Right of Reply: Questioning Zionist credentials

Zionism is not a broad brush stroke that encompasses so much that it becomes a common denominator between personalities so different as Einstein, Obama and Netanyahu.

May 4, 2010 20:28
3 minute read.

Einstein. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Michael M. Cohen’s article, “Einstein, Obama, and Binyamin Netanyahu, What do they all have in common? Zionism” (April 25), requires serious examination.

First Albert Einstein. No doubt he identified with Judaism and with the Zionist movement later in life – always, however, on his own terms. But was he a Zionist? Walter Isaacson clarifies the reality in his acclaimed biography Einstein, His Life and Universe (2007).

During testimony in 1946 in Washington to an international committee, Einstein stated: “The state idea is not in my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed.”

The reaction? Isaacson documents that Rabbi Stephen Wise “was flabbergasted that Einstein would break ranks with true Zionists at such a public hearing.”

Einstein supported the state once it was established, and his Zionist credentials may have been bolstered in 1952 when he was offered the presidency of Israel following the death of Chaim Weizmann. Bowing to media and public sentiment that Einstein, a proud Jew and a man of science, be granted the position, prime minister David Ben-Gurion called ambassador Abba Eban in the United States to approach Einstein and make the offer. Eban reports in his autobiography (1977) that he was “astonished” at the request, and could “hardly manage to digest the audacity of this idea.”

Einstein of course rejected the overture immediately. Ben-Gurion was relieved. Isaacson cites Yitzhak Navon: “Tell me what to do if he says yes!, Ben-Gurion joked to his assistant.”

These are hardly testimonies of confidence in Einstein’s Zionist commitment.

BARACK OBAMA. A Zionist? Cohen places him “clearly within the cultural Zionist camp” alongside Einstein. There is no indication that Obama has personally identified with Zionism nor even paid dues to a Zionist organization. Certainly no statement in his recent demands of Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel demonstrates that he is motivated by a Zionist commitment.

The closest reference seems to be a 2008 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic during the presidential campaign. When asked if he believes that the Zionist idea has justice on its side, Obama responds in the affirmative, seeing Israel as the return to a homeland for those who suffered in the Holocaust, and the preservation of a culture that had been uprooted. He states: “And obviously it’s something that has great resonance with the African-American experience.”

Understandably, it is the latter reality that resonates in Obama’s identity, not Zionism.

Finally, Binyamin Netanyahu. No one can dispute his Zionist credentials. Cohen writes without providing any examination or documentation that he “acts within the nationalist camp.”

That may sound definitive, but is it that simple? Are the prime minister’s Zionist and leadership credentials that “narrowly” (Cohen's reference) focused? Let us turn to the prime minister’s address to the 2010 Herzliya Conference, where a major policy statement is expected.

The topics that Netanyahu covered were peace, security, the economy and education. He informed his audience that it was education that would be his main thrust that evening; in fact, it comprised some 70 percent of his address.

After identifying math, English, computers, science and composition as essential abilities, the prime minister continued: “I am talking about educating children about the values connected to our identity and heritage, teaching children to know our people's history, educating young people and adults to deepen our ties to one another and to this place.”

Cohen refers to “the debate between two Zionisms, nationalist Zionism with its maximalist attitude toward territory and the borders of the Jewish state and cultural Zionism with its greater emphasis on the type of society a Jewish state should be.”

If we examine the reality, it is clear that Netanyahu places a personal emphasis on both nationalism, in this case secure and recognized borders, and on the quality of the Jewish culture within the Jewish state.

Would we want it any other way?

Zionism is not a broad brush stroke that encompasses so much that it becomes a common denominator between personalities so different as Einstein, Obama and Netanyahu. Zionism has history, meaning and definition. It should be approached as an educational subject with clarity and a commitment to examine basic realities.

The writer is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He formerly served as secretary-general of the Jewish Agency.

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