Ein­stein Before Israel: Zion­ist Icon or Iconoclast?

Ze’ev Rosenkranz
  • Review
By – October 31, 2011

This is the sto­ry of a bril­liant man who began life regard­ing his Jew­ish­ness as an obsta­cle and lat­er embraced it as ful­ly as he could. The book cov­ers the scientist’s ear­ly years, before he left Europe in 1933 for Prince­ton, New Jer­sey. Archivist, cura­tor, and edi­tor of Ein­stein sources, the author deliv­ers a wealth of down-to-earth, human mate­r­i­al about his famous subject. 

Raised as a Jew in Munich, Ein­stein emi­grat­ed to Switzer­land to escape late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Ger­man anti-Semi­tism, took Swiss cit­i­zen­ship, mar­ried a Gen­tile, then returned to Ger­many to become an aca­d­e­m­ic star. He then divorced his wife and reject­ed their two sick­ly (and there­fore unpro­duc­tive) sons as not valu­able.” Though unloved, this first fam­i­ly was always well supported. 

As a reli­gion, Judaism had no mean­ing for Ein­stein. But he mar­ried Elsa, a cousin, and began to find Jew­ish friends more com­fort­able.” Blood is thick­er than water,” he said, and as he matured he joined efforts to help Jews suf­fer­ing per­se­cu­tion in East­ern Europe 

After World War I, Ein­stein yield­ed to attempts to inter­est him in the grow­ing Zion­ist move­ment and also in efforts to found a Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Pales­tine. This insti­tu­tion would be staffed by refugee Jew­ish pro­fes­sors and attend­ed by Jew­ish stu­dents who were refused admis­sion else­where. Aca­d­e­m­ic stan­dards would be of the high­est. Ein­stein was by then so emi­nent that putting his name on an appeal con­sti­tut­ed a major coup. 

Although he was show­cased in a Zion­ist Amer­i­can fundrais­ing tour, Ein­stein was only luke­warm about efforts to estab­lish a Jew­ish home­land. To the despair of his spon­sors, his heart belonged to the Jerusalem University. 

In 1923, dur­ing the ear­ly British Man­date, Ein­stein made a wild­ly acclaimed tour of Pales­tine and lec­tured at the site of the uni­ver­si­ty-to-be. Of the envi­sioned nation he pre­dict­ed, noth­ing will come of it as an agri­cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ty (the Zion­ist dream).” But he admired the Jew­ish com­mer­cial dynamism of the cities. 

As his beloved uni­ver­si­ty took shape, the exec­u­tive direc­tor, Judah Magnes, a promi­nent New York Reform rab­bi, began tak­ing it in a direc­tion that hor­ri­fied their famous spon­sor. Instead of the Ger­man research insti­tute Ein­stein and oth­er Euro­pean donors and aca­d­e­mics expect­ed, it was becom­ing a high­ly struc­tured Amer­i­can-style school. Zion­ists knew that a research ori­en­ta­tion would send young peo­ple out of the coun­try in droves to get their BA’s. Ein­stein want­ed to resign but hav­ing won the Nobel Prize and pub­lished the the­o­ry of rel­a­tiv­i­ty, he was too impor­tant to with­draw pub­licly. The book ends with the issue still unre­solved — what was the prop­er func­tion of a uni­ver­si­ty: to spon­sor research, or to teach? 

Busy read­ers will have to skim and flip. Stu­dents and researchers will find trea­sures here. 

Jane Waller­stein worked in pub­lic rela­tions for many years. She is the author of Voic­es from the Pater­son Silk Mills and co-author of a nation­al crim­i­nal jus­tice study of parole for Rut­gers University.

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