Monday, August 25, 2008

The View From Golda's Balcony

Driving into downtown Denver today, you could sense the excitement building. I drove past a billboard with a drawing of a red, white, and blue donkey on the left, and a Prius on the right. Beneath the donkey it said: "Delegates: 4,439 Strong." Beneath the Toyota it said: "Prius: 1,000,000 Strong." Something tells me the message will find a receptive audience this week.

I was in Denver tonight for a private screening of the film Golda's Balcony, hosted by the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC). The movie was shown at a church, next to the Golda Meir house, on the Auraria Campus downtown. First, some history: Meir was born in Russia and, to avoid pogroms, emigrated to Milwaukee, but after 8th grade, her parents told her should could not go to high school -- she would have to work in the family store -- so she packed a bag and ran away -- to Denver -- to live with her sister and brother-in-law. She stayed for two years, attending North High School, meeting Jewish intellectuals, many of whom were in Denver being treated for tuberculosis. It was the start of her Zionist journey. I found two dollars on the sidewalk outside the house, and slipped it in a glass box, near the front, as a donation. The latest CNN poll on Sunday showed the race in a dead heat. Obama-Biden needs all the karma it can get.

There were about 150 people at the screening. I'd seen the play on Broadway, and been extremely moved. The movie, starring Valerie Harper (of "Rhoda" fame), employed some of the same devices: Harper, as Meir, narrating her story directly, speaking to the audience. In the film, still shots flashed behind Meir -- images that reinforced the dialouge. (For instance, when Meir spoke about the Holocaust, horrifying images of the camps flashed behind her.) Harper played all parts -- including Meir's husband, and her war cabinet. It was jarring, at first -- so different from what we are used to seeing in film. But the story was so compelling, you quickly forgot the devices, and were simply absorbed by the tale.

The most gripping part of the film dramatizes Meir's handling of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Arab armies launched the surprise attack against Israel. Meir is told by Moshe Dayan and other generals, after the first day of fighting, that the Golan front is collapsing -- Israel is down to only a few tanks -- and they are dangerously short of supplies on the Egyptian front. At some point, Meir recognizes, it's no longer a question of maintaining hold of the Sinai: Israel is on the verge of crumbling before the Arab onslaught.

She sits in her office, chain-smoking, unable to eat, unable to sleep. The Zionist vision she has been advancing all of her life -- a political response to the Holocaust, addressing the need for a safe refuge that would allow the ingathering of Jews from around the world -- is slipping away. And Meir, as prime minister, is overseeing its demise. She picks up the phone again and again, pushing her aid to get Henry Kissinger on the line -- to tell President Nixon that Israel needs planes and tanks and supplies to fight back. That its very existence is at stake. Kissinger, it seems, was hard to get on the phone.

At this point, Meir begins another narrative. The story of how Israel found uranium in the Negev, and began working to build a nuclear bomb, miles beneath the desert. How Israel told the world it was building a "desalination plant." And how she stood, on an underground platform high above it all -- monitoring the development of nuclear warheads. She was there so often, the technicians started calling it "Golda's Balcony."

Now, with the Arab armies advancing, Meir had a choice: arm the fighter jets with the nuclear-tipped weapons, or do nothing, and see Israel and all its Jews forced into the sea. "To save the world you created," muses Meir, agonizing over her options, "how many worlds are you entilted to destroy?" She makes the decision to arm the planes, and orders her aid to call Kissinger, to tell him: I have authorized our pilots to hit the "Arab military headquarters" -- her euphemism for Cairo and Damascus.

I'm sitting there, in this soaring church, and something inside me is churning. Not just because of what happened to Israel 25-years ago, not just because of Meir's despair, but, I realize, because of a point my father-in-law has made to me, over the course of this campaign. The one thing, he says, that many pro-Israel, Obama-leaning Jews fear about Barack Obama is this: How will he react, at 3 a.m., if he gets the call that Iran has launched a nuclear (or other) attack on Israel? Would he, in that split second, make the decision to use whatever means necessary -- military and otherwise -- to defend the Jewish state? Obama is a peacemaker, my father-in-law said, a wonderful trait -- a trait he shares -- but what would that mean, when push came to shove, for the Jewish state in a desperate moment of survival?

In 1973, with the threat of a Mideast nuclear war looming, Kissinger finally sent help. Israel received word that planes, tanks, and munitions were on the way, and unloaded on the Egyptians with everything it had. Ariel Sharon crossed the Suez, out-flanking the Egyptian army from behind. It's not a stretch to say the state had been saved by her decision. And yet watching this movie, you can see that making the choice nearly killed her. After it was all over, Kissinger told Meir: "You blackmailed me." Meir responded: "Only blackmail?"

