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Albert Einstein and the Zionist Movement
by Dusty Sklar
ALBERT EINSTEIN’S relationship to Judaism, Jews, Zionism, and Israel was complicated.
His parents were secular Jews, but they weren’t thrilled to see their son influenced by Catholic dogma at Munich’s Catholic elementary school, where he was the only Jewish child. They commissioned a distant relative to tutor him, and Albert became observant, but only until he was 12, when his interest in science kicked in.
He refused to become a bar mitsve. Later, he came under the influence of Spinoza and thought of himself as “a deeply religious man. One of the reasons he admired Spinoza was “because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things.” Einstein would reference Spinoza on religious matters throughout his life. In 1947, he wrote a letter describing his feeling that
the idea of a personal God is an anthropomorphic concept which I cannot take seriously. I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. My views are near to those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem — the most important of all human problems.
WITH THE RISE of anti-Semitism in Germany and in the Arab world after World War I, Einstein began to identify more and more with the Jewish community and to support the creation of Jewish settlements in Palestine. He wrote:
It seems obvious to me that Jews make an ideal scapegoat for any country experiencing social, economic, or political difficulties. The reason for this is twofold. First of all, there is hardly a country in the world that does not have a Jewish segment in the population. And secondly, wherever Jews reside, they are a minority of the population, and a small minority at that, so that they are not powerful enough to defend themselves against a mass attack. It is very easy for governments to divert attention from their own mistakes by blaming Jews for this or that political theory, such as communism or socialism. For instance, after the First World War, many Germans accused the Jews first of starting the war and then of losing it. This is nothing new, of course. Throughout history, Jews have been accused of all sorts of treachery, such as poisoning water wells or murdering children as religious sacrifices. Much of this can be attributed to jealousy, because, despite the fact that Jewish people have always been thinly populated in various countries, they have always had a disproportionate number of outstanding public figures.
The Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld paid a call on Einstein in Berlin in early 1919 and recalled his asking: With their spiritual and intellectual gifts, why should Jews be called on to create an agricultural nation-state? Wasn’t nationalism the problem rather than the solution? Despite his antipathy to nationalism, however, Einstein eventually came around to the cause. He wrote to his friend, Paul Epstein, also in 1919: “One can be an internationalist without being indifferent to members of one’s tribe. The Zionist cause is very close to my heart... I am glad that there should be a little patch of earth on which our kindred brethren are not considered aliens.”
Einstein came to America for the first time in the spring of 1921 at the invitation of another scientist, Chaim Weizmann, who also happened to be the president of the World Zionist Organization. Seeking to capitalize on Einstein’s fame, Weizmann urged Einstein to raise funds to bring Jews to Palestine and to create Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Einstein protested that he was not an orator and found the role of being a celebrity to attract crowds for the cause was “an unworthy one.”
(The Einsteins and Weizmann sailed together, during which time Einstein apparently tried to explain his relativity theory to Weizmann who, when asked on their arrival whether he understood it, said: “During the crossing, Einstein explained his theory to me every day, and by the time we arrived I was fully convinced that he really understands it.”)
Financially, the tour didn’t raise much money for the Zionist cause. New immigrants and poor Jews were generous, but those with great wealth were less enthusiastic, being more assimilated and less drawn to Zionism. Weizmann, who anticipated more than $4 million, had to be contented with $750,000. Einstein was left with a stronger connection to the Jewish people. On the day he sailed for home, he mentioned to a member of the press, “Until a generation ago, members of the Jewish people considered themselves as members of a religious community.” With anti-Semitism, things were changed: “The undignified mania of trying to adapt and conform and assimilate, which happens among many of my social standing, has always been very repulsive to me.”
EINSTEIN WAS GOOD FRIENDS with Walter Rathenau, Germany’s foreign minister, although Rathenau thought that Jews like himself could ameliorate anti-Semitism by assimilating as good Germans. Einstein introduced him to Weizmann and Blumenfeld, hoping to enlist him in the Zionist cause, but Rathenau remained an adamant advocate for assimilation. Weizmann was contemptuous of that posture, dismissing assimilationists as “Kaiserjuden,” of whom he said: “They seemed to have no idea that they were sitting on a volcano.”
After Rathenau was assassinated by anti-Semitic terrorists in 1922 (Rathenau had been the signatory to the treaty renouncing German territorial claims during World War I), German police warned Einstein that he was in jeopardy. He set off on a six-month trip, which eventually took him to Palestine, his single visit there. He and his second wife Elsa were victims of a number of ceremonial formalities. “When my husband commits a breach of etiquette,” she moaned, “it is said it’s because he’s a man of genius. In my case, however, it is attributed to lack of culture.”
At the Wailing Wall, Einstein’s strong new connection to Jews apparently didn’t include religion. “Dull-minded tribal companions are praying, faces turned to the wall, rocking their bodies forward and back,” he wrote in his diary. “A pitiful sight of men with a past but without a future.”
Eventually, Einstein and Weizmann clashed over Jewish treatment of Arabs and the running of Hebrew University, which was close to Einstein’s heart. He did battle particularly with Judah Magnes, the university’s president, of whom he wrote: “This ambitious and weak person surrounded himself with other morally inferior men.”
Weizmann failed to entice Einstein to direct the physics institute of the university. (To see Einstein endorsing the Hebrew University in 1951, click here.)
EINSTEIN HAD LONG OPPOSED the formation of a Jewish state. In a talk in 1938, he said:
My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain — especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our ranks. We are no longer the Jews of the Maccabee period.
After World War II, he castigated England for pitting Jews against Arabs. He was certainly in favor of Jewish immigration, but of nationalism he said: “The state idea is not according to my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed.... I have always been against it.” This dismayed Zionist leaders, of course. But once the State of Israel was formed in 1948, Einstein changed his mind — although he remained alarmed by Jewish nationalism and appalled by the Deir Yassin massacre, about which he signed a letter to the New York Times in 1948 denouncing Menachem Begin’s Herut party and accusing it of supporting the “doctrine of the fascist state” and running a “terrorist party.”
When Chaim Weizmann Israel’s first president, died, in 1952, Einstein was invited to replace him. Ambassador Abba Eban proffered the invitation on Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s behalf, in a letter dated November 17, 1952: “[W]hatever your answer,” Eban wrote,
I am anxious for you to feel that the Prime Minister’s question embodies the deepest respect which the Jewish people can repose in any of its sons. To this element of personal regard, we add the sentiment that Israel is a small State in its physical dimensions, but can rise to the level of greatness in the measure that it exemplifies the most elevated spiritual and intellectual traditions which the Jewish people has established through its best minds and hearts both in antiquity and in modern times. Our first President, as you know, taught us to see our destiny in these great perspectives, as you yourself have often exhorted us to do.
In a letter expressing his regrets, Einstein described himself as being “unsuited to fulfill the duties of that high office.”
I am deeply moved by the offer from our State of Israel, and at once saddened and ashamed that I cannot accept it. All my life I have dealt with objective matters, hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions.... even if advancing age was not making increasing inroads on my strength. I am the more distressed over these circumstances because my relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond, ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation among the nations of the world.
Dusty Sklar is the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. To read her article about Henry George and Zionism, click here.
Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.