Einstein Before Israel | By Ze’ev Rosenkranz | Princeton University Press | 364 pages, $35.00

In the 1920s, the general public began to assume a link between Albert Einstein’s work and his wisdom: as his name became shorthand for genius, it began to evoke not just scientific greatness but a vast, wizardly vision that expressed itself in gnomic formulae. By the time a new generation of physicists was, for the most part, dismissing Einstein’s search for a unified field theory, the world often hung on his opinions about everything else. For this reason Einstein was a golden asset for Zionists looking to widen their appeal. But to gain the public approval of the icon, Zionist leaders had to first deal privately with the man himself: an irreligious world traveler who distrusted nationalism, even as he nursed high hopes for the communal strength a Jewish nation might offer.

Ze’ev Rosenkranz’s Einstein Before Israel is a story of these sorts of bifurcations—between public and private faces, between the ends and means of Zionism, and between naïve ideals and practical realities. Rosenkranz provides an excellent account of Einstein’s ambivalent and often calculated ties with Zionism. However, the author’s treatment of Zionism itself is somewhat skewed. Rosenkranz is apparently drawn to Einstein’s complaints about Zionism as a way of expressing his own sense that “the Zionist vision had gone awry.” His preface suggests as much, and throughout the book he underplays the fact that for Einstein—who was politically inexperienced—a measure of disenchantment with the actual business of Zionism was inevitable.

More impressive is Rosenkranz’s fastidious and sympathetic discussion of how Einstein felt about his Jewish roots, starting with his early childhood in the 1880s. Like many rural Jewish families in Germany, Einstein’s was intramarried with others, forming a kind of clan that shared both relatives and business ventures. When the Einsteins moved to Ulm and then Munich, they held onto these family bonds, but they left behind the traditional piety of their ancestors: Einstein’s father Hermann is well known to have regarded Judaism as “ancient superstition,” and faith had little to do with the sense of ethnic solidarity that both parents instilled in young Einstein. What mattered more, it seems, was the hostile German majority that surrounded him. Looking back on his childhood, Einstein described a “vivid sense of strangeness…a quality based on one’s descent…not at all based merely on religious affiliation or certain idiosincracies of tradition.” Anti-Semitism trailed him from primary school to Catholic secondary school, where, as Einstein tells it, the religious instruction teacher brandished a long nail, explaining that “this was the nail with which the Jews had crucified Jesus.”

Einstein’s one bout of religious feeling, at age eleven, was brief but telling. He called it a “first attempt to liberate myself from the shackles of the merely personal.” The feeling was gone by age twelve, and there is no evidence that Einstein was bar mitzvahed. Rather, his coming of age was an awakening to science: knowledge was the “supreme goal,” less comforting than piety but more “reliable.” He also saw science as a universal alternative to the particulars of faith, nationality, ethnicity, and social class—all stifling aspects of the “merely personal.”

At age seventeen, Einstein joined his family in Italy, and the immigration process gave him an opportunity to cast off these particulars of identity. He renounced his German citizenship, and instead of marking “Jewish” on his immigration papers, indicated he had no religious affiliation. He also left behind his social class, the Jewish bourgeoisie. He was glad to sever these ties to home, and later he would proudly call himself “a stranger everywhere.”

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.”

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.”

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.

More generally, Zionists come off a bit too “wily,” to use Rosenkranz’s word—they seem scheming rather than bold, ambitious rather than passionate. Rosenkranz tends to downplay the degree to which most Zionists stressed the practical value of a Jewish homeland—as though all anybody wanted was an excuse to plant a flag. In the early years of the modern Zionist movement, the desire for a Jewish settlement, rather than for a formal nation, was hardly limited to Einstein.

Though much in the world changed after 1933, the great scientist’s core values did not. Even in 1938, he declared that he “would rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state.” It is also striking that in 1952, after Chaim Weizmann’s death, he turned down David Ben Gurion’s offer of the presidency of Israel. In his letter to Ben Gurion, Einstein (who never became a citizen of Israel) noted that his sense of camaraderie with Jews was his “strongest human bond, ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation among the nations of the world.” Then why not become president? As a reason for his refusal, he cited his lack of political aptitude for the position, even though it was largely symbolic. But Rosenkranz offers a better answer: that Einstein still preferred to relate to his “comrades” by way of a nationless humanism—one all too rare in a century of world wars.

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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.