It should be noted that personal circumstances, perhaps nearly as much as historical ones, motivated Einstein to take this trip. Neither his private life nor his academic career was entirely fulfilling. His family was fragmented: by 1914 he had left Mileva, the mother of his children, for his cousin Elsa (whom he soon married), and he had a poor relationship with his sons. He felt estranged, too, from most of his admirers; for a humanist, he had a low regard for the merely average mind. Furthermore, his scientific progress—an area Rosenkranz mostly skips over from 1905 on—had slowed, and with it his sense of accomplishment. The Zionist cause, Rosenkranz persuasively suggests, filled more than a few gaps.

In 1923, Einstein took his second major trip on behalf of Zionism, “a secular pilgrimage” (as Rosenkranz calls it) to Palestine. He was moved to see Russian Jews working together on kibbutzim to build a strong community. Palestine seemed to him a place to which the best of European culture could be imported without the politics and rivalry that got in the way back home. Just so, when he became president of Hebrew University’s board of governors, he hoped the board’s academic appointments would be purely meritocratic. He was soon disabused of this illusion. By 1928, he was fuming over “those Philistines in Jerusalem,” and soon after he resigned from the board. The university had become a Schmerzenskind, a “problem child.”

In 1929 clashes between Jews and Arabs made Einstein’s ideal homeland seem even less realistic. 133 Jews were killed (mostly by Arabs) along with 116 Arabs (mostly by British military and police). Einstein was one of the few supporters of the Zionist cause who nevertheless responded in a conciliatory, pacifist spirit. He wrote letters and articles for Arab papers to express his belief that Arabs and Jews could have “a great future together.” The last thing he wanted was to create a nation that drew the kinds of divisions he’d despaired of in Europe. For this reason he said he considered Arab displacement “completely out of the question.” He and Hugo Bergmann, a professor at Hebrew University, agreed that a binational solution, a “symbiosis” between Jews and Arabs, would be best, and to this end Einstein suggested that schools in the region mandate that Jewish children learn Arabic. Einstein was bitterly disappointed when he learned that Bergmann and other faculty members who supported binationalism were reviled by much of the rest of the faculty and student body. He had lent his name to other Jewish projects—such as proposed settlements in Lithuania and Peru—but Hebrew University had been the crown jewel of his optimism, and nothing in his efforts so far had been more disenchanting than the university’s failure to provide a peaceful, apolitical place of scholarship for Jews.

Rosenkranz’s narrative more or less ends on Einstein’s disappointment with Zionism in Palestine in the early 1930s. Of course, a scholar may pick any period he wishes for examination, but to leave off at such a crucial turning point for Zionism—just before the Nazis took power—is conspicuous in a book that so coolly regards the founding of Israel. The story of Einstein before Israel might well have continued until 1948—the year Israel was founded—by which time the Holocaust had proven once and for all the necessity of a Jewish homeland. Yet except for a brief epilogue, Rosenkranz stops at 1933, and his book mentions Hitler only once. Rosenkranz seems intent on stressing the failures of Zionism—in Einstein’s eyes or in his own—and on shaping Einstein’s experience into a parable of a “Zionist vision gone awry.” His writing is clear (if often slowed by academic throat-clearing) but his emphasis is misleading, placed as it often is on historical details that are least flattering to Zionism.

Consider the way Rosenkranz discusses the 1929 riots: he portrays Einstein as a rare advocate for peace and reason after the clashes, showing how, amidst the uncompromising Zionists, he worked with Arabs to spread good will. There is plenty of truth to this, but Rosenkranz treats the incident as little more than a case study in Einstein’s frustrations with Zionists. He is eager to criticize the “nationalist fervor” of the Zionists (and, later, of Israel), yet he is uninterested in describing the situation of Jews in the Middle East—except when it offers evidence that they disappointed Einstein. In discussing the Zionists’ attitude toward binationalism in Palestine, Rosenkranz might have noted, for instance, that when Einstein visited the region, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was Haj Mohammed Effendi Amin el-Husseini, who would later offer his services to Hitler and encourage other Arabs to join the Nazis.

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.