Review: Einstein Before Israel

A biography dealing with Albert Einstein's early life is strong on scholarly detail but weighed down by ponderous prose


By David Edmonds, August 10, 2011
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By Ze'ev Rosenkranz
Princeton University Press, £24.95

In 1921, the standard of journalism at the Jewish Chronicle was not quite what it is today. In June of that year, the paper published an article purportedly penned by the most famous scientist in the world. But when Albert Einstein found out, he must have been mightily miffed: it seems he had given an interview to the JC, and they had extracted his answers and passed them off as a piece of writing. Tut tut.

The JC piece appeared shortly after Einstein's trip to America as part of a delegation led by Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist Organisation. In 1919, the verification of the general theory of relativity had made Einstein a star. His reputation was cemented with the award of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921. The Zionist movement was keen to exploit his fame for financial and political ends. As Einstein himself wrote, "I had to let myself be shown around like a prize-winning ox".

Einstein Before Israel is a (too) detailed account of the great man's complex relationship with Zionism up to the Nazis' ascent to power in Germany in 1933 and Einstein's move to the United States.

As Ze'ev Rosenkranz exhaustively demonstrates, the greatest genius of the 20th century had an ambiguous attitude both to his Jewishness and to Zionism. Raised in Germany, Einstein was a victim of the era's pervasive, casual antisemitism. He was highly sensitive to the discrimination affecting other Jews, most notably to the fate of the Ostjuden.

In the late 19th century, Einstein was listed as being "without religious affiliation". He spoke of his fellow Jews as "my ethnic comrades". He despised European nationalism so, to convince himself that Zionism was a benign force, he had to engage in what Rosenkranz calls "intellectual acrobatics". Thus Jewish nationalism was different, because the Jews weren't Europeans. He once described himself as an "indolent Oriental".

In a tour of Palestine in 1923, Einstein delivered a speech in which he said, "only Zionism can heal the sick Jewish soul". He marvelled at the energy of the place, particularly with the rapid growth of Tel Aviv: "What an incredibly lively people our Jews are!" His pet Zionist project was the setting up of the Hebrew University and he worked hard to campaign and raise funds for this institution. An elitist (snob?), he was concerned that Jewish intellectual talent didn't "go wretchedly to waste".

Yet his commitment to Zionism was always lukewarm. He carefully chose the projects he was willing to embrace. He accused Zionists of being "shameless and importunate" and squirmed at some of the views of the politically hard-line. Even his involvement in the Hebrew University virtually dried up after he fell out with the authorities there.

This is all, potentially, fascinating stuff. Rosenkranz works at the Einstein Papers Project and the scholarship on display here is commendable. Yet the book is let down by dry, soporific prose, full of throat-clearing phrases: "In this context, it is pertinent to ask…" "it is highly significant that…" "we saw in the previous chapter how…" et cetera.

Hopefully, the author will do better if and when he moves on to Einstein's life through the Nazi period and Second World War to the proposal in 1952 for Einstein to become the President of Israel - an offer he was "saddened and ashamed" that he could not accept.

Einstein before Israel

By Ze'ev Rosenkranz

Princeton University Press, £24.95
reviewed by David Edmonds

In 1921, the standard of journalism at the Jewish Chronicle was not quite what it is today. In June of that year, the paper published an article purportedly penned by the most famous scientist in the world. But when Albert Einstein found out, he must have been mightily miffed: it seems he had given an interview to the JC, and they had extracted his answers and passed them off as a piece of writing. Tut tut.

The JC piece appeared shortly after Einstein's trip to America as part of a delegation led by Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist Organisation. In 1919, the verification of the general theory of relativity had made Einstein a star. His reputation was cemented with the award of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921. The Zionist movement was keen to exploit his fame for financial and political ends. As Einstein himself wrote, "I had to let myself be shown around like a prize-winning ox".

Einstein Before Israel is a (too) detailed account of the great man's complex relationship with Zionism up to the Nazis' ascent to power in Germany in 1933 and Einstein's move to the United States.

As Ze'ev Rosenkranz exhaustively demonstrates, the greatest genius of the 20th century had an ambiguous attitude both to his Jewishness and to Zionism. Raised in Germany, Einstein was a victim of the era's pervasive, casual antisemitism. He was highly sensitive to the discrimination affecting other Jews, most notably to the fate of the Ostjuden.

In the late 19th century, Einstein was listed as being "without religious affiliation". He spoke of his fellow Jews as "my ethnic comrades". He despised European nationalism so, to convince himself that Zionism was a benign force, he had to engage in what Rosenkranz calls "intellectual acrobatics". Thus Jewish nationalism was different, because the Jews weren't Europeans. He once described himself as an "indolent Oriental".

In a tour of Palestine in 1923, Einstein delivered a speech in which he said, "only Zionism can heal the sick Jewish soul". He marvelled at the energy of the place, particularly with the rapid growth of Tel Aviv: "What an incredibly lively people our Jews are!" His pet Zionist project was the setting up of the Hebrew University and he worked hard to campaign and raise funds for this institution. An elitist (snob?), he was concerned that Jewish intellectual talent didn't "go wretchedly to waste".

Yet his commitment to Zionism was always lukewarm. He carefully chose the projects he was willing to embrace. He accused Zionists of being "shameless and importunate" and squirmed at some of the views of the politically hard-line. Even his involvement in the Hebrew University virtually dried up after he fell out with the authorities there.

This is all, potentially, fascinating stuff. Rosenkranz works at the Einstein Papers Project and the scholarship on display here is commendable. Yet the book is let down by dry, soporific prose, full of throat-clearing phrases: "In this context, it is pertinent to ask…" "it is highly significant that…" "we saw in the previous chapter how…" et cetera.

Hopefully, the author will do better if and when he moves on to Einstein's life through the Nazi period and Second World War to the proposal in 1952 for Einstein to become the President of Israel - an offer he was "saddened and ashamed" that he could not accept.

David Edmonds is a research associate at Oxford's Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

    Last updated: 10:41am, August 10 2011