Albert Einstein and Zionism

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein and Zionism

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Albert Einstein and Zionism

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

These pages explore Albert Einstein's ideas about Zionism. Albert Einstein was not a conventional thinker of course, and his Zionism was unconventional too. While he lived, it was probably not possible for anyone to claim Einstein was not a Zionist, or that his Zionism was not compatible with his ideals of pacifism and socialism, as well as with his non-religious outlook. However, over half a century has passed since his death, dimming memories and distorting ideas, and allowing vultures to peck away at the memory of a great man.

Because this great and gentle man should be an example to others, especially other Jews, in everything that we do and think, it is worthwhile pondering the course of Albert Einstein's thought about Zionism and its development over the years.

Albert Einstein and the Balfour Declaration

At the conclusion of World War I, Einstein was horrified by the barbarity and butchery, but the The Balfour Declaration had given him hope. He wrote to his friend Paul Ehrenfest:

I'm very disillusioned with politics right now. Those countries [the Allied powers] whose victory I thought, during the war, would be by far the lesser evil, now show themselves to be an only slightly lesser evil. On top of that, there's the thoroughly dishonorable domestic politics: the reactionaries with all their shameful deeds in repulsive revolutionary disguise. One doesn't know where to look to take pleasure in human striving. What makes me happiest is the [prospective] realization of a Jewish state in Palestine. It seems to me that our brethren [Stammgenossenen] really are nicer [sympathische] (at least less brutal) than these awful [scheuslichen] Europeans. Maybe it can only get better if the Chinese alone survive; they lump all Europeans together as 'bandits.'

Letter to Paul Ehrenfest
March 22, 1919
Physics Today , April 2005
Translated and annotated by Bertram Schwarzschild

Albert Einstein recruited to the Zionist Cause

Kurt Blumenfeld recruited Einstein to Zionism in 1919, though not without difficulty. Albert Einstein was very much for assertion of Jewish rights, but this conflicted with his lifelong opposition to militant nationalism. Blumenfeld quoted him as saying:

I  am against nationalism but in favor of Zionism [Blumenfeld quotes Einstein as having told him]. The reason has become clear to me today. When a man has both arms and he is always saying I have a right arm, then he is a chauvinist. However, when the right arm is missing, then he must do something to make up for the missing limb. Therefore, I am, as a human being, an opponent of nationalism. But as a Jew I am from today a supporter of the Jewish Zionist efforts. Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, World Publishing (1971) p. 378.

In October of 1919, he wrote to physicist Paul Epstein:

Zionist cause is very close to my heart…. I am very confident of the happy development of the Jewish colony and am glad that there should be a tiny speck on this earth in which the members of our tribe should not be aliens….

One can be internationally minded, without renouncing interest in one's tribal comrades.

Einstein was soon moved to support Zionism even more firmly, by increasing attacks on Jews and on himself personally in Germany. In 1920, a shady nationalist named Paul Weyland, and Ernst Gehrcke, a physicist began agitating against Einstein and the "Jewish nature" of relativity theory. They were supported in part by the Nobel Laureate Philipp Lenard, whose work had been an inspiration for Einstein's earlier papers. Weyland and Gehrcke called a mass meeting to denounce Einstein. With characteristic courage, Einstein attended the meeting. Later, he wrote a scathing and not-too-judicious rebuttal of Weyland and Gehrcke, which also attacked Lenard.

In the same year, Albert Einstein was asked to address an assimilationist organization of "Germans of the Jewish Faith." He rebuffed them rather bruskly. In rebuffing them, he wrote that efforts of assimilationist Jews to put aside everything Jewish appear somewhat comical to a non-Jew, because the Jews are a people apart. "The psychological root of anti-Semitism lies in the fact that the Jews are group of people unto themselves. Their Jewishness is visible in their physical appearance, and one notices their Jewish heritage in their intellectual work." (cited in Isaacson, 2007 p 283).

He also wrote,:

Before we can effectively combat anti-Semitism, we must first of all educate ourselves out of it... Only when we have the courage to regard ourselves as a nation, only when we respect ourselves, can we win the respect of others; or rather, the respect of others will then come of itself. (Einstein, About Zionism , MacMillan,1931, p. 33)

Chaim Weizmann met Albert Einstein and the two scientists became good friends. Einstein was enlisted to help raise funds for the creation of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. To make the trip, Einstein cancelled many scheduled lectures, including an invitation to the famed Solvay conference. He wrote to friends about this trip.

