Albert Einstein, social justice and his relationship with Zionism

Albert Einstein (1879-1955), the world’s first celebrity-scientist, thought deeply about physics, and originated the theories of special and general relativity. The ubiquitous image of him is that of the disheveled, shaggy-haired absent-minded professor, delving deeply into scientific problems, but unable to remember where he last left his coffee cup.

This stereotype, while appealing, is also quite misleading. As much as Einstein worked on physics problems, he also thought deeply about social justice and anti racism issues. He used his platform to speak out against racism and antisemitism. Having witnessed, and been victimised by, European antisemitic bigotry, he supported the efforts of the Jewish community to organise themselves, but remained critical of the Zionist nationalism inherent in constructing the Israeli state.

Einstein was nonreligious, abandoning the tenets of Judaism at a very young age. He maintained a rationalist perspective – not the monotheistic God of divine origin and supernatural revelation, but a logical pantheism in the manner of Spinoza.

He was also a cultural Jew, and did his best to support the Jewish community. Europe, and in particular Germany, was experiencing a resurgence of anti-Semitism in the immediate aftermath of military defeat – the end of World War One. That antisemitism motivated Einstein to support Jewish efforts to construct their own future.

Einstein joined up with the Zionist movement to build the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Founded in 1925, Einstein cooperated with Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organisation (WZO) to promote its construction. Attending the opening of the university, Einstein hailed what he viewed as the progress of secular, scientifically-inclined Jews to build a new society where Jewish people would feel safe and free.

However, he was a critic of nationalism and militarism, and he opposed the militaristic trends in Zionism. Attending the Sixteenth Congress of the WZO in 1929, Einstein was widely known to be a non-Zionist participant. In various speeches and public pronouncements, Einstein distanced himself from the ideology of Zionism. For instance, in 1938, he stated his desire to see a binational state within the borders of Palestine, and was appalled by the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian towns undertaken by armed Zionist forces.

On his single trip to Palestine, Einstein warned that building an exclusively Jewish state constitutes a repudiation of the spiritual nature of Judaism. He was elaborating his opinion that Zionism, with its army and militarised-garrison ideology, was in contradiction to the spirit of the Jewish faith. He warned of a narrow nationalism overtaking the Jewish people in the process of building the Zionist state, and opposed any partition of Palestine.

In 1948, Einstein, along with numerous Jewish-origin intellectuals, signed an open letter to the US government and President Truman. The purpose of this letter was to warn the Zionist-supportive US administration of the racist and fascistic tendencies in the newly-recognised state of Israel. Condemning the Herut party, the political expression of the Irgun terrorist gangs that had massacred Palestinians, Einstein and his co-signatories described Herut in its methods and philosophy as closely akin to Nazi and fascist parties.

Herut is one of the constituent forerunners of today’s rightwing Likud party, headed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The significance of this letter, written so soon after the end of World War 2 and the Holocaust, cannot be underestimated. Einstein and his co-thinkers demonstrated the gulf that separated pro-Zionist politicians and the wider humanist community. In fact, if Einstein were alive today, he would face condemnation as a ‘self-hating anti-Semite’ from Zionism’s political partisans. Offered the presidency of Israel late in his life, Einstein refused.

In 1919, with observational confirmation of Einstein’s equations of general relativity, he became a scientist-rock star. In 1921, at the behest of the WZO, he traveled to the United States for the purpose of promoting – and fundraising for – the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Greeted by cheering crowds in New York, his celebrity status was confirmed. He never rested on his laurels – he deployed his fame to speak out against racism and the European drift to war.

While Einstein was still in Germany, he joined the international campaign to free the Scottsboro boys. The latter were a group of nine teenage boys falsely accused of rape by a white woman. A miscarriage of justice, their convictions, and the attendant racism upon which the case was built, was challenged by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the Communist party USA, and various civil rights organisations. Einstein used his platform to attack racial segregation in the United States.

This was not just a once-off occurrence. Einstein befriended and supported African American activists, such Paul Robeson, and the first black Harvard University PhD graduate WEB Du Bois. Einstein, making Princeton University his home ground from 1932, mixed with black neighbourhoods in racially-segregated America, gave impromptu lectures, and supported civil rights for African Americans.

He routinely refused honorary degrees – regarding them as illegitimate credentials; but he did make one notable exception. Invited by Lincoln University, an African American institution, to give the commencement address in 1946, Einstein condemned racism as a problem of white people.

Whether he was critiquing Zionism, or American racism, Einstein the celebrity-scientist stayed true to his social justice commitment. While never an official politician, he was never afraid to speak out about contemporary political issues.

