Fred Jerome begins his new book, Einstein on Israel and Zionism, with a great quote from Albert Einstein to a close friend, “Though everybody knows me, there are very few people who really know me. I am a revolutionary.” Jerome’s book goes on to prove this very point. The book is a collection of Einstein’s letters, speeches and thoughts about Zionism and Israel, starting in 1919 until the end of life in 1955 (The translations were done by Michael Schiffmann, who includes a moving translator’s note written during the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza). These texts show Einstein’s shifting opinions and relationship to Zionism and his eventual dismay that Israel had become the “captive of narrow nationalism” that he had feared.
The book does a wonderful job at making it clear what an important figure Einstein was (“the world’s first international media star”) and how important his thinking was on this issue. One of the most interesting parts of the book to me was the incredible exchange of ideas and debates over the issue of Zionism and Israel that Einstein took part in. The book contains correspondence between Einstein and members of government, with luminaries of his day, and between him and Zionist leadership (as well as members of the Irgun) debating the Zionist movement.
There are so many good passages you should go buy it, but here is one portion I particularly liked. It is from Einstein’s testimony to the Angl0-American Committee on Inquiry on Palestine in January, 1946. Here he is talking with Judge ‘Texas Joe’ Hutcheson, the American Chairman of the Committee:
Judge Hutcheson: It has been told to our committee by the Zionists that the passionate heart of every Jew will never be satisfied until they have a Jewish state in Palestine. It is contended, I suppose, that they must have a majority over the Arabs. It has been told to us by the Arab representatives that the Arabs are not going to permit such condition as that, they they will not permit having themselves converted from a majority to a minority.
Dr. Einstein: Yes.
Judge Hutcheson: I have asked these various persons if it is essential to the right or the privilege of the Jews to go to Palestine, if it is essential to real Zionism that a setup be fixed so that the Jews have a Jewish state and a Jewish majority without regard to the Arab view. Do you share that point of view, or do you think the matter can be handled on any other basis?
Dr. Einstein: Yes, absolutely. The state idea is not according to my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with many difficulties and a narrow-mindedness. I believe it is bad.
Judge Hutcheson: Isn’t it spiritual and ethical – I do not mean this particular Zionist movement, I do not mean the idea of insisting that a Jewish state must be created – isn’t it anachronistic?
Dr. Einstein: In my opinion, yes. I am against it . . .
Einstein opposed partition and supported a bi-national state that would ensure equal rights for Palestinians and Jews. This testimony is followed in the book by one of many letters of dismay and protest from the Jewish community in response to Einstein’s position. Maurice Dunay wrote, “Your statement in opposition to a Jewish homeland in Palestine at this tragic moment in Jewish history fills me with a certain horror and sincere doubt as to your mental processes.”
The book reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s The Jewish Writings, in that is shows that there has never been consensus within the Jewish community on Zionism or Israel. In fact, there was a vibrant and intense debate over these issue both inside and outside the Jewish community (which Judge Hutcheson’s questioning attests to). It is also striking to me that even in the 1940s Einstein, and Arendt, could see the looming disaster of establishing a Jewish state on Palestinian land. While Einstein’s call for equal rights and equal power between Palestinians and Jews remains an inspiration today, it’s sad that what was “revolutionary” in his day, remains so today.