Einstein was right about Israel.
Albert Einstein saw Jewish nationality "as a fact" and believed "every Jew must draw the consequences from this fact."
Future of Jewish is the ultimate newsletter about Judaism and Israel. Subscribe to better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world.
Please consider supporting our mission to help everyone better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world. A gift of any amount helps keep our platform free and zero-advertising for all.
Albert Einstein, who was a proud Jew and involved in many Jewish causes including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, had expressed reservations about Jews exercising state power, fearing that it would be corrupting and a turn away from the spiritual.
To be sure, Einstein believed in the historical Land of Israel as a modern-day Jewish homeland, but not as a separate state. He felt that Zionists, by asking for more, were taking an overwhelmingly stubborn approach, which would only “damage our cause.”1
What Einstein wanted to see is a “secured binational status in Palestine with free immigration,” adding that it defied common sense to “ask to be given the political rule over Palestine where two-thirds of the population are not Jewish.” It turns out, Einstein was one of other intellectuals, including Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, who favored a binational state for Jews and Arabs.
If we were to think through “secured binational status in Palestine with free immigration,” naturally the question arises: How exactly would governance look like?
Parliamentary democracy? Two separate-but-equal governments for two peoples? Whatever your hypothesis is, a free immigration policy would quickly turn Arabs into the vast majority, since they statistically outnumber the amount of Jews in the world by an astronomical margin.
While the Arabs didn’t welcome the modest immigration of Jews during Ottoman-era and British-era Palestine, from the mid-1800s through the 1930s, Arabs indeed benefitted from Jewish arrival. Ardent Zionist Dr. Israel Kligler, a microbiologist, is credited with malaria eradication in the region, which ironically resulted in a major share of the Arab’s massive population increase.
Yet, do we really think that, with a vast Arab majority, Jews would be welcome to stay? Do we really think that, with a vast Arab majority, Jews would be able to “live their best Jewish lives?” Do we really think that, with a vast Arab majority, Jews would be fully and equally protected under existing and future laws?
Many people do not know that Islamic cultures, while not as historically virulent in their expression of antisemitism as Christian ones, still proposed that Jews were second-class citizens. They were taxed disproportionately and lived lives of precarious appeasement to whomever was in power, and had to pay fees in exchange for safeguarding their life and property, as well as for the right to worship unmolested.
By the 1500s and into the 1900s, as antisemitism engulfed Europe, the Jews didn’t garner much political support. Even countries in what was becoming “the West” weren’t doing much to accommodate the Jewish plight leading up to and during the Holocaust, not because everyone was a Nazi, but because of the perceived political risks.
Hence why Zionism became one of the dominant forces in Jewish thinking, starting in the 1800s, to return to our indigenous homeland. The only problem is, the biblical Land of Israel underwent Arabization around the seventh century, meaning many of the local peoples adopted Arab culture, the Arabic, and Islam.
As Europe and other countries in “the West” became more liberalized, Jews in theses countries felt a historically justified skepticism about the ability of the liberal order to protect them. The Arabs, meanwhile, also saw us as a foreign creature. They feared our existence as the only non-Arab or non-Muslim people in the Middle East, and they felt that we would endanger their culture, their religion, and the structure of their society and regimes.
As Jews migrating to their indigenous homeland increasingly understood that the Arabs weren’t interested in living peacefully with them, Einstein’s theory of state power leading to corruption became a secondary concern to the more poignant one of mere Jewish survival — especially as antisemitism was climaxing in Europe and parts of North Africa and the Middle East throughout the 1930s.
In 1895, ate age 16, Einstein moved to Switzerland, but he was unaware of the antisemitic tidal wave that would soon engulf Europe. Einstein was not particularly in tune with his Jewishness, “and there was nothing in my life that would have stirred my Jewish feeling or stimulated it,” he said.
This changed as soon as Einstein moved to Berlin in 1914, where he “saw the predicament of many young Jews” and “how the antisemitic environment prevented them from pursuing orderly studies or struggling for a secure basis of existence.”2
When the German government contemplated measures against Eastern European Jews, Einstein stood up for them in a major newspaper, where he pointed out the inhumanity and irrationality of these measures. Together with a few colleagues, both Jews and non-Jews, he held university courses for Eastern European Jews. It was these and similar experiences that, in Einstein’s words, “awakened” his Jewish-national feelings.
“I am not a Jew in the sense that I would demand the preservation of the Jewish or any other nationality as an end in itself,” he said. “I rather see Jewish nationality as a fact, and I believe every Jew must draw the consequences from this fact.”
“This was the major motive of my joining the Zionist movement,” Einstein added. “The Jewish nation is a living fact in Palestine as well as in the Diaspora, and Jewish national feelings must be kept alive everywhere that Jews live. Members of tribes or peoples must — under today’s living conditions — have a lively tribal awareness in order not to lose their dignity and moral rectitude.”
Einstein believed that, by repatriating Jews to their indigenous homeland and giving them a healthy and normal economic existence, Zionism would be a “productive activity that enriches human society.” But his main point was that Zionism “strengthens the self-confidence of Jews, which is necessary for their existence in the Diaspora, and that the Jewish center in Palestine creates a strong bond that gives Jews moral support.”
From Einstein’s mouth to all the Jewish anti-Zionists’ ears.
Additionally, Einstein had something to say about Jews and assimilation, namely that it was “very repulsive” to him.
“The founding of a free Jewish community structure in Palestine,” he said, “will again put Jewish people in a position where they can unencumbered fully unfold their creative capabilities.”
On April 17th, 1955, Einstein experienced internal bleeding caused by the rupture of an abdominal aortic aneurysm, which had been surgically reinforced seven years prior. Among the items he took with him to the hospital was the draft of a speech he was preparing for a television appearance commemorating the seventh anniversary of the State of Israel.3
Einstein refused surgery, saying: “I want to go when I want. It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share; it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.”4
He died the next morning at age 76, and continued to work until near his end, but never gave that speech.
“Einstein on Zionism: He is for a Jewish Homeland, But Not a Separate State.” Shapell. January 21, 1946. https://www.shapell.org/manuscript/einstein-zionist-views-in-1946.
“How I Became a Zionist.” The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume 7: Berlin Years. Princeton University Press. 2002.
“Albert Einstein.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein.
Cohen, J. R.; Graver, L. M. “The ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm of Albert Einstein.” Surgery, Gynecology & Obstetrics. 170 (5): 455–458. PMID 2183375. November 1995.