To Maurice Solovine:

 I am not at all eager to go to America but am doing it only in the interests of the Zionists, who must beg for dollars to build educational institutions in Jerusalem and for whom I act as high priest and  decoy...

I do what I can to help those in my tribe who are treated so badly everywhere.
(Ronald W Clark Einstein: The Life and Times , p. 383)

To Friedrich Zangger, he wrote on March 14, 1921:

On Saturday I'm off to America - not to speak at universities (though there will probably be that, too, on the side) but rather to help in the founding of the Jewish University in Jerusalem. I feel an intense need to do something for this cause. ( Letter to Zangger, In Einstein, Albert,  Albert Einstein, The Human Side (Hofmann, Banesh and Dukas, Helen, eds.) Princeton University Press, p 62). 

Chaim Weizmann, Albert Einstein and their party traveled by ship and the two got to know each other. Weizmann supposedly remarked, "Every day he explained his theory to me, and now I am convinced that he understands it." They arrived in New York to begin what would be a very long and famous tour.

Albert Einstein arrives in New York with Zionist Delegation
Arriving in New York: (L to R): Menachem Ussishkin, Chaim
Weizmann, (either Vera Weizmann or Margot Einstein)
 Albert Einstein, Elsa Einstein and Ben Zion Messensohn
Einstein and his companions were driven through
New York in an open car motorcade, horns blaring.

At the conclusion of the trip, Albert Einstein wrote to his friend Michele Besso:

Two frightfully exhausting months now lie behind me, but I have the great satisfaction of having been very useful to the cause of Zionism and of having assured the foundation of the university...

It is a wonder I was able to hold out. But now it is over, and there remains the beautiful feeling of having done something truly good... (Einstein: A Centenary Volume Harvard U Press (1979) p 203)

Albert Einstein and the Assassination of Walther Rathenau

The German Foreign Minister, Walther Rathenau, was an assimilated Jew. His views on internationalism and human rights were similar to those of Einstein, though they disagreed on the Jewish question, Zionism and assimilation. They became close friends. Einstein told him over dinner, after reading his book on politics, "I saw with astonishment and joy how extensive a meeting of minds there is between out outlooks on life. Einstein introduced him to Weizmann and to Blumenfeld, hoping to convert him to Zionism, but without success. In 1922, Rathenau, who believed in German compliance with allied demands, negotiated the treated of Rappallo with the Soviets. This earned him the opprobrium of the Nazis as a member of the "Jewish-communist conspiracy." On June 24, 1922, Rathenau was assassinated by Nazis. Einstein, and much of Germany, mourned Rathenau.

Later, Einstein was to say:

I can remember very well the time when Jews in Germany laughed over Palestine. I remember, when I spoke with Rathenau about Palestine, he said: 'Why go to this land that is only sand and worth nothing and which can never be developed?' This was his idea. But, if he had not been murdered, he probably would now be in Palestine. You can therefore see that the development of Palestine is of real tremendous importance for all of Jewry. At a 1940 testimonial dinner to Einstein, given by the friends of the Haifa Technion, Institute of Technology, quoted in Abraham Pais, Einstein Lived Here, Clarendon Press, Oxford U Press, 1994, pg 248

Einstein was profoundly shaken, and officials and friends warned him to guard his life. Hitler had already attacked Einstein and "Jewish science." Einstein's name appeared on hit lists prepared by Nazis. Officials advised him to leave Berlin or avoid public appearances. For a time he moved to Kiel. Inexplicably, he remained in Berlin for another decade. Meanwhile however, he decided to embark on a tour of Asia and Palestine. He knew when he embarked on this tour, that it would force him to miss the presentation ceremony of the Nobel prize for 1922, which he had been more or less informed, in September of 1922, that he would receive.

In Singapore, Einstein was greeted by the Jewish community and raised money for the Hebrew University.

He said:

If science is pre-eminent through its universal predomination, then one may ask, why do we need a Jewish University? Science is international but its success is based on institutions which are owned by nations. If therefore, we wish to promote culture we have to combine and to organize institutions with our own power and means. We need to do this all the more on account of the present political developments and especially in the view of the fact that a large percentage of our sons are refused admission to the Universities of other nations. Einstein in Singapore Joan Bieder in On The Page Web magazine issue no. 1, winter 2000–2001

Albert Einstein in Palestine

Arriving in Palestine in 1923, the Einsteins were treated to, or rather underwent, a round of official festivities organized both by Zionists and the mandatory government. Einstein was made an honorary citizen of Tel Aviv, gave the very first lecture at the as yet unbuilt Hebrew University, and visited Haifa, where he planted two trees in the Technion and met with workers.

