Commentary Magazine


The State of the Jews, by Marie Syrkin

Israel & America

The State of the Jews.
by Marie Syrkin.
New Republic Books. 368 pp. $15.95.

Unlike others who have ventured lately to speak about the relationship between Israel and American Jewry, Marie Syrkin brings to the task a lifetime of impeccable credentials as a writer and a Zionist. Now in her early eighties, she is the daughter of Nahman Syrkin, one of the founders (at the turn of the century) of the Labor Zionist movement; a disciple of Hayim Greenberg, the charismatic Zionist spokesman on the American scene in the interwar and immediate postwar era; long-time editor of the Jewish Frontier, the official English-language magazine of Labor Zionism in the United States; a prolific biographer, essayist, and polemicist in her own right; and for many years a professor of literature at Brandeis University.

Given Marie Syrkin’s strong literary and journalistic bent, and her equally strong Jewish and Zionist commitments, The State of the Jews turns out to be, not surprisingly, something of a tour de force, a highly readable collection of essays covering many facets of the Jewish experience from World War II to the present. Few topics of Jewish concern have escaped her attention; she ranges in this volume from the ethnography of a Jewish Indian community in Mexico, to the plight of teenagers in Displaced Persons camps after the war in Europe, to the explosive confrontation between (mainly Jewish) public-school teachers and the (mainly black) advocates of “community control” in New York City in the late 60’s.

Despite the range, however, the fifty or so essays in The State of the Jews are dominated by two principal concerns: the survival and security of the state of Israel, and the welfare of the Jewish people in the United States and elsewhere in the Diaspora. Miss Syrkin pursues implacably those who would harm or diminish the stature of Jews anywhere in the world or threaten the security of the Jewish state. Some of the strongest pieces in The State of the Jews are her responses to Hannah Arendt, Arnold Toynbee, I.F. Stone, and Vanessa Redgrave. These essays—published over the years in the Jewish Frontier, Midstream, COMMENTARY, and other journals—are extremely well done; their scholarship is sound and their passion bracing.

Of equal worth are Miss Syrkin’s essays on the Holocaust, a number of which were written during the time she spent working in the DP camps immediately after the end of World War II. These pieces are marked by journalistic fidelity to the events they depict, an anger toward the world that permitted such events to occur, and enormous compassion for the victims. Miss Syrkin’s portraits of teenagers in the camps competing for scholarships to study in the United States, of youngsters immersed in the study of Talmud in the newly reestablished yeshivas, of teachers debating proposed curriculum changes in the camp school, are evocative and moving. To be fully appreciated, perhaps, they should be read together with her thoughtful assessments of Holocaust literature. Although the Holocaust mini-industry that has been spawned in this country has moved well beyond the diaries of Anne Frank, Moshe Flinker, and Chaim Kaplan, Miss Syrkin’s essays on the works of these and other writers still repay consideration. In contrast to current fashion, she tends to focus on the text and its historical implications, and to eschew the homiletic, pedagogic, psychological, and theological—not to mention the entrepreneurial—uses to which the Holocaust has been put.

When it comes, finally, to Israel, Miss Syrkin is thoroughly in her element. Her pieces under this rubric—especially concerning the nature of the Zionist enterprise and Israel’s relationship to its Arab neighbors—provide an effective antidote to the lies currently gaining strength in the assembly halls of the United Nations, among Western leaders, and, unhappily, in some segments of the American Jewish community. Going back to the period just after World War I, Miss Syrkin delineates with great clarity the anti-Zionist attitudes of the English and their hostility to the idea of a Jewish state; the obduracy of the Arabs to any form of partition—a solution Ben-Gurion and most Palestinian Jews would have seized with alacrity; the Arab initiative in the 1947-48 war and the Arab responsibility for the flight of Palestinian Arabs from their homes and farms during the war; and the fraud—demographic and financial—perpetrated in the Arab refugee camps. On the other side, she relentlessly reiterates the truth about the improved living standards of the Arab population under Zionist and later Israeli rule, and she eloquently defends the record of Israel’s long search for peace, up to and including the chapter written by the Likud government under Menachem Begin, which for a treaty with Egypt gave away the Sinai with its valuable oil fields and settlements.

In the light, indeed, of just these essays, with their detailed analyses of Arab hostility toward the Jewish state, of Western passivity and Soviet mendacity, one is hard-pressed to explain the willingness of this spokesman for the Zionist cause to sign her name, as she recently did—along with Arthur Miller, Nat Hentoff, Robert Heilbroner, Michael Walzer, and assorted other old leftists and new liberals—to the petition of the American Friends of “Peace Now” that appeared in the New York Times several months ago and that named the Begin government’s policy of settlement on the West Bank as the critical obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

One possible but unlikely explanation for this surprising act would be that Miss Syrkin has changed her mind on the fundamental issue of Israel’s position in the Middle East or on the equally fundamental issue of Arab intentions. A more plausible explanation would have to take into account the shifts on the Israeli political landscape, and especially the replacement of the ruling Labor party by the Likud in 1977. There is little criticism in The State of the Jews of the policies of Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin when they headed the government of Israel after 1967, nor does Miss Syrkin rebuke the paramilitary settlements and kibbutzim established by Labor on the West Bank, on the Golan Heights, and in the Rafia area of the Sinai. It may be that the legitimacy of Israel’s actions are linked in her mind with a particular movement and party.

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But internal politics aside, the recent failure of Miss Syrkin and other bona-fide Zionists to rally to the support of the beleaguered Jewish state in the forum of American public opinion may tell us a great deal about the direction in which Zionism is headed. What ties the generation of Nahman Syrkin and Ber Borochov to the current spokesmen of the movement is not the socialist component of Zionist ideology but rather that factor stressed by Ben-Gurion: an all-consuming concern for the renewal of the Jewish people and the primacy of the Jewish state. But as Marie Syrkin notes in her closing essay, the pivotal element in the fulfillment of the Zionist dream aliyah, has been neglected by Jews throughout the world. In her words, “the ingathering confidently anticipated by the founders of Israel has not taken place. . . . That is the inner wound of Zionism.”

As a result, what passes for Zionist activity in the Diaspora—particularly in the United States—has fallen, largely by default, into the hands of the community-relations organizations, and has become for the most part a matter of public relations, political lobbying, fund-raising, and, unfortunately, of late, petition-signing. The core of Labor Zionism—aliyah and the “conquest of the land”—has ironically passed from the secular socialists to the resurgent religious wing of the Zionist movement, much to the dismay of many old-timers who are embarrassed by the ideological certitude of the new immigrants with their commitment to “outmoded”—i.e., religious—concepts and goals.

In retrospect, it appears that many elements of the Zionist experience could not long survive the loss of their Eastern European roots. One suspects that for better or worse the future of the movement, like the future of Israel itself, will be determined to a growing extent by the new grass-roots constituencies among the Sephardim and the Orthodox. With this sort of Zionism, Marie Syrkin would not appear to have much sympathy, and so her book, which bears witness to some of the most productive passions of the Jews in the contemporary period, may be seen also as a concluding token of this particular passage in their political and ideological development.

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