The German Zionist Federation took Einstein’s priorities into account when its leaders approached him in 1919, just after the end of the war. It was the right time: anti-Semitism in Germany was worsening, the necessity of a Jewish homeland was becoming terrifyingly clear, and Einstein was becoming world famous. The group’s secretary, Kurt Blumenfeld, practiced, in his talks with Einstein, what Rosenkranz calls “a very subtle form of manipulation.” Blumenfeld tailored his description of Zionist projects to fit Einstein’s interests—as did Chaim Weizmann, himself an accomplished scientist and the future first president of Israel. The two men stressed that a Jewish colony in British Palestine could provide institutional support to Jewish Eastern European scholars, most importantly in the form of the planned Hebrew University. “Einstein is, you know, not a Zionist,” Blumenfeld wrote to Weizmann. But Einstein was quite willing to be “shown around like a prize-winning ox”—as he put it to a friend—if it helped raise funds for shared goals. So he joined Weizmann on a major fundraising trip to the U.S. in 1921. During the trip he said little about his own views to American audiences, instead urging them to “follow” Weizmann; he knew a unified front would be the most effective.
Einstein, who’d just won the Nobel Prize, drew large crowds of American Jews, but American Zionist leaders did not want European Zionists competing for funds on their home turf. Foremost among them was Louis Brandeis, who sent a message to Einstein that accused Weizmann of secretly diverting Hebrew University funds for other uses by the Zionist Commission in Palestine. Weizmann smoothed this over with Einstein, but it was one bump among many. In Rosenkranz’s apt phrase, Einstein became a “political football” for the two sides, who bickered over money, planning, and organizational structure.
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.”