Terra Incognita: When Einstein was wrong

Einstein's letter to the New York Times in 1948 condeming the 'Freedom Party' tarnishes his name.

Albert Einstein 370 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Albert Einstein 370
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Albert Einstein is everywhere in Jerusalem. Walking at Hebrew University there are framed posters of him on the walls with his pithy comments about peace and justice. In Rehavia there is an “Einstein on Azza” festival where various ritzy yuppie establishments host lectures commemorating the great man. Hebrew University maintains a website describing his achievements and focusing on his commitment to political causes. Einstein was a “committed Jew, he advocated a distinctive moral role for the Jewish people... he always found time to devote tireless efforts to political causes... his ardent humanism led him to strive for peace, freedom and social justice.”
The scientist, born in 1879 in what was then the Kingdom of Wurrtemberg, had slaved away as a patent clerk while his genius went unnoticed through the age of 30. He developed ideas of pacifism early in life. In fact his renouncing of his German citizenship in 1933 was not an isolated act; he had also renounced his German citizenship in 1896 to avoid military service. In the 1920s he became involved in various anti-war causes, then in vogue. With the rise of the Nazis he traveled to the US in February of 1933.
In July 1933 the German government seized his boat and in November his property.
He began to take a keen interest in Palestine at the time. In April of 1938 he declared that a Jewish state was against “our nature” and condemned “narrow nationalism,” preferring agreement with the Arabs “to the creation of a Jewish state.” But he also spoke of pride in “our colonization activities in Palestine” and in favor of the Jewish National Fund “whose energy has started to bring about the transformation of the Sharon desert into flourishing orange orchards.” With the passage of the infamous White Paper of May, 1939, which limited Jewish immigration between 1940 and 1944, sealing the fate of Europe’s Jews, Einstein admonished people on May 28 to “be patient.” Remarking on the Palestinian Arab revolt that had engulfed the country and whose leaders were even then showing support for Germany, Einstein said that “they must have been led into their suicidal uprising by terror and foreign agitators... there could be no greater calamity than permanent discord between us and the Arab people.”
Einstein believed Palestine should be a model Jewish settlement focusing on social justice, yet he refused to work at Hebrew University, remarking he had a “negative attitude” of the institution in 1933. He disliked the Revisionist Zionists, who he claimed in 1935 “lead youth astray with phrases borrowed from our worst enemies.”
Had he stopped there, one could argue he was simply a slightly naïve scientist casting himself as a political activist. But on December 4, 1948, he signed his name to a letter in The New York Times that should tarnish his reputation.
“Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our times,” read the letter, “is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the ‘Freedom Party’ (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” He and his fellow signatories were referring about Menachem Begin’s Herut party. The letter used the word “fascist” nine times in several paragraphs. Einstein accused Begin of supporting the “doctrine of the fascist state” and running a “terrorist party.”
The letter continued: “The people of the Freedom Party have had no part in the constructive achievements in Palestine. They have reclaimed no land, built no settlements, and only detracted from the Jewish defense activity. Their much-publicized immigration endeavors were minute, and devoted mainly to bringing in Fascist compatriots.”
Supposedly Begin desired a one-party “leader state” and his party had “intimidated the population.”
It is interesting that this letter was written just a week after the Labor-led government Einstein was so enthralled with completed the expulsion of a 1,100 Christian Arab villagers from two communities along the Lebanese border: Iqrit and Kafr Bir’im. But that wasn’t “intimidation” of a population.
It is interesting these accusations were hurled at Begin, when in effect such a one-party state is precisely what was put in place in Israel from 1948 to 1977 under David Ben-Gurion.
Begin’s party was accused of bringing only its “fascist compatriots” into the country, but Labor aparatchiks like Rudolf Kastner, who had saved his wealthy friends in Hungary from the Nazis, were at that very moment being lauded as a Mapai candidate for office in Israel’s first elections.
Menachem Begin’s demand that the military curfew for Israel’s remaining Arab citizens be lifted in Einstein’s conception was not among the “constructive achievements.”
THAT EINSTEIN’s letter was wildly inaccurate and hypocritical in light of the realities on the ground in Israel in 1948 is one thing.
Perhaps Einstein was unaware of Ikrit and Baram; his letter only mentions Deir Yassin, a village Revisionist Zionists were accused of massacring. He could not have foreseen that the Labor party would attempt to create a one-party state and that leading Labor members would say of democracy, after they lost power in 1977, “we will not accept this.”
But Einstein was aware of fascism. He had experienced the rise of the Nazis. He had seen how they besmirched Jewish intellectuals, confiscated their property and burned their books. He had seen the face of violent fascism.
He knew the Nazis had murdered millions.
Yet he felt comfortable describing Israel’s leading opposition party – a party that was the a pioneer in arguing for greater individual rights for Arabs and minorities, and urging less power for the state security services in the 1950s – as a fascist and Nazi party.
There are many today who reject the terms fascism and Nazism to describe Israel and are offended by those that employ them.
But one of the tragic origins of the fascism accusation can be found in Einstein’s letter.
The demonization Begin and the Israeli Right were subjected to in that letter led to the demonization of Israel today, because once Likud triumphed in 1977 the Nazism claim shifted from being a way to impugn the opposition to being a way to impugn the state.
Israeli professor and scholar of fascism Ze’ev Sternhell claimed just a few days ago that, “Israel is today at the extreme right end of the political spectrum and is being distanced from the family of enlightened nations.”
He admits that “the last time the Israeli Left held a similar discussion was the period immediately following the debacle in the 1977 elections.”
A taught line connects 1948, 1977 and 2013. In the 1961 when British intellectual Arnold Toynbee compared Israel to the Nazis, Yaacov Herzog, the erudite Israeli ambassador to Canada, was quick to challenge him to a public debate. But no one rose to the defense of Begin, precisely because it was the Israeli Left who had encouraged Einstein’s characterization and had themselves employed it in the 1930s. It is the same with Peace Now; the group that ostensibly encouraged withdrawal from the West Bank was only founded after Likud’s victory in 1977. The message was clear: Settlement in the West Bank, Golan, Gaza and Sinai was good when “our” government did it, but immoral when the “wrong” people are doing it.
The hypocrisy of this issue has been well known for decades, but Einstein’s letter helps understand where it came from. Einstein was a towering intellectual, a hero in his own time whose allowed a bust of himself to hang in the Tate and who encouraged FDR to build the atom bomb to confront the Nazis. He was so disastrously wrong in his diagnosis of Israel, in spite of his own experiences, precisely because his thoughts fell on fertile ground. He should have been ashamed, three years after the Holocaust, to call Jewish politicians Nazis. He wasn’t.
The Israeli Left should have risen to the defense of Begin, to show that there was a red line that should not be crossed. It didn’t, and because of that Israel still lives in its shadow. The next time you see an image of Einstein, consider that.