listening to soldiers speaking over the radio, or advising Golda around a coffeetable. One brief scene depicts Moshe Dayan flying by helicopter to the front on the Golan and having a breakdown when he sees flashes on the ground, representing tanks being destroyed by the Syrians, and hears frantic radio transmissions of desperate and dying soldiers. He returns to HQ seemingly untethered. He advises Golda to prepare Israel’s nuclear weapons, but she quickly dismisses him and the idea, ignoring how Israel did consider going nuclear as a last resort.

Liev Schreiber as Henry Kissinger makes a couple of brief appearances. He mentions the oil embargo and the need for Israel to allow the surrounded Egyptian Third Army to escape. While the intense discussions between the Israelis and Americans could have played a significant role in the film, it was largely glossed over. We see U.S. cargo planes flying in supplies, but do not learn about the delay in approving the airlift. Nothing is said about anything outside Golda’s bedroom and war room.

Dayan appears as a minor figure, despite being a national hero and the defense minister. The principal military commander is David Elazar, who is undoubtedly familiar to Israelis but largely unknown outside Israel. More well-known is Ariel Sharon, who presented his bold plan to lead his tanks across the Suez Canal to threaten Cairo, only to be ambushed and suffer severe casualties.

The film also did a poor job of conveying the threat Israel faced — in Sinai, fewer than 500 Israeli defenders, with only three tanks, were attacked by 600,000 Egyptian soldiers, backed by 2,000 tanks and 550 aircraft. There is also no depiction of the heroic defenders of the Golan, where 180 Israeli tanks faced 1,400 infiltrating from Syria. Nattiv also missed the chance to show the greatest tank battle since the Germans and Russians fought at Kursk in World War II.

The most critical questions, what Israel knew and when, and whether Israel should have preempted, are given too little attention. Though always portrayed outside Israel as a surprise attack, the truth was that Israel did have intelligence that it was coming with sufficient time to have called up most of its reserves and launched a preemptive strike, but several failures occurred.

Israeli soldiers on the southern front were given a secret document with 14 signals indicating an imminent Egyptian attack. None of those indicators were apparent before the invasion. Similarly, a warning was passed to the commander in the north that Syria planned to attack on October 2. That intelligence could not be confirmed and was dismissed. The movie alluded to the skepticism that war was imminent because the Egyptian buildup was similar to one in May 1973 that had not led to war.

The movie does refer to an Egyptian spy, Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of ex-president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who passed on a warning to his Mossad handler in London that war was imminent a day and a half before it started.

Deputy Chief of Staff General Israel Tal feared war was coming and tried to convince Elazar to take precautions, strengthen the front line with Egypt, and call up reserves. “If I am wrong and you are right,” he said, “we drafted them for nothing, inconvenienced them during the holidays, and wasted money. That would be a shame, but not too bad. On the other hand, if I am right and you are mistaken, we will face disaster.”

Elazar recommended a total, immediate mobilization of forces and a preemptive air strike at 5 a.m. on October 6, but was overruled. Although it was mentioned almost in passing, Golda found herself in a nearly impossible position. The intelligence community did not give her sufficient warning of the impending attack to prepare the nation for war adequately. Still, Israel’s chances for victory and minimizing casualties could be significantly enhanced by going immediately on offense. However, she feared that striking first, as Israel had done in 1967, might so anger the United States that Nixon would not support Israel’s prosecution of the war.

In the movie, Golda splits the difference between the maximum and minimum number of forces her advisers say she should deploy. The number proved insufficient to stop the invaders before they had captured much of Sinai and were on the verge of breaking through the Golan Heights.

The cost of lives for Israel was devastating — 2,688 soldiers were killed. Nattiv tried to convey the loss by having Golda repeatedly walk through a morgue as the bodies multiplied and watching one airplane unload coffins. I didn’t think those scenes captured the magnitude of the loss or the impact on the public.

The movie begins and ends with her testimony before the Agranat Commission. The story is told in flashbacks. There is a postscript about the commission’s findings, but critical details are omitted. The conclusion was that Israeli intelligence had sufficient warning of the impending attack, but failed to interpret the information correctly for various reasons. Elazar bore the brunt of the commission’s blame and resigned. The movie did refer to listening devices that were not turned on, and the man responsible, Eliyahu Zeira, was also cited in the report.

The public was angered by what many viewed as scapegoating career military officials for the mistakes of their political leaders. This outrage ultimately led Golda to resign. Dayan would have been the logical heir, but his reputation had been irrevocably tarnished.

Though it lost the war, Egypt regained its honor. This isn’t explained, but it was a significant reason Anwar Sadat was willing to negotiate peace with Israel. As the film does show, with archival footage, the woman who had fought to bring peace to her country her entire life lived to see that day. The Golda who did so much for her country deserved better than a movie about her greatest failure.

Source: This article originally appeared in the Times of Israel, (September 30, 2023).