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Einstein’s ambivalent relationship with Zionism

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The renowned scientist Albert Einstein had an ambivalent relationship with Zionism, a topic Ze’ev Rosenkranz expertly explores in Einstein Before Israel: Zionist Icon or Iconoclast? (Princeton University Press).

Rosenkranz is well positioned to delve into this subject, being senior editor of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology and a former curator of the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In this comprehensive account of Einstein’s association with the Zionist movement, he examines the years from 1919 to 1933, an extremely important period in Einstein’s life. A German Jew, Einstein burst onto the world stage in 1919 after British astronomers verified his landmark general theory of relativity. With Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, he left Germany once and for all and settled in Princeton, N.J.

Born in Ulm, in the southern state of Wurttemberg, Einstein was a victim of childhood antisemitism. The only Jewish pupil in his elementary school class, he was taunted by antisemitic students about his physiognomy. Their biting barbs left an impression, as did Einstein’s failure to find a job in academia after graduating from the Zurich Polytechnic in 1900. Rosenkranz speculates that his Jewishness may have been the reason he was the only one in his class not to land a teaching position after graduating.

In 1909, after working at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern and expressing concern that his “semitic appearance” might jeopardize his career, he finally secured a job as a physics professor at the University of Zurich. Within a year, he was offered a full professorship at the German University in Prague, the home of budding novelist Franz Kafka.

Einstein’s first recorded encounter with Zionists occurred in Prague. He was neither influenced nor ideologically impressed by them, Rosenkranz writes. Indeed, Einstein disparagingly called them “medieval and unworldly people.”

Einstein, having adopted Swiss citizenship in 1901, moved to Berlin in 1914, a few months before the outbreak of World War I, to take up a posting at the Prussian Academy of Sciences.

Shortly afterward, he rejected an invitation from the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg to visit Russia, saying he was upset by the “brutal manner” in which my “ethnic comrades are being persecuted.” This was most likely a reference to the notorious blood libel trial of Menahem Mendel Beilis.

Rosenkranz suggests that Einstein’s attitude toward Zionism crystallized in 1919, when he told Kurt Blumenfeld, a prominent Zionist in Germany, that he was ready to work for the Zionist cause. These events coincided with his divorce from his first wife, the Serbian Mileva Maric, and his marriage to his cousin, Elsa.

Einstein supported Zionism despite his general opposition to nationalism, explaining that his acceptance of Jewish nationalism was a way of dealing with his rootlessness as a Jew in Weimar, Germany.

Zionism appealed to him on an emotional level, according to Rosenkranz. “He sensed that this was a movement that could further some of the goals of utmost importance to him: the creation of a refuge for Jews from eastern Europe and the elevation of the self-esteem of his fellow Jews in the West so that they could overcome their ‘servile disposition’ toward their host countries.”

To Einstein, Jews could only earn the respect of non-Jews by daring “to view themselves as a nation.” He subscribed to the belief, shared by German Zionists, that Jews should focus on their own national dignity rather than on antisemitism. Zionism, he noted, offered “the Jewish people joy in [their] own existence.”

Yet, as Rosenkranz observes, Einstein’s pro-Zionist stance was also a function of his interest in establishing a university in Jerusalem to fulfil the educational needs of the Jewish population in Palestine and to provide jobs for Jewish refugees from eastern Europe. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem would be the fulfillment of this dream.

In 1921, Einstein accepted an invitation from Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organization, to join him on a fundraising tour of the United States on behalf of the Hebrew University. In summarizing the strenuous two-month trip, Einstein informed a close friend that the journey had given him “the great satisfaction of having been very useful to the Zionist cause and of having assured the founding of the [Hebrew] university.”

Two years later, Einstein visited Palestine for the first time. Arriving via the Egyptian city of Port Said, he was welcomed to Jerusalem by the British high commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel. After a round of city tours and receptions, including a tour of Mount Scopus, the Jewish National Library and the Bezalel Art Academy, he proceeded to Tel Aviv, where he was greeted by its first mayor, Meir Dizengoff.

Einstein subsequently visited the Mikve Israel agricultural school and the town of Rishon LeZion before boarding a train for Haifa, where he paused at the Technion. From Haifa, he embarked on a tour of the Galilee, visiting the Nahalal co-operative farm (where the future Israeli general and defence minister Moshe Dayan was raised), Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee.

Einstein was impressed by the dynamic, entrepreneurial spirit of the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine. He concluded that while “Palestine will not solve the Jewish problem, the revival of Palestine will mean the liberation and revival of the Jewish soul.”

Although he was acutely aware of Jewish-Arab tensions in Palestine, he downplayed its potential explosiveness, Rosenkranz says. But after the director of the Jewish National Fund called for the removal of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine, following deadly clashes in the summer of 1929 that claimed 133 Jewish and 116 Arab lives, Einstein was appalled.

He wanted the Zionist leadership to take a conciliatory approach to the majority Arab population: “If we do not succeed in finding a path of sincere co-operation… with the Arabs, then we will have learned nothing from our 2,000-year-old ordeal and will deserve the fate that will await us.”

Disillusioned with mainstream Zionist policy on Arab-Jewish relations, Einstein drifted into the dovish Brith Shalom camp.  In a stunning comment in support of a binational entity, he declared, “I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state.”

Rosenkranz writes that Einstein reserved his greatest hope for his pet project, the Hebrew University, which to him represented “the quintessence of his expectations from Zionism: academic brilliance, personal integrity, ethnic solidarity and the pure pursuit of scholarly truth.”

But even on this level, Einstein was to be disappointed. “His perception of the intolerance demonstrated toward supporters of Brith Shalom at the university further alienated him from developments on the ground in Jerusalem,” Rosenkranz observes.

Due to the Holocaust, the creation of Israel and the first Arab-Israel war, however, Einstein would be preoccupied with the Zionist movement until his death in 1955.

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