The Israeli elections, ultranationalist parties and a victory for the late Meir Kahane

The latest Israeli elections have produced an electoral stalemate, but it was also a victory of ultranationalist and far right parties that collectively ascribe to the philosophy of Kahanism. The Israeli far right can best be understood as the ideological successors to the doctrines of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, an ultrarightist and Judeo-supremacist political operator.

While his party, Kach, never achieved mainstream success during his lifetime, the parties that trace their ideological origins to Kahanism can best be described as the Israeli equivalent of the KKK. Kahane himself was assassinated decades ago, but his ultranationalist and Judeo-supremacist ideology looms large in Israeli society. It is to these Kahanist parties, including the KKK-equivalent Jewish Power party, that current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is appealing for political partners to establish a coalition government.

Institutionalised hateful incitement is the role that Kahanism plays in Israeli politics. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his Likud partners, tolerate this incitement of anti-Arab hatred, and welcome its inclusion in the mainstream.

This was the fourth general election in two years; political instability is set to continue, with electoral deadlock the outcome. Netanyahu’s Likud right wing bloc secured 52 seats, short of the necessary 61 to govern outright in the 120 seat Israeli parliament, the Knesset. The other seats are occupied by various ultranationalist and soft Left parties, whose only common feature is hostility to the Likud.

The Kahanist far right parties, while having their tactical differences with each other, strongly agree on the basic platform of anti-Arab racism, expansion of settlements in occupied Palestinian Territories, and maintaining Judeo-supremacist character of the Zionist state.

Netanyahu embraces the far right

While Kahanism has remained on the margins of parliamentary politics, there is no doubt that Netanyahu and his far-right supporters have consciously cultivated cooperative relationships with Kahanist parties. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the Kahanist Jewish Power party, has routinely called for the expulsion of the Palestinians, advocated the expansion of Israeli settlements leading to annexation, and has praised Israeli Kahanist gunman Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians in 1994 at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

The Religious Zionist party, of which Jewish Power is a part, has long advocated for a strictly Orthodox religious basis of Israeli society, platforming fundamentalist and homophobic views. These are the plausible coalition partners that Netanyahu is considering bringing into government.

During the election cycles, the Likud party – and its Labour Party rivals – have adopted and platformed ultranationalist talking points. Calling the Arab minority a potential fifth column, Netanyahu has done his utmost to demand the continuation of settlement building, denouncing concessions to the Palestinian Authority as treasonous, and passing laws to maintain the Judeo-supremacist character of the Zionist state.

In fact, what Netanyahu’s political calculations have done is expose the logical continuity from so-called mainstream Zionism to Kahanism. The late Rabbi Meir Kahane, during his brief time in the Knesset, did make one correct observation – the state of Israel could either be exclusively Jewish, or democratic; it could not be both. When Zionist politicians condemn and outlaw mixed marriages (between Jews and non-Jews), and denounce relations between Jews and Arabs, they are unwittingly exposing the Judeo-supremacist and nondemocratic nature of the Zionist project.

Not outside the mainstream

Parties such as Jewish Power, and its Kahanist cousins, have attracted their fair share of condemnation, to be sure. However, the ideology they represent are not outliers, nor are they completely outside the mainstream of Israeli society. The construction of a Jewish Ulster – and Zionism is the equivalent Orange Order of the Jewish community – then numerous Meir Kahane-types are bound to arise.

The late Rabbi Meir Kahane, born in the United States in 1932, devoted his life to promoting a militant ethnic chauvinism combined with religious nationalism. As a young man, he worked with the FBI, advocating pro-Vietnam War sentiments on college campuses as the student and antiwar movements were gathering momentum. However, it was with the Judeo-supremacist ideology of Zionism where he found his natural calling.

Condemning the secularism he found in Israeli society, Kahane found a position of marginalised, but appreciated, respectable extremism. While his efforts to found a new political party were doomed to failure, the ideas he advocated found a receptive far right audience inside Israel. Eventually losing his seat in the Knesset, Kahane returned to the US. He was murdered by an Egyptian-born American gunman in November 1990.

After Kahane’s death, the mantle of Kahanism was taken up by various ultrarightist forces, and eventually working their way back into the Knesset. However, a parliamentary seat was not necessary for the Israeli far right to thrive – in November 1995, a Kahanist militant assassinated then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, for the ostensible reason that Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians.

The 2021 elections will only further expose the far right trajectory of official Israeli politics, and showcase the malign but ultimately foreseeable influence of Kahanism. Let’s dispense with the tired and worn-out cliche that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, and instead have an honest conversation about dismantling Israeli apartheid.