Albert Einstein is well known for his genius and scientific insights into how the world operates. Not only are his words a measure of scientific understanding, but they resonate with people on a deeply personal level. This is partly what makes Albert Einstein’s journal reflecting his travels in Palestine in 1923 so profound in its assessment of Jewish culture, Antisemitism and the pre-Israeli Arab world.
When Einstein wrote to his friend Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist chemist who would become the first Israeli President, he spoke not of physics, but of the dangers of nationalism and conflict with the Arab nations. He warned his friend that “Should we be unable to find a way to honest cooperation and honest pacts with the Arabs, then we have learned absolutely nothing during our 2,000 years of suffering and deserve all that will come to us.”
“Should the Jews not learn to live in peace with the Arabs, the struggle against them will follow them for decades in the future.”
While that may seem a bit harsh for Albert Einstein, he was speaking to a man who held the future of Middle East relations in his hand. Although Einstein himself was a self-described Zionist, his was a mindset based on the view of Zionism as a rational and well researched vision based on learning and self-improvement. As such, Einstein was very disappointed to see the movement in stubbornness and stagnation.
This view was in part, developed by his 1923 visit to pre-state Israel. Albert Einstein first arrived by train to Jerusalem where he was taken aback by the backwardness of the Jewish people. It was difficult for Einstein to see a filthy and impoverished community, lacking in direction, and seemingly content to live in squalor. This did not conform to the view Albert Einstein had of Zionism and his criticism of a Jewish people so entirely stuck in the past was severe.
All of this changed when Einstein visited the future location of the Hebrew University where a tough, Jewish people were hard at work, building a community for themselves in Palestine and contributing to the education of the Jewish people. So respected was Albert Einstein as a Jew and as the worlds leading physicist that he was greeted as a “messiah” of sorts, an honor Einstein refuted with good humor in his journals.
Einstein then left to visit Tel Aviv, of which he was truly impressed, relating it to the great American city of Chicago. He was comforted to find the many German Jews who had been living in Tel Aviv and came home with a much more favorable view of Israel. Despite Einstein’s renewed faith in Israel, years later when David Ben-Gurion offered Einstein the position of Israel’s first president, he refused.
Albert Einstein felt that he would not be able to govern according to his conscience and that the people of Israel would not like what he had to say. He maintained that the growing strain of Jewish Nationalism would isolate Israel and jeopardize relations with the neighboring Arab nations.
Albert Einstein was a staunch pacifist as such, he wrote a letter condemning the militant Zionist leader Menachem Begin, who would eventually become Israel’s sixth prime minister. Einstein called Begin a fascist and stated that Herut, Begin’s right-wing Zionist movement, posed the greatest risk to the infant State.
In a letter to Weizmann, Einstein states “I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain – especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state,” adding that the Arabs and Jews needed to work together in the construction of the new Jewish state.
“The two great Semitic peoples have a great common future… The attitude we adopt toward the Arab minority will provide the real test of our moral standards as a people.”
Director Noa Ben Hagai, who is making a documentary based on Albert Einstein’s journals and politics says “It was important to me to let that voice be heard,” adding that “His statements didn’t come out of the blue, but when he makes them many years before they came true, it really seems like a prophetic statement.
“I felt it was important to show his wording, his humanist, moral and universal vision that has become a rarity. He called himself a Zionist, but today some who feel that they own the term would have called him a traitor.”