Commentary Magazine

Golda Meir: Woman With a Cause, by Marie Syrkin

Zionism and After

Golda Meir: Woman with a Cause.
by Marie Syrkin.
Putnam. 320 pp. $5.95.

Golda Meir's life story is intrinsically exciting, quite apart from its special Jewish interest. She is one of the very few women to have made a mark in their country's political life since emancipation gave them the nominal opportunity of doing so, rising higher than almost any other. For Mrs. Meir is more than just the Foreign Minister of Israel—she stands (at least as of this moment) second in power and importance within the Mapai party and within the government that Mapai dominates.

In Israel, a far greater proportion of the talented elite—organizers, orators, ideologists, administrators, war heroes, trail-blazers, and public-sector tycoons—is involved in party politics than is the case in most Western countries. The qualities which took Golda Meir from a Milwaukee childhood to the summit of political power in the face of such competition are very much worth tracing, relevant as they are to the perennially fascinating phenomenon of political leadership in general. In addition, she shares with the other Israeli leaders of her generation the unique experience of having, all in one lifetime, participated in the creation of a new national community and the establishment of an independent state around it.


There are thus great potentialities for the biographer in Mrs. Meir's story, but Golda Meir: Woman With a Cause simply fails to exploit them. The key to many of its shortcomings can be found in the subtitle, “An Authorized Biography.” This subtitle, though misleading in its implications (Mrs. Meir has in conversation disclaimed any responsibility for the book), is designed to draw attention to the fact that the author has been a friend and political colleague of her subject for many years. Miss Syrkin is also a “woman with a cause,” a zealous member of the small but devout Labor-Zionist movement in the United States—a movement that is affiliated with Mapai. For all that the two ladies belong to the same movement, however, their views do not necessarily coincide, and their temperaments certainly differ. Mrs. Meir's socialism has been modified by the experience of power and responsibility. She and her colleagues no longer look upon themselves as protagonists in the class struggle, but as leaders of a nation in which several classes must live together. Finding that they could not at one and the same time wage war on the “bourgeoisie” and at tract the private capital necessary to Israel's development, they came to accept the non-socialist parties as junior partners in the enterprise of building up their country. Nor do they any longer regard the public and private sectors of the economy as they once did—the one wholly good, the other suspect. By contrast, Miss Syrkin's socialism, insulated from the corroding influences of office, retains both its purity of doctrine and its sectarian zeal. She uses the phrase “bourgeois Zionist” with withering contempt and assigns a monopoly of virtue to the Labor Zionists. In consequence, the unwary reader is in danger of coming away with the impression that Mrs. Meir and her colleagues have been as reluctant to re-examine the ideas of their youth as Miss Syrkin herself evidently is.

This is no service to Mrs. Meir, any more than it is a service to suggest that she has always been right politically and her opponents always wrong. Mrs. Meir has made her share of mistakes and she has been guilty of lapses from political good taste—for example, her tactical handling of the refugee question at a recent UN session, and her habit, when she was Minister of Labor, of acting as though what was good for Mapai must be good for Israel. A serious biography would have to balance such mistakes and lapses against her achievements, and the result would be a more interesting and rounded picture than Miss Syrkin is able to give us.


Another defect of this book is that Miss Syrkin devotes only about thirty-five pages to the seven years which elapsed between Mrs. Meir's accession to the Foreign Ministry and the completion of the manuscript. Yet this period has in no way been a postscript. On the contrary, in spite of her foreign-affairs commitments, Mrs. Meir has in recent years been playing an ever greater role in domestic affairs and has risen continually in the party hierarchy. By 1962, she had joined forces with Levi Eshkol, now Premier, and Zalman Aranne to restore Mapai's badly shaken morale, cut the “Young Turks” (like Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan)down to size without going so far as to start a new faction-fight, and finally, last summer, eased Ben Gurion painlessly out of office. All this required political skills of the highest order, and Mrs. Meir's part in it testified to the growing confidence placed by party cadres and rank-and-file alike in her judgment and integrity. Miss Syrkin, however, tells us nothing about these developments. She also neglects to tackle the question of Mrs. Meir's relations with “the bloc,” as the Tel Aviv-based party machine is called—though an elucidation of this question is crucial to a proper appreciation of Mrs. Meir's career in particular and Israeli politics in general.


Just as crucial to a proper appreciation of the life and times of Golda Meir is an understanding of why the society which she helped so directly to shape should be developing values and patterns of behavior so different from hers. Miss Syrkin accurately describes the simplicity and egalitarianism which have always marked Mrs. Meir's way of life. But she neglects to ask why the generation of Israelis brought up in schools and youth movements controlled directly or indirectly by Labor Zionists and inducted into public life by Mrs. Meir and her colleagues, should have turned their backs on frugality and egalitarianism. Is it the old Adam reasserting itself? Or is it, as some Israelis believe, the corrupting effect of Israel's hypertrophied party system?

By shying away from such thorny issues, Miss Syrkin keeps much of her book on the level of a cozy chat. And to make matters worse, she frequently intrudes her own experiences in Palestine and Israel into Mrs. Meir's story. Since the only political criticism of Mrs. Meir that Miss Syrkin allows herself is a complaint against her heroine for denigrating American Zionists because of their unwillingness to settle in Israel, one supposes that the “I was there too” refrain of this book constitutes some sort of effort at self-justification.

On the whole, Miss Syrkin is so used to thinking of the Jewish State as a cause to be fought for that she is unable to treat it as a reality to be studied objectively. Circumstances have by now obliged the Israelis to view themselves phenomenologically, and for most Jews in other countries the passage of time has made possible a measure of detachment in their (still benevolent) attitude toward Israel. But Zionists like Miss Syrkin remain fixed in their finest hour, making excessive emotional demands on the Israelis who need them less and less as they need Israel more and more. Hence the note of anguish in Miss Syrkin's lament to the effect that Mrs. Meir now hobnobs with non-Zionist “friends of Israel” of wealth or influence in preference to old-line Zionists who have always been faithful to the cause. But the truth is that such non-Zionists can be of greater present use to Israel than those Zionists who offer the country little but love, and jealous love at that.


Personal involvement also disfigures passages dealing with Mrs. Meir's private life. To cite one glaring example, Miss Syrkin cannot contain her impatience with Mrs. Meir for marrying Morris Myerson (whom Miss Syrkin despises as a weakling) and for not breaking with him as soon as he proved an obstacle to her mission:

Perhaps life would have been kinder to both if either had possessed the strength to sever a relationship whose stresses were increased by each capitulation,1 but neither of the young people had the strength for a clean break. The psychologically puzzling figure was Golda. The tormented and clinging love of Morris was self-explanatory, but why the strong-willed, vigorous girl lacked the courage to face the truth in her most vital relationship was less clear.

Now in fact there is nothing difficult or puzzling at all about this behavior; it simply showed that the “woman with a cause” has always been a woman. Such a passage, again, tells us more about author than subject, and like much else in the book, it reveals an unfortunate—and crippling—disregard for the basic conventions of serious biographical writing.


1 Morris wanted them to leave the kibbutz.—A. S.

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