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For the last 34 years of his life, Albert Einstein was the most famous spokesman and advocate for the Zionist movement. Many may find it surprising that a pacifist and opponent of nationalism like Einstein was the champion of the Zionist cause in the decades leading up to the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. That involvement with Zionism, however, also serves as a cautionary tale, adding light on the present relationship between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Einstein’s support of the Zionist enterprise was absent during the first four decades of his life. It was after he moved to Berlin in 1914 that he said, “I discovered for the first time that I was a Jew, and I owe this discovery more to the gentiles than to the Jews.”
Tied to that awakened identity was his growing awareness “of our precarious situation.” With that new orientation Einstein fully embraced the Zionist cause as the only answer to the Jewish situation. His visit to the United States in 1921 on behalf of Zionism was a sensation. It had the same electricity the Beatles generated when they first came to America in 1964. Einstein was a star, constantly followed by the media, including his meeting with president Warren Harding. His visit instilled a deep sense of pride in the American Jewish community.
For the rest of his life he wrote about, spoke out for and worked on behalf of Zionism.
While Einstein’s embrace of the movement was full, it was not without a serious reservation. His skepticism toward nationalism, that led him as a 15-year-old to renounce his German citizenship, never abated. His support of Zionism was always qualified by his fear of what it and the Jewish state could become vis-a-vis nationalism.
In 1929 he wrote to fellow scientist and future first president of Israel Chaim Weizmann, “If we do not succeed in finding the path of honest cooperation and coming to terms with the Arabs, we will not have learned anything from our 2,000-year-old ordeal and will deserve the fate which will beset us.” While addressing the “Third Seder” of the National Labor Committee for Palestine in 1938, he said, “I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain – especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks.”
THE QUESTION of a narrow nationalism opposed to a broader, more embracing nationalism has been an ongoing question within the Zionist movement for a century. It is 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 that a Jewish state should be.
The timing of the Ramat Shlomo building announcement during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit last month showed the contradiction between wanting peace and acting as though it means nothing. The good thing about this episode is that, by getting in the US administrations’s face, muddling for Israel is no longer an option. It needs to make a clear decision on which Zionism it wishes to be.
Albert Einstein and his fellow Nobel Laureate Barack Obama are clearly within the cultural Zionist camp, while Binyamin Netanyahu acts within the nationalist camp. US policy toward Israel in regard to settlements and borders has been consistent since 1967. The only change we are witnessing now in the Obama administration is a vocal, public expression and enforcement of that policy. Those who are shocked by the message the president is sending should step back and understand that he has thrown himself within that much older debate between those two camps in Zionist movement.
Disagree, if you will, with the president, but not because he has
abandoned Israel, rather because he has taken a more difficult path.
This president who holds a Passover Seder on the campaign trail and in
the White House has decided to enter the mispacha
, including one of the fiercest debates within that family.
His support for Israel is, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said, “rock solid, unwavering, enduring and forever.”
However like his fellow Zionist supporter Albert Einstein he is
advocating for a particular vision of what Zionism stands for and
means. And in that vision he sees what is good both for Israel and the
The writer is author of Einstein’s Rabbi:
A Tale of Science and the Soul (Shires Press) and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Ben-Gurion’s University.