People are starting to to take notice of Fred Jerome’s new book, Einstein on Israel and Zionism. I reviewed the book here a couple months ago, but now it has gotten the attention of David Billet at The New Republic and Adam Kirsch at Tablet. Both are apparently Zionists, and both seem unwilling to grapple with the important issues the book raises.
Billet and Kirsch take similar approaches in their reviews – they want to keep the parts of Einstein they like, and ditch the rest. One of the most powerful parts for me of reading Jerome’s book was seeing Einstein’s own progression from ardent cultural Zionist to disillusioned critic as he watched Jabontinsky’s revisionist Zionism come to fore. By the end of the book Einstein has become a strong proponent of a binational state in historic Palestine out of the belief that a system of unequality between Jews and Arabs will only lead to unending conflict. In their reviews, Billet and Kirsch highlight the early Einstein to defend Israel ("The case for Israel has seldom been better put"), while discounting Einstein’s eventual conclusions. They refer to his call for equality between Jews and Palestinians as "naive" and "illogical," and asset that Einstein couldn’t possibly understand the situation on the ground from his ivory tower. As Billet explains, "his dogmatic, abstract principles never yielded to the inconstant, brutal, human realities that the physicist is spared." Instead of wrestling with the reasons for Einstein’s change of heart, Billet and Kirsch simply come up reasons why they don’t even have to take his ideas seriously.
In addition, both reviewers attack Jerome for attempting to twist Einstein’s words to carry out his "sloppy agitprop." Evidently Jerome’s real sin is that he is critical of Israel without being apologetic for it. Kirsch says that Einstein at least had the saving grace of considering himself a Zionist – "Einstein has one advantage over his new editor: his reservations about Israel were voiced from the standpoint of his unquestionable commitment to Zionism." Of course this is the litmus test you have to past before you can criticize Israel.
One irony of reading Einstein on Israel and Zionism is seeing that Billet and Kirsch’s criticisms were just as prevalent during Einstein’s lifetime. The book documents Einstein’s own debates with members of the Jewish community who tried to tell him he didn’t understand the issue and that he was hurting the community. Einstein responded by saying that, rather than shaming the community, his call for equality was holding up Judaism’s greatest ideals. If only he was around today to remind Billet and Kirsch.