At the Swiss Polytechnic, Einstein married his fellow student Mileva Marić, a non-Jew. He stayed in Switzerland to earn a PhD from the University of Zurich, and by 1905 he’d published four staggering papers, including the one that would later win him the Nobel Prize, and another that introduced his theory of special relativity. Though Einstein was thriving as a scientist in Zurich, he couldn’t speak the popular dialect (Swiss German), felt self-conscious about his “Semitic” appearance, and his shabby clothing sometimes made people think he was, as his sister Maja put it, “one of the despised Russians.” As in childhood, his sense of alienation stirred an appreciation for the common background of Jewish friends and colleagues. Very often in his life Einstein referred to Jews as Stammesgenossen, “ethnic comrades,” and he liked to repeat the saying “Il sangue non è acqua,” the Italian version of “blood is thicker than water.”

Understandably, Einstein’s conviction that Jews must stand together only deepened as Jewish persecution intensified in Russia. One incident that especially worried him was the 1913 “blood libel” trial in Kiev, during which prosecutors (and the Russian press) stoked anti-Semitism by claiming Jews had murdered a Christian child to use his blood in their rituals. The next year, Einstein refused an academic invitation to Russia because it was “a country in which my ethnic comrades are being persecuted in such a brutal manner.” Clearly he felt his ties to Jews extended across national borders: an ethnic Jew in Russia was no less a comrade than one in Germany or Switzerland. Since leaving Germany as a teenager, he had always seen nationality as merely circumstantial: “a business matter, akin to one’s relationship with a life insurance company.”

For this reason Einstein was all the more frustrated with the militant nationalism and imperialism that helped cause World War I. He saw patriotic rhetoric inciting young German intellectuals to cheer for war. “The younger people are going under this evil treadmill,” he wrote, especially lamenting (with more than a little elitism) when gifted scientists left their labs for the battlefield. “If only there were an island somewhere for the benevolent and sober-minded!” he despaired in a 1914 letter. “That is where I would want to be a fervent patriot.” His wish was to escape from the madness of Europe, not to help create a new homeland for Jews.

This turns out to be the most crucial difference between Einstein and the Zionist groups he supported. For many Zionists, a Jewish nation was in itself a goal, because they valued the notion of Jews united under one flag. For Einstein, the prospect of a Jewish nation was not entirely appealing. As he wrote in 1929, “If we did not have to live among intolerant, narrow-minded, and violent people, I would be the first to reject every form of nationalism in favor of a universal humanity.” He would have agreed with Franz Kafka, who remarked privately that Zionism was “merely the entrance into that which is more important.” What was more important to Einstein than a Jewish state per se was an infrastructure that could provide what the rest of the world hadn’t: security, academic freedom, and “a little patch of earth where our ethnic comrades will not be considered aliens.” He didn’t imagine this “little patch” could change the lives of Jews worldwide, but as a moral and intellectual beacon it might restore the Diaspora’s sense of “ethnic solidarity.”

Jeremy Axelrod is the assistant editor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review. His writing has appeared in Commentary, The Yale Review, The New York Sun, The New Atlantis, and elsewhere.