Fred Jerome,  Einstein on Israel and Zionism

We keep learning that the supposed morality of our fathers (פרקי  אבות or Pirkei Avot)‎ does not describe their actual history.  Jerome has given us another welcome piece of the untold real story of Zionism.  The Einstein of my childhood (the forties and early 50s) was the Dalai Lama of his day, a great humanitarian, humble being but also revolutionary scientist.  He was not only thought of as a supporter of Israel but of other liberal causes.  In the writings of revisionist historians, Israel, Zionism and the history of the Jews  begins to look a lot different than what I was brought up on and what the Israeli propaganda machine wants the world, or at least, the US populace to believe.

Jerome brings us many of Einstein’s own writings and speeches on Zionism and Israel.  While some of what Jerome offers is well known, the additional source material fleshes out Einstein’s views.  And  though Jerome wants Einstein to speak for himself, Jerome’s comments and placement of Einstein’s utterance in context is what gives the book life beyond simply a resource for scholars.   For myself I wish Jerome had put more of himself in the book. 

Einstein, of course, is an interesting character, but as he was wrong about Quantum Mechanics, and wrong for maybe 30 years, so too he was naïve about certain history, even the anti-Semitism through which he lived in the 1920s. 

While Einstein, the transnationalist, had doubts about Zionism’s nationalism and even accused both Irgun and the Stern gang of being like the Nazi’s, he somehow never seemed to unabashedly attack Jewish nationalism that treated the Arabs in ways akin to which the Jews had been.  Yes, he uttered harsh words—calling Menachim Begin a Nazi—but his accusations never seemed to stick.  He and Buber, and maybe Magnes wanted a binational state but that was never in the cards for the Zionists.  When offered the Presidency of Israel, Einstein turned it down saying he was not qualified and would have to say things people did not want to hear.   Still he did not use the occasion to criticize Israeli racism and ethnic cleaning.

Einstein had a kind of garbled view of Jews, as nation, as culture, as race.  I couldn’t quite follow his reasoning.  It seems limp.  He saw people sticking together because of cultural/religious differences with others  and thus different peoples could never live together.  I can’t figure it out.  Einstein was the epitome of the “enlightenment” Jew and yet he criticized them.   The assimilated German Jews of Einstein’s era were much more interested in being German than Jewish, although some were torn, like Heine.  After the defeat of Napoleon and the ensuing reaction when Jew were stripped of some Napoleonic rights, there were many conversions like Karl Marx’s father.  German Jews shared the German dislike of Eastern European peasants and from the 1880s to WWI facilitated the quiet transport of Ostjüden across Germany by packing them into cattle cars and hiding them in warehouses and cheap hotels in Bremenhaven and Hamburg before they set sail on German shipping lines for America.   Jewish assimilation in Germany was an up and down affair.  During WWI they were patriotic and included.  In its disastrous aftermath, nativism waxed and waned and with it Jews’ feelings of belonging.  The Jewish bourgeoisie was always threatened by economically induced xenophobia (as happened in the US)  but we get no sense from Einstein how influential Jews were in the Weimar Republic.  Nor, except for a mention of the Jewish autonomous Birobidjan in ’45, do we get a sense from Einstein about how liberated Jews were in the Soviet Union prior to Stalin’s paranoia after WWII.  After all Hitler and the Nazi’s identified Jews with communists, and they were proportionately right when it came to Soviet commissars.  Einstein did go against both German and Jewish xenophobia by holding university classes for Ostjüden.

One of the most interesting parts of the book was Einstein’s attempts to communicate with Nasser in 1952-53 through an Egyptian journalist/diplomat.  Einstein didn’t want to be a mediator but he even sought the help of Nehru to try to get Egypt to negotiate with Israel.  While he felt Begin was like the Nazis, he saw Ben-Gurion as different: to which the journalist replied that Ben-Gurion acted no differently.  As the author claims, this bit of history has not been presented elsewhere.  And we owe him a dept of gratitude for this.  It is key because Einstein was never able to clearly strip the enlightenment demeanor from the major Zionists who recruited him while concealing their insidious goals.  If he had, his opposition to their program might have been more open and aggressive.

None-the-less I am grateful to the author for giving us a picture of Einstein’s dissent which has not been part of the history Zionists would have us believe.    

Charlie Fisher, emeritus Professor, Brandeis Univesity 

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