Albert Einstein delivered the inaugural lecture of the Hebrew University. He also undertook to edit the university's first scientific journal. Along with Sigmund Freud, Ehad Ha'am, Judah Magnes and others, Einstein was a member of the first board of governors of the Hebrew University.

He began his speech in Hebrew, but continued in French, as his Hebrew was unequal to the task. Later he wrote:

I consider this the greatest day of my life. Hitherto I have always found something to regret in the Jewish soul, and that is the forgetfulness of its own people -- forgetfulness of its being, almost. Today I have been made happy by the sight of the Jewish people learning to recognize themselves and to make themselves recognized as a force in the world. This is a great age, the age of liberation of the Jewish soul, and it has been accomplished through the Zionist movement, so that no one in the world will be able to destroy it. (Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, World Publishing (1971) pg 393)


Albert Einstein delivers the inaugural lecture of the Hebrew University

Albert Einstein receives honorary citizenship of Tel Aviv, February, 1923

"I have already had the privilege of of receiving honorary citizenship of the City of New York, but I am tenfold happier to be a citizen of this beautiful Jewish town "

February 8 diary entry on Tel Aviv:

"The accomplishments of the Jews in just a few years in this city arouses the highest admiration.. An incredibly active people, our Jews... "

Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, World Publishing (1971) pg 394

Albert Einstein receives honorary citizenship of Tel Aviv

Einstein with Jewish workers in Haifa, 1923 Einstein with Jewish workers in Haifa, February, 1923

We like our brethren in Palestine very much as peasants, workers and as citizens... On the whole, the country is not very fertile. It will become a moral center, but will not be able to take in a large proportion of the Jewish people. I am convinced, however, that the colonization will succeed. Einstein to Maurice Solovine, 1923, in Lettres a Maurice Solovine (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1956), pg. 4

Albert Einstein Planting Trees in the Technion, Palestine
Albert Einstein at Augusta Victoria with
High Commissioner Herbert Samuel
Albert Einstein Planting Trees
in Palestine

Albert Einstein and Zionism - 1929

In 1929, Albert Einstein attended the 16th Zionist congress. Like so many of us, he could never make up his mind if "Zionist" should apply only to those living in Palestine, or also to those Jews living abroad who supported the idea of Zionism. At the congress, he spoke of ""the brave and dedicated minority who call themselves Zionists" and of "we others." Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, World Publishing (1971) pg 401].

But when a Weimar Minister, Willy Helpach, criticized Zionism as a "nationalist" movement, Einstein responded:

I have read your article on Zionism and feel, as a strong devotee of the Zionist idea, that I must answer you... I realized that only a common enterprise dear to the heart of Jews all over the world could restore this people to health...It was the great achievement of Herzl's to have realized and proclaimed... the establishment of a national home, or more accurately, a center in Palestine...

All this you call nationalism... But a communal purpose, without which we can neither live nor die in this hostile world, can always be called by that ugly name. In any case it is a nationalism whose aim not power but dignity and health.If we didn't have to live among intolerant, narrow minded and violent people, I would be the first to discard all nationalism in favor of a universal humanity

Letter to Professor Hellpach, published in Mein Weltbild (The World as I See It), 1934  

Following the Arab riots of 1929 Einstein rallied to the cause of the Zionist project, threatened by the British White Paper, and identified the Grand Mufti, Hajj Amin Al Husseini as the main instigator:

Does public opinion in Great Britain realise that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who is the centre of an the trouble, and speaks so loudly in the name of all the Moslems, is a young political adventurer of not much more, I understand, than thirty years of age, who in 1920 was sentenced to several years' imprisonment for his complicity in the riots of that year, but was pardoned under the terms of an amnesty? The mentality of this man may be gauged from a recent statement he gave to an interviewer accusing me, of all men, of having demanded the rebuilding of the Temple on the site of the Mosque of Omar. Is it tolerable that, in a country where ignorant fanaticism can so easily be incited to rapine and murder by interested agitators, so utterly irresponsible and unscrupulous a politician should be enabled to continue to exercise his evil influence, garbed in an the spiritual sanity of religion, and invested with all the temporal powers that this involves in an Eastern country? (Albert Einstein, About Zionism , Macmillan, 1931 pp 60-61 [Aug. 1929, 1929])

