DAUGHTER OF AN ILLUSTRIOUS leader, friend of Golda Meir, journalist, polemicist, poet, teacher: Marie Syrkin, born with the century, bears witness in this book to the events which have spanned it.
Zionism before Israel, the varying attitudes of European Judaism toward the Holocaust, the meeting of survivors in Displaced Persons camps throughout occupied Germany, the battles around and for Jerusalem: of all these the authors of The State of the Jews speaks with passion and intelligence.
The only criticism that might be made is that she minimizes her own role. After all, she was not exclusively an observer; she took part, she acted.
Because of the priviledged position that she held in the Zionist world, because of the respect paid to her, she often exercised an unquestionable, although discrete, influence on decisions at the highest level.
One would like to read more about her personal life, her childhood in Czarist Russia, and about her political activities before, during and after the Second World War. Behind the commentator lurks a fascinating character; behind the chronicler one discovers a woman of intellectual probity, a woman of feeling, in short, a woman who interests us sometimes more than the important people she has known.
But let's be fair: The State of the Jews is not an autobiography. It is only a collection of the articles Marie Syrkin has published since the 1930s. A journey to Palestine: the discovery of the kibbutzim. The return trip: on the ship bringing her back home -- in 1936! -- she notices german Jews who, for practical, economic reasons, are going back to Nazi Germany. The Pro-Nazi atmosphere even in American: the demonstrations by the Bund. . . . Her reporting reflects a rare journalistic talent.
Certain passages are astonishing. She describes the fall of the old city of Jerusalem in a style in which emotion and precision are beautifully balanced. Her interviews with Jewish children, still living in that hell, will appall you. To talk with a child of 5 to 6 who has seen dead bodies, dead bodies without end, who has seen death, one has to know what tone to adopt -- and Marie Syrkin knew.
This is less true of her polemical encounters with I. F. Stone, Hannah Arendt and Arnold Toynbee. Not that these essays are badly researched or poorly presented -- their place is in magazines, and less in a book where it is she, and not her partner in debate, who has the last word. After all, the interest of a controversy derives from dramatic progression. In the present case, one would like to read Hannah Arendt's response to Marie Syrkin, then her response to her, and the response to the response . . .
But these are minor criticism. One must judge a book for what it is, and not for what it isn't. And this volume as a whole conveys, if not the torments and triumphs of an epoch, at least those of an individual, one who is especially engaging because especially combative.
Naturally, she is not objective; why should she be? She defends the Jewish people, the Jewish nation, the Jewish homeland, and . . . Jewish socialism; it is her right; perhaps it is even her charm.
Marie Syrkin's opponents may be able to refute her arguments defending the behavior of the American Jewish leadership during the Holocaust, and question her about a curious revelation -- mentioned in her preface -- about American and Palestinian Jews who attempted, during the dark years, to penetrate occupied Europe and rescue Jews. There, I myself would ask her to cite her sources. . . . But enough of this.
I like the author too much to pick a fight with her. (Translated from the French by Michael Dirda).