Einstein as a Jew and a Philosopher

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Freeman Dyson reviews Steven Gimbel's Einstein: His Space and Times in the NYRB (photo: Ferdinand Schmutzer/Austrian National Library/Anzenberger/Redux):

The later chapters of Steven Gimbel’s book describe Einstein’s deep involvement with the Zionist movement, promoting the settlement of Jews in Palestine. Einstein saw these settlements as a benefit both to Jews and to Arabs, giving Jews a place to live and prosper, and giving Arabs a chance to share the blessings of progress and prosperity. In 1929, when some Palestinian Arabs organized a violent opposition to Jewish settlement and killed some Jews, the British colonial government suppressed the rebellion and enforced a peaceful coexistence of Jews and Arabs. But Einstein understood that this enforced coexistence could not last. He wrote an article with the title “Jew and Arab” from which Gimbel quotes:

The first and most important necessity is the creation of a modus vivendi with the Arab people. Friction is perhaps inevitable, but its evil consequences must be overcome by organized cooperation, so that the inflammable material may not be piled up to the point of danger. The absence of contact in every-day life is bound to produce an atmosphere of mutual fear and distrust, which is favorable to such lamentable outbursts of passion as we have witnessed. We Jews must show above all that our own history of suffering has given us sufficient understanding and psychological insight to know how to cope with this problem of psychology and organization: the more so as no irreconcilable differences stand in the way of peace between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Let us therefore above all be on our guard against blind chauvinism of any kind, and let us not imagine that reason and common-sense can be replaced with British bayonets.

Einstein worked with Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the Zionist organization, to raise money for the settlements and for the foundation of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But while he worked with Weizmann as a fund-raiser, he disagreed fundamentally with Weizmann’s aims for the future. In the early days, before Israel existed, Einstein was opposed to the idea of a Jewish state. Weizmann aimed from the beginning to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, and he lived long enough to see his dreams come true, serving as the first president of the State of Israel. After the State of Israel was established, Einstein gave it his full support. But he said that a peaceful and permanent presence of Jews in Palestine could only be possible if they worked side by side with Arabs under conditions of social and political equality.

Einstein felt a deep personal responsibility for the actions of the Jewish community to which he never wholeheartedly belonged. He tried with all his strength to stop the Jewish people from becoming another nationalistic culture glorifying military strength, like the militaristic German culture that he had hated as a child and repudiated as a teenager when he renounced his German citizenship. He continued to support Israel while severely criticizing it. At the end of his life, when he had become an American citizen, he felt an equally deep responsibility for the actions of the American community to which he never wholeheartedly belonged.

More here.

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