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‘I’m a Palestinian’: Former Israeli PM Golda Meir

Former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir is the subject of a new film called 'Golda' starring Helen Mirren. To mark its release, MEMO takes a look back at an interview Meir did in 1970 with the UK's Thames TV, in which she calls herself a Palestinian in order to argue that there is no such thing as a distinct Palestinian people.

October 5, 2023 at 8:30 am

Israel has long propagated a narrative of endless victimisation to justify its crimes and evade accountability. This carefully-crafted narrative depicts the occupation state as a small, vulnerable nation constantly threatened by hostile neighbours. While this victimhood myth has been promoted by many Israeli leaders, few wielded it as effectively as the Israeli Prime Minister who once described herself as “a Palestinian”: Golda Meir.

Known as the “Iron Lady of the Middle East”, Meir was known for her acerbic and often racially tinged remarks, combining anti-Palestinian sentiments with a narrative of victimhood ingrained deeply in Israeli culture and politics. Her infamous statement, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. But we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children,” encapsulates both the victim-blaming and victimhood narrative that have played a pivotal role in Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the displacement of its indigenous non-Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities.

No one compels Israelis to kill children

Such statements not only reflect a racist worldview, but are also embraced in Israel as the words of a wise and noble leader. However, it must be stressed that no one compels Israelis to kill children, as Meir implied. Israelis, like any other people, must be held to account for their own actions.

READ: Israel poisoned Palestinian land, reveal newly-released state documents

It is no surprise, though, that the biopic movie about Meir attempts to downplay the controversial legacy of Israel’s fourth prime minister. Golda premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September last year and is slated to be released in the UK later this week. Protests have been organised against the movie which Palestinians say whitewashes Meir’s crimes and racism. The film stars UK actor Dame Helen Mirren as Israel’s first and only female prime minister, and focuses on Meir’s leadership during the 1973 October War.

Saying that reviews have been mixed would be a massive understatement. Not only is it “bafflingly dull”, according to one reviewer, but it’s also “lifeless”. Bad Movie Reviews, a YouTube channel dedicated to reviewing bad films, described it as “subdued” and “one-dimensional”. Critics have slammed the production for artistic reasons as much as for its politics. It “only scratches the surface,” according to the Washington Post. The audience is not told that Egypt and Syria attacked Israel because of the apartheid state’s occupation of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the Syrian Golan Heights, which is surely crucial if an accurate narrative is to be portrayed.

Glossing over Meir’s problematic legacy, the movie seems more interested in burnishing her image in the eyes of her admirers in Israel and the West, where she is seen as a heroine and a feminist icon. A more intellectually honest depiction would interrogate the way that Meir’s racism and rhetoric dehumanised Palestinians and justified their oppression by the settler-colonial state.

READ: Under the cover of ‘national park’, Israel annexes Muslim, Christian site

Meir’s biography follows the familiar arc of early Zionist settlers in Palestine. She was born in 1898 in modern-day Ukraine, then migrated to the US as a young girl with her family, settling in Milwaukee. After marrying, she and her husband left for British Mandate Palestine in 1921 to further the Zionist cause. Her political career took off in parallel with the Zionist project’s colonisation of Palestinian land. She rose to prominence just as Israel was established thanks to terrorism, massacres and the mass expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948, known as the Nakba.

A socialist Zionist, Meir served as minister of labour and foreign minister before becoming Israel’s prime minister. Her personal journey typifies the early waves of European Zionists who migrated to Palestine, often from Eastern Europe or Russia, with the intention of displacing the indigenous Arab population and establishing a Jewish ethno-state. Meir is tied inextricably to the crimes of early Zionist settler-colonists against the Palestinian people.

While many early Zionists harboured racist attitudes, Meir stood out for her bluntness in denying Palestinian identity and nationhood. She proclaimed audaciously that Palestine and Palestinians simply did not exist, cementing a dangerous narrative. Her unapologetic rhetoric distinguished her even among Zionist leaders at the time. Ironically, this “leftist” Israeli prime minister helped nurture in mainstream politics the same exclusionary ideology now espoused by Israel’s ascendant extreme right-wing. Meir lent a veneer of legitimacy to the abhorrent notion that indigenous Palestinians were invisible non-entities with no claim to their homeland.

There was, of course, no Israeli people with an Israeli state prior to 1948

“When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state?” Meir used to say erasing 4,000 years of history and exposing the eliminatory logic underpinning Zionism. “It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” There was, of course, no Israeli people with an Israeli state prior to 1948; nation states are a relatively new concept.

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Erasing Palestine and Palestinians has been the primary vocation of Israel. European Zionist settlers, like Meir, were under no illusion that the creation of an ethnonationalist Jewish state in a territory where Jews have been a very small minority for nearly two millennia would require extreme violence, religious and cultural vandalism, and the erasure of thousands of years of Palestinian history that bonded together the region’s eclectic makeup. At the turn of the 20th century, indigenous Palestinian Jews made up only five per cent of the population. The remaining 95 per cent were Palestinian Muslims and Christians as well as other smaller indigenous communities.

Ironically, Meir herself acknowledged her Palestinian roots, stating in an interview: “What was all this area before the First World War?” she asked rhetorically. “Palestine was the area between the Mediterranean and the Iraqian [sic] border… East and West Bank was Palestine; I am a Palestinian.” She noted that she held a Palestinian passport under the British Mandate. At that time, Meir was part of Palestine’s small Jewish minority. While European Zionists like her aimed to create an exclusionary Jewish state by breaking away from Palestine, it was left to Muslim, Christian and non-Zionist Jewish Palestinians to advocate for independence from Britain in a secular state representing all citizens.

Meir’s candid comments not only exposed the contradictory nature of the Zionist project, it also betrayed the myth of “a land without a people for a people without a land.” In reality, Palestine was never an empty land awaiting Jews to “make the desert bloom”, which is yet another Zionist myth. Her life encapsulates the settler colonialist inversion of reality necessitated by political Zionism. Golda glosses over all of this, leaving us to wonder why those involved in its making, including Helen Mirren, were willing to sacrifice their professional self-respect on the altar of Israeli propaganda.

READ: Israel poisoned Palestinian land, reveal newly-released state documents 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.