Einstein, in his own words

For the first time, the complete diaries of the scientist during his trip across the US, Europe, Israel and Asia are available.

ALBERT EINSTEIN in Japan in 1922 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ALBERT EINSTEIN in Japan in 1922
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Following a reception in Tel Aviv in February 1923, at which then-mayor Meir Dizengoff and members of the City Council named him an honorary citizen, Albert Einstein noted in his diary that the accomplishments of Jews in Palestine in a few short years “excite the highest admiration... What an incredibly lively people our Jews are.”
That same month, while in Jerusalem, Einstein acknowledged that he was “wanted at all costs” to head the Hebrew University and “am being assailed on all fronts in this regard.” Convinced that a Jewish University would serve “as a rallying point” for scholarship and an authoritative center for Jewish thought,” whose influence would “enliven and inspirit the diverse communities of scattered Israel,” Einstein told himself “My heart says yes but my mind says no.”
Soon after he returned to Berlin, Einstein wrote to Arthur Ruppin, the director of the Zionist Organization’s office in Jaffa: “Palestine will not solve the Jewish problem, but the revival of Palestine will mean the liberation and the revival of the soul of the Jewish people. I count it among my treasured experiences that I should have been able to see the country during this period of rebirth and re-inspiration.”
With the verification of his general theory of relativity in 1919, Einstein had become an international celebrity. In 1921, he visited the United States, accompanied by Chaim Weizmann, to raise funds for the Hebrew University. He also gave lectures in London, Paris, Zurich, Oslo, Copenhagen, Leyden, Prague and Vienna. Einstein’s journey to Palestine was part of a six-month-long journey that took him as well to Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Japan and Spain. Shortly before his arrival in Japan, Einstein learned that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Edited by Ze’ev Rosenkranz, the author of Einstein Before Israel and a senior editor of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology, The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: The Far East, Palestine & Spain 1922-1923 provides for the first time the complete texts of Einstein’s journals for his visit to the Far East and Near East.
Einstein’s decision to make the trip, Rosenkranz reveals, was informed by the rise of antisemitism in Germany. The assassination of Walter Rathenau, Germany’s (Jewish) foreign minister, by right-wing extremists, Rosenkranz writes, “was a watershed moment” for the Weimar Republic. A prominent Jewish left-wing public intellectual, Einstein feared for his safety. He contemplated resigning as director of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics and leaving the country, but decided instead “to get away for a while from the tense atmosphere” in Germany.
In his introduction, Rosenkranz pays “special attention” to Einstein’s views of national and ethnic groups. Although Einstein was not a nationalist and firmly believed in empirical evidence, Rosenkranz points out that like most of his European and American contemporaries, he tended to stereotype Oriental “Others” and endow them with immutable traits of national character.
More interestingly, as he documents “the more troubling side of this cultural icon,” Rosenkranz points out that although he was looking through the lens of white male imperialist eyes, Einstein was also gazing at himself while “the natives,” at times, were gazing at and objectifying him as a Jew.
Rosenkranz is less attentive to intriguing but enigmatic diary entries on other topics. He does not provide a context, for example, for Einstein’s comment that Ernst Kretschmer’s book Physique and Character did not apply to him, “a hopeless hybrid.” Rosenkranz does not explain why, on further reading, Einstein “felt as if grabbed by a vice. Hypersensitivity transformed into indifference. During adolescence, inwardly inhibited and unworldly. Glass pane between subject and other people. Unmotivated mistrust. Substitute paper world. Ascetic impulses.”
Nor does Rosenkranz address Einstein’s reaction to Henri Bergson’s book on the theory of relativity. Although he concluded that Bergson had “more linguistic skill than psychological depth,” Einstein thought it strange that time but not space was problematic to him. Philosophers, Einstein opined, “constantly dance around the dichotomy between the psychologically real and the physically real.”
Einstein’s travel diaries, it’s worth noting, provide a snapshot of the perspective of a relatively young man. In 1933, Einstein emigrated to the United States to escape the Nazis. As a professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, he continued to work on his unified field theory. He helped persuade president Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb, warned of the necessity for nuclear arms control after World War II, and became a leader of the World Government Movement.
Over time, Einstein’s humanitarianism, his disdain for intellectual, educational and government regimentation and authoritarianism displaced, or at least tempered, his views on race, ethnicity and national character. Contemptuous of nationalism, Einstein opposed a Jewish state. He continued to affirm, however, that his relationship to the Jewish people “is my strongest human bond.”
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
ALBERT EINSTEIN in Japan in 1922. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein
Edited by
Ze’ev Rosenkranz
Princeton University Press
384 pages; $29.95