You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Reading Einstein in Jerusalem

Why we shouldn’t put too much faith in what the 20th century’s great genius had to say about Israel.

Albert Einstein was not only a scientist and universal eminence, but also a proud Jew who had a longtime association with the Zionist movement. In the 1920s, he toured America with Chaim Weizmann to gather support for the creation of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When Weizmann died in office in 1952 as Israel's first president, Einstein was proposed as his successor by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

Because of such incidents, observes Fred Jerome--the author of three books about Einstein’s political/philosophical thought, including a new one, Einstein on Israel and Zionism: His Provocative Ideas About the Middle East--Zionist fgures and institutions have claimed Einstein as a “champion” of the state of Israel. The mainstream media in the U.S. has told and retold this “widely accepted story.” But the story, says Jerome, is a myth. In the present volume, he collects and comments upon various letters, speeches, and public statements of Einstein in order to demonstrate that the latter was never comfortable with the idea or reality of a Jewish state.

In letters translated from the German by Michael Schiffmann, we read that Einstein was deeply affected by the ugly treatment of Jews in Germany after World War I--including the dismissal by nationalist scientists of his theory of relativity as a "Jewish" perversion. He believed that it was inexcusable to flee one’s Judaic heritage, as many assimilated German Jews of the middle class did, and he believed that a Jewish homeland in Palestine would lift the standing and confidence of Jews worldwide.

Still, Einstein was as wary of crude Jewish nationalism as of the German kind. The envisioned homeland would be a "moral and spiritual center" where culture, intellect, and creativity would flourish. Certainly harmony among Arab and Jewish residents was indispensable. Although he never delineated precisely what political arrangement would ensure this outcome, he was against the scaffolding of a Jewish state. Borders, an army--these, he wrote in 1938, were contrary to the "essential nature of Judaism," which for millennia had stood above politics for "the democratic ideal of social justice, coupled with the ideal of mutual aid and tolerance among all men." Nor, says Jerome, adducing letters from the scientist’s later years, did Einstein abandon this position once Israel was established. He was often a thorn in the side of Israeli officials, and it was only the prospect of having such an esteemed personage represent the new state that made Ben Gurion throw caution to the wind and offer Einstein the presidency. It was fortunate for all parties that he declined.

In the introduction to his book, Fred Jerome writes that his purpose in collecting Einstein’s “provocative” ideas is not only to correct a historical misimpression, but also to advance those ideas, which are more relevant now than in his own lifetime. For Einstein, the domination of Arab by Jew would mean the “failure of Zionism.” Today, with the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians stalled, and Israel continuing to deny Palestinians basic rights, a peaceable alternative to the Jewish state must be considered.

That Einstein was a cultural Zionist who bailed out when it came to politics is made clear enough by Fred Jerome’s material. Too clear, one might say. Time and again, the same thoughts are rehearsed in the same language to different correspondents. What Jerome makes of the material, however, is another matter. First, he insinuates that the truth about Einstein has been deliberately, conspiratorially suppressed (he doesn’t come out and say by whom, but you don’t have to be an Einstein to figure it out). In reality, any myths about the great scientist were partly constructed by Einstein himself, who gave off varying impressions at various times and did not always loudly broadcast his utopian dissents from the Zionist agenda.

Certainly there was no small number of assents. Here is Einstein in a 1925 text that Jerome does not cite: “Jewish nationalism is a necessity today, because only through a consolidation of our national life can we eliminate those conflicts from which the Jews suffer at the present time.” Jerome tendentiously relegates to an appendix pro-Zionist letters that Einstein signed and later allowed to be reprinted in book form. From 1929: “Zionism ... is rooted in a Jewish spiritual tradition, whose maintenance and development are for Jews the raison d’etre of their continued existence as a community.” From a 1947 letter to Jawaharal Nehru: “May I appeal to you, as the leader of a movement of social and national enfranchisement, to recognize in Zionism a similar movement whose realization will add to the peace and progress of the Orient? ... The right of the Jews to continue the upbuilding of their ancient homeland without artificial restrictions will increase the sum of well-being in the world.”

Jerome’s larger purpose is to bring to bear Einstein's moral authority upon the cause of replacing Israel with a binational Palestine that would rescue the Jews from the crimes of statehood. To this end, Jerome’s glosses parrot discredited chestnuts of anti-Zionist propaganda, like the idea that Theodor Herzl's dream was for a state exclusively for Jews; that after the 1929 Arab riots in Palestine, Chaim Weizmann wanted to have all the Arabs deported; that During World War II, Ben Gurion “became assertive in denying the right of sovereignty” to the Palestinian Arabs. Some especially ugly libels are tossed into the salad--e.g., that during World War I, German Jews largely avoided military service (this was a notion of Hitler’s in Mein Kampf); or that (as translator Michael Schiffmann charges in his preface) during the recent Gaza war, Israeli blockades caused Arab children and pregnant women to die daily from malnutrition and lack of medical treatment.

As for the value of Einstein's ruminations, Jerome seems to espouse a theory of the fungibility of intellect: Einstein was a brilliant physicist and kindly sage, ergo, his political ideas are wise and worth pursuing. But one might as well theorize that the GDP growth rate equals MC2. Einstein was empirically neither a genius when it came to politics nor a moral philosopher.

He remained an incorrigible pacifist even after the Holocaust and Israel’s stand in its 1948 War of Independence against armies sworn to its destruction. Morally, he took criticism of his own people and forbearance toward the Arabs to perverse and absurd extremes. Thus, he could liken Menachem Begin’s right-wing Herut party in Israel to the Nazis, but be genuinely puzzled when a telegram he wrote to Gamal Abdel Nasser proposing a peace negotiation with Israel went unanswered.

Einstein’s political naivete was not confined to the question of Zionism. In the 1930s, he confided to the philosopher Sidney Hook that he was persuaded by those "who knew Russia best" that the infamous Moscow show trials had been authentic. In 1948, he declared that the Soviet system of government had "great merits, and it is difficult to decide whether it would have been possible for the Russians to survive by following softer methods." A few years later, he recognized “with a great deal of disquiet the far-reaching analogy between Germany of 1932 and the U.S.A. of 1954."

There was always an impeccable logic to Einstein’s political ideas, but the philosophical “system” upon which they were based was skewed and callow. His dogmatic, abstract principles never yielded to the inconstant, brutal, human realities that the physicist is spared. Einstein’s ideas about Zionism are no more the beginning of political wisdom, and no more relevant today, than Fred Jerome's sloppy agitprop.

David Billet is associate editor of Commentary.

By David Billet