It was early on the evening of May 28 that I went to hear Fred Jerome speak about his new book on Albert Einstein, the third of his works on Einstein’s politics: Einstein on Israel and Zionism. I read and reviewed the first of his Einstein books, The Einstein File, about his general political stance and the vendetta that J. Edgar Hoover pursued against him, trying without success to persecute him as a “Red.”
Fred Jerome is a journalist with a background in the Communist Party and later as a leader of the ultra-Stalinist offshoot, the Progressive Labor Party. His first book was well worth reading despite this unfortunate political legacy. This new book is another story, however.
He was among friends at Manhattan’s Ethical Culture Society. I’ve rarely (if ever) witnessed a “book party” with a more enthusiastic reception for an author. Nor have I ever felt more alone as a Zionist.
The thrust of Jerome’s new book is that it’s a “myth” that Einstein was a Zionist or that he really supported the State of Israel. This is not necessarily a simple argument to make, since Einstein– even in writings quoted in his book– calls himself a Zionist and was in fact offered the presidency of Israel in 1952, following the death of Chaim Weizmann.
Jerome deftly identifies Einstein as a “cultural Zionist” rather than a political Zionist, and places him in the pantheon of other left and liberal Zionists who advocated a bi-national state in Palestine before the violent Arab onslaughts in late 1947 and the first half of ’48. These people famously included Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber and Judah Magnes. They also included our own Hashomer Hatzair movement prior to ’47-48. But this does not mean that they were not political Zionists who believed in the building up of Palestine as the reborn Jewish homeland.
Jerome quotes Einstein as saying in 1930 that Palestine has plenty of room for both Arabs and Jews, as if this were not in fact a perfectly acceptable Zionist position. It was the Arab side that vociferously opposed this notion in the 1920s and ’30s, as they violently resisted Jewish immigration — and the Arabs did so despite the fact that European Jewry mostly faced its doom with the rising Nazi menace.
We of the Meretz Zionist lineage– which includes the bi-nationalist idealism of the pre-state Hashomer Hatzair– honor Einstein and others who advocated these ideals. But this does not mean that Einstein and the others should now be stripped from the history of Zionism as mere “cultural Zionists.” For example, Hannah Arendt is well known for acerbic criticisms of Israel, but she was enough of a “political Zionist” to have loudly advocated for a “Jewish army” during World War II. And Martin Buber lived for decades in the latter half of his life in Palestine and then the State of Israel. Our chaverim, Dan Leon and Hillel Schenker, worked as journalists for New Outlook magazine, an English-language Israeli journal that Buber helped found as an expression of his dedication to peace, but it would never occur to them to characterize Buber as other than a Zionist.
Fred Jerome, however, cannot accept Einstein as “really” being a Zionist, because this would make him a supporter of something “bad.” What became very clear from being at this book event is that Jerome and his enthusiasts at Ethical Culture are denying the existence of left or progressive Zionism. This concept simply doesn’t compute for them because they are, sadly, too ignorant and too prejudiced to understand. They also don’t understand that a Zionist can actually oppose ongoing Israeli policies regarding settlements and the occupation and still be a Zionist.
How is this anything but anti Zionism?
“I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state. …the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power….I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain – especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks…”
– Einstein speech in New York, April 17, 1938.
Dear Ori Folger:
As of 1938, this was very much a Zionist position, but not THE Zionist position. This was essentially the same position as Hashomer Hatzair had until 1948. As I’ve indicated, bi-nationalism was very much a Zionist point of view — albeit likely a minority view in ’38.
In general it is unfair and historically inaccurate to judge a major figure by today’s standards. This not only applies to Einstein who was one of the greatest of our people last century, but if you go back to the 19th century, would also apply to e.g. Napoleon.
It is possible to reach a ballanced view about such individuals, which a biographer should do, but only with at least a modicum of objectivity. This means extensive research, and also leaving preconceptions behind.
If you consider some potentially great names from our own times, what about Bob Dylan? There is huge contoversy about his role and motivations.
Who could reasonably doubt that Einstein today would be sickened unto his soul by Israel’s racism and cruelty?
He already identified the Israelis as “Nazis” and “Fascists” over 50 years ago!
I followed Max’s url to Einstein’s letter to the editor of the NY Times, where he condemned the right-wing Revisionist Zionist movement that had perpetrated the massacre at Deir Yassin. But he did not “identify the Israelis [as a whole] as ‘Nazis’ and ‘Fascists’.” In fact, he quotes the Jewish Agency (the pre-state Zionist government which the right-wing Zionists opposed) as also condemning this attack.
I would agree with Max that Einstein would likely be “sickened” or at least disturbed by Israeli wrongdoing over the years (if he had lived until today), but he would know that both sides were guilty of crimes and errors regarding the other.
Ori Folger’s Einstein quote appears with the same three ellipses on the webpage advertising Jerome’s book. As *amended*, Einstein’s remarks about preferring not to have to create a Jewish state sound like an indictment of Zionism. I don’t know what the first two ellipses eliminated, but what the third ellipse eliminated makes all the difference. In that excised text, Einstein wrote: “If external necessity should after all compel us to assume this burden [i.e., the burden of creating Israel–J.I.], let us bear it with tact and patience.” So: Einstein preferred not to HAVE TO create a Jewish state, but if “external necessity” compelled it, we should accept “this burden.” The edited-out material completely changes the thrust of the quote, making it strongly Zionist rather than anti-Zionist. This duplicitous editing is typical of Jerome’s method of argument. Giving Folger the benefit of the doubt by assuming he did not know what Jerome had cut, shame on Folger for reposting ellipsed material without checking what was cut!
— Jared Israel