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.