Meir had something in her, something to do with her dedication to her life's cause, that most of us don't have. It cost her her marriage, her husband. At one point, with her daughter and grandkids in a kibbutz near the Egyptian border, Meir talks about how she knew there was a chance that war would break out the next morning, and her daughter's kibbutz would be overrun. She didn't tell her daughter what she knew, though. When war did break out, her daughter demanded to know why her mother hadn't warned her of the danger ahead of time. Meir said: "I couldn't tell everybody -- How could I tell you?"

After the movie, Harper -- in attendance for the screening -- took the stage and received a powerful, extended standing ovation. "Thank you, Denver, for what you did in shaping this magnificent woman, our Golda Meir," she said.

Following a q-and-a, in a square outside the Golda Meir House, the NJDC hosted an event, honoring Jewish members of Congress. Among those present were Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (New York), Sen. Carl Levin (Michigan), and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (New Jersey).

"There's no difference between the candidates on Israel," Sen. Levin said. "They're both strong supporters of Israel." The key to Israel's security, he said, is to "reach out and pull in allies -- and there's no one better to do that than Barack Obama."

"Barack Obama is a fine friend of Israel," said Rep. Nadler. "So is John McCain. So is George Bush, for that matter." Nadler said, however, that Bush's policies have made Israel less safe, by empowering Iran. Then, alluding to the movie we had just seen, he said: "The biggest threat to Israel is Iran. And Barack Obama will follow policies that will avoid two years from now having two choices" -- as Meir had -- "One: Do Nothing; Two: Attack Iran." The latter choice, he said, would be "catastrophic" for Israel -- because Iran would launch 40,000 missiles at Israel from Lebanon. The only way to deal with Iran, he said, is with "very big sticks, and big carrots: If you behave, if you give up your nuclear weapons and ... stop funding Hezbollah, we'll be very nice to you."

Essentially, the Congressmen were making the case that by restoring America as a respected world leader, building strong coalitions with allies, and confronting Iran with strength -- negotiations backed by the threat of military action -- it would force Iran to climb down from its nuclear ledge. Obama would succeed where Bush has failed -- containing Iran -- and thus he would avoid the 3 a.m. phone call that my father-in-law posited.

Standing just a few yards away from the house where Golda Meir's Zionist path began, I couldn't help but think that Meir, herself, would put her faith in the peacemaker, ahead of the warrior. Meir, as Golda's Balcony shows over and over again, had a peacmaker's mentality. Each and every Jewish soldiers' death anguished her. But she was equally anguished by the fact that Jewish young men were put in a position where they had to kill.

Inscribed on a plaque, on the wall of the home where Golda once served tea to Jewish intellectuals, is the following quote from Meir: "A leader who doesn't stutter before he sends his nation into battle, is not fit to be a leader."

Barack Obama would stutter at 3 a.m. That's exactly the point.

And that's why I am voting for him.


62Robinson said...

Very well-said, NeurDem. Very well-done showing that Golda and Barack both live(d) by the speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick school. I hope it settles some people's worries that you can't be tough if you're not wearing spurs.

(Not sure about leading with the Prius, though.)

Loyal said...

Great post (except of course that Israel didn't let forth with quite everything she had (LOL)).

Of course, if Kssinger had truly been a friend and just picked up the phone, the whole episode could have been avoided. That's the advantage fo Obama. He is not afraid to talk, to explore, to find solutions. I think the Congressmen missed the point!


NeuroticDem said...

62Robinson --
I can't help myself -- I have to lead with the color. I guess I need a good editor. :-)
Loyal --
Also a great additional point -- that negotiations can avoid such crises. I don't see how the Congressmen missed the point, though -- they were just pointing out that an Obama presidency would have a much better shot at avoiding such a crisis in the first place.

Loyal said...

I just think they buried the lead and understated the importance of an Obama.

As I mentioned elesewhere, heard Steve Hillebrand Obama's deputy campaign director with Brian Lehrer on WNYC (NYC NPR). he gave a perfectly awful answer when presented with the challenge out of Chuck Schumer's book for the Dems to develop a pithy message equivalent to the six word GOP summary: Strong defense, small government, and family values.

Hildebrand went on for 4 minutes saying nothing.

How about: Restoring Effective Government: Of the people, By the people, and For the people.