In 1931, the Zionist movement published a collection of Albert Einstein's speeches and letters about Zionism. From this, there emerges a clear picture of the principles of his thought about Zionism and the Jewish people:

Despite his assimilationist upbringing, Albert Einstein was contemptuous of assimilationist Jews:

Before we can effectively combat anti-Semitism, we must first of all educate ourselves out of it and out of the slave mentality which it betokens. We must have more dignity, more independence, in our own ranks. Only when we have the courage to regard ourselves as a nation, only when we respect ourselves, can we win the respect of others; or rather, the respect of others will then come of itself. Anti-Semitism as a psychological phenomenon will always be with us so long as Jews and non-Jews are thrown together. But where is the harm? It may be thanks to anti-Semitism that we are able to preserve our existence as a race; that at any rate is my belief.

When I come across the phrase "German Citizens of the Jewish Persuasion," I cannot avoid a melancholy smile. What does this high falutin' description really mean? What is this "Jewish persuasion"? Is there, then, a kind of non-persuasion by virtue of which one ceases to be a Jew? There is not. What the description really means is that our beaux esprits are proclaiming two things:

First I wish to have nothing to do with my poor (East European) Jewish brethren; Secondly, I wish to be regarded not as a son of my people, but only as a member of a religious community.

Is this honest? Can an "Aryan" respect such dissemblers? I am not a German citizen, nor is there anything about me that can be described as "Jewish persuasion." But I am a Jew, and I am glad to belong to the Jewish people, though I do not regard it as "chosen." Let us just leave anti-Semitism to the non-Jews, and keep our own hearts warm for our kith and kin. (1920) From About Zionism

It is clear that Albert Einstein thought of Zionism as a movement of national liberation in every progressive sense, and he understood the importance of rebuilding a homeland in Palestine not just for "refugees" but for Diaspora Jews as well: :

But my Zionism does not exclude cosmopolitan views. I believe in the actuality of Jewish nationality, and I believe that every Jew has duties towards his co-religionists. The meaning of Zionism is thus many sided. To Jews who despair in the Ukrainian hell or in Poland it opens out hopes of a more human existence. Through the return of Jews to Palestine, and so to a normal and healthy economic life, Zionism involves a creative fusion, which should enrich mankind at large. But the main point is that Zionism must tend to enhance the dignity and self respect of the Jews in the Diaspora. I have always been annoyed by the undignified assimilationist cravings and strivings which I have observed in so many of my friends.

Through the establishment of a Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine, the Jewish people will again be in a position to bring its creative abilities into full play without hindrance. Through the Jewish University and similar institutions the Jewish people will not only help forward its own national renaissance, but will enrich its moral culture and knowledge, and will once again, as it was centuries ago, be guided into better ways of life than those which are inevitably imposed on it in present conditions.

The rebuilding of Palestine is for us Jews not a mere matter of charity or emigration: it is a problem of paramount importance for the Jewish people. Palestine is first and foremost not a refuge for East European Jews, but the incarnation of a reawakening sense of national solidarity. But is it opportune to revive and to strengthen this sense of solidarity? To that question I must reply with an unqualified affirmative, not only because that answer expresses my instinctive feeling but also, I believe, on rational grounds. ((Albert Einstein, About Zionism, Macmillan, 1931 pp 30-31)


His deep pacifist commitments and humanitarian outlook made Albert Einstein call again and again for attempts to make peace with the Arabs of Palestine.

The first and most important necessity is the creation of a modus vivendi with the Arab people. Friction is perhaps inevitable, but its evil consequences must be overcome by organised co-operation, so that the inflammable material may not be piled up to the point of danger. The absence of normal contact in every-day life is bound to produce an atmosphere of mutual fear and distrust, which is favourable to such lamentable outbursts of passion as we have witnessed. We Jews must show above all that our own history of suffering has given us sufficient understanding and psychological insight to know how to cope with this problem of psychology and organisation: (Albert Einstein, About Zionism , Macmillan, 1931 pp 60-61 [Letter to Manchester Guardian, Oct. 12, 1929])


I deplore the tragic events of last August not only because they revealed human nature in its lowest aspects, but also because they have deranged the two peoples and have made it temporarily more difficult for them to approach one another. But come together they must, in spite of all. (Letter to the Palestinian Arab Paper Falastin, 28 January 1930) from About Zionism  

A book, About Zionism, summing up Albert Einstein's writings about Zionism to date was published in 1930, and republished in 1931 by MacMillan.

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Albert Einstein