‘Einstein Before Israel’ sheds light on scientist’s links to Zionism

‘Einstein Before Israel’ sheds light on scientist’s links to Zionism

Ze’ev Rosenkranz has been in the Einstein business for 22 years. He’s been a senior editor at the Einstein Papers Project at Cal Tech and former curator of Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. So he is familiar with, and has ready access to, Einstein’s papers — something he took full advantage of for his new book “Einstein Before Israel.”

An Israeli emigrant from Austria, Rosenkranz, who today lives in California, has morphed from a “youthful idealism” about Zionism to a “harsh, cynical reality of Israeli society.” He calls himself a “post-Zionist” and is critical of Israel for largely forgetting Einstein to the point that the name itself leads Israelis to think of a pop star named Arik Einstein rather than the scientist who changed the world.

Rosenkranz frankly acknowledges his own somewhat jaundiced views at the outset of the book, recognizing their influence on its content, claiming that it is difficult, if not impossible, to discuss Zionism with “complete impartiality.”

However, he insists that his treatment of his subject, Einstein and Zionism, has been approached “with a maximum amount of objectivity.”

This is a hard claim to justify since Rosenkranz opens the book by quoting Einstein as saying, “The Zionists are shameless and importunate.”

The exploration of Einstein’s relationship to Zionism is limited to the years from 1919, when Einstein was widely recognized for his general theory of relativity, to 1933, when Einstein left Germany to settle in Princeton, N.J. Before beginning this discussion, Rosenkranz devotes an introductory chapter to Einstein’s family background and his youth, which included anti-Semitic encounters even though his parents were not observant and he had no bar mitzva. Also, his first wife was not Jewish. Although they had two sons, the marriage ended in divorce and Einstein then married his cousin, Elsa.

Einstein had some minimal exposure to Zionism when he lived briefly in Prague. This became more intensive after he settled in Berlin in 1914. Shortly after World War I, Einstein declared that he was ready to enlist in the Zionist cause. His mentor was Kurt Blumenfeld, who Rosenkranz described as a “prominent Zionist propagandist.” As Einstein’s involvement deepened, he became interested in the idea of establishing a university in Jerusalem that would “provide a refuge for Jewish academics important to Einstein than the hope for a Jewish state in Palestine.

In 1921, Einstein accepted Chaim Weizmann’s invitation to accompany him on a fundraising tour to the United States, seeing it as an opportunity to help provide a financial base for Hebrew University. While he was modestly successful, he also inadvertently became involved in the quarrel between Weizmann and the American Zionist leader, Louis Brandeis.

Arguments about the governance of Hebrew University take up many pages of the book. Fierce struggles took place regarding the location of the board and academic committees. Judah Magnes, the American rabbi who was the university’s first head, insisted on authority being vested in Jerusalem while Einstein and others argued for a British or European location. Einstein and Magnes clashed on these and other policy issues.

Einstein became increasingly disenchanted and by 1928, three years after the university opened its doors, he threatened to cease his involvement.

Fighting between Arabs and Jews in 1929 troubled him and he argued against those Zionists who advocated removing the Arabs from Palestine. By contrast, Einstein called for cooperation with the Arabs, which led to a falling-out with Weizmann as well as a lessening of Einstein’s support for Zionism.

By 1933, when Einstein decided that he had to leave Germany, he went to America rather than to Palestine, partly because he was unhappy about what had happened at Hebrew University but also because he was increasingly disenchanted with the Zionist movement. Rosenkranz concludes that Einstein was not “a fully committed member” of the Zionist movement.

His unusual access to Einstein’s papers, along with his status as an Einstein scholar, requires attention to his findings.

(Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University (home of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine) and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)