By Saswat Pattanayak
With the “God Letter” recently auctioned for over $3 million, the world has started taking a renewed interest in Albert Einstein’s core philosophies. In the most conservative estimate, he has been described as the father of modern physics; and by most liberal counts, the most intelligent human being in history. But despite tremendous biographical sketches, Einstein has remained largely unknown as an activist, or terribly misunderstood as a statesman. Many dimensions of his life have been deliberately suppressed, some grossly exaggerated, and quite a few entirely concocted with blatant lies. This is quite natural considering the ruling class elites have a stake in appropriation of his legacies – the United States which granted him residency has needed to use him for its Cold War propaganda, while Israel and the Jewish Diaspora have needed to tout him – the most famous Jew in history – as their torchbearer. The spiritual thinkers have cited him as irreverently religious, while the progressives have owned him up for his idealistic socialism.
But this auctioned letter, handwritten by Einstein shortly before his death, almost disturbed many such long-held conventional conclusions, shattered many a comfortable myths and certainly exposed to the world how little we knew about this man, most of us thought we always have known. If Einstein could compose such an unsweetened critique of God and religion as the letter suggests what else about him do we not know? Who has been suppressing the lesser-known dimensions about someone we define the word genius by? Why has there been a need to distort the truths about the good scientist to begin with?
The answers lie in the argumentative clarity and the sheer brilliance that epitomized Einstein all his life – the naked truths our convoluted and opportunistic world has never been prepared to brace itself for. After all, it has always been more convenient to hero-worship a critical thinker than delve into his/her necessary prescriptions. As Phil Ochs once wrote about Woody Guthrie, “Oh why sing the songs and forget about the aim; He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same?”
Like Guthrie, Einstein’s own songs for life were always unconventional and strenuous. His successes and his fame were mere footnotes and yet they were falsely projected to represent him in entirety. And although he remained among the most well-known in history, he stated toward the end of his life, how little value that held for him, “Though everybody knows me, there are very few people who really know me.” Whether there is a historical necessity to really know Einstein is an important question, increasing in relevance, as more of the world is getting engaged in religious warfare, vocally supporting Israeli terrorism, and has been actively embracing tenets of capitalism. Irrespective of our intents, Albert Einstein, the celebrated global citizen who most informedly analyzed international relations, more than anyone else, still possesses the rigorously tenable solutions to each of these crisis.
To seek the answers, let’s begin with the three million dollar letter, and then proceed to locate his roots and evolution. In the “God Letter” (1954), Einstein wrote, “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.”
Such outright rejections of God, Judaism and Israel in this letter have raised many eyebrows, especially in a world that has been systematically tutored so far to treat Einstein as per the ‘decent’ norms of our day. Despite the worldwide attention to the content of this letter, the truth is, it is far from sensational, and the opinions therein are not exceptionally subversive, by Einstein’s standards. It is important to shatter the myths about Einstein’s feel-good pacifist humanism in favor of his true radicalized communist activism, so that Einstein’s worthwhile contributions are made commonplace and they inspire revolutionaries world over as originally intended, instead of merely enticing secret bidders on auction websites.
Einstein’s Zionism: For a Cultural Center, not a Political State
Einstein never disowned his association with Zionism, although it is important to note his definition of Zionism largely varied from the ones commonly held during his own time, and now. He could easily have succumbed to a reactionary (nationalist) variant of Zionism considering he was constantly victimized as a Jew, regardless of his celebrity. But he consciously did not choose that path. In 1920, a group of German scientists, led by Nobel Prize winner Philipp Lenard, denounced the theory of relativity as a “Jewish perversion”. Lenard would go on to serve as Hitler’s chief scientist, and the man to fund this campaign to discredit Einstein’s contributions would be later unraveled as the American industrialist Henry Ford, a Nazi collaborator. Remaining unprovoked however, Einstein declared the same year: “I do not believe in anything that might be described as ‘Jewish faith’. But I am a Jew and am glad to belong to the Jewish people, though I do not regard it in any way as chosen…”
Cognizant of the anti-semitism impacting Einstein’s career and legacies, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann in 1921 asked Kurt Blumenfeld, a top Zionist recruiter to “stir up Einstein”. Blumenfeld sent back Weizmann a warning – “Einstein, as you know, is no Zionist, and I ask you not to try to make him a Zionist or to try to attach him to our organization…Einstein, who leans to socialism, feels very involved with the cause of Jewish labor and Jewish workers… I heard…that you expect Einstein to give speeches. Please be quite careful with that. Einstein…often says things out of naïveté which are unwelcome by us.”
Einstein required no stirring up, as he had already chosen the side of the oppressed and without any hesitation accepted Weizmann’s invitation to travel to England and America, but duly noted, “In several places, a high-tensioned Jewish nationalism shows itself that threatens to degenerate into intolerance and bigotry; but hopefully this is only an infantile disorder.” Besides, Blumenfeld was clearly wrong, for Einstein was no naive. He knew from his experiences that “anti-Semitism is frequently a question of political calculation”. During his stay in Switzerland, he was not aware of his Jewishness and he wrote, “There was nothing in my life that would have stirred my Jewish sensibility and stimulated it. This changed as soon as I took up residence in Berlin. There I saw the plight of many young Jews, especially of East European Jews. They are made the scapegoats for the malaise in present-day German economic life…Meetings, conferences, newspapers press for their quick removal or internment.” When the German government contemplated measures against East European Jews, Einstein protested and exposed the “inhumanity and irrationality of these measures” in the Berliner Tageblatt.
Einstein distinguished early on between the West European Jews and the prevailing anti-Semitism targeting East European Jews. His support for Soviet Union was strengthened based on how Stalin’s policies welcomed East European Jews into Soviet Union. And at the same time, between the First World
War and the Second, Einstein witnessed how the racist Germany was treating the East European Jewish refugees, and the barbarity of it all would awaken his sense of belonging with the oppressed race of the time. Although he could afford to, Einstein refused to remain indifferent, and he refused to separate his profession from his politics. Together with a few colleagues – both Jews and non-Jews, he held university courses especially to benefit the East European Jews in the summer of 1921 and he declared that “such experiences have awakened my Jewish-national feelings. I am not a Jew in the sense that I call for the preservation of the Jewish or any other nationality as an end in itself…I consider raising Jewish self-esteem essential, also in the interest of a natural coexistence with non-Jews. This was my major motive for joining the Zionist movement…But my Zionism does not preclude cosmopolitan views.” His envisioning of a “free Jewish community in Palestine” was not so much a demand for a militarist sovereign country as it was about the need to recognize that the East European Jews are not treated as wretched refugees in the racist European powers. Jewish Diaspora would never have aimed for a separate land if the Jews were treated humanely in the various European countries they lived in, Einstein cited early on.
German Jewry, for one, lived in abysmal conditions. Einstein described its history in details: “Our ancestors lived in the ghetto. They were poor, politically disenfranchised, separated from non-Jews by a wall of religious traditions, daily lifestyle, and legal restraints. In their intellectual development they were limited to their own literature, and only faintly influenced by the tremendous revival that European intellectual life experienced during the Renaissance.” In 1925, Einstein would express his support for Zionism as it was “in the process of creating in Palestine a center of Jewish intellectual life…The moral homeland will, I hope, succeed in bringing more vitality to a people that does not deserve to die.”
But wary he would always remain of the Zionists at the same time. One of them was Isaac Don Levine who tried early on to persuade Einstein against the Bolsheviks by making false claims about how Jews were being colonized by Stalin’s Russia. On April 9, 1926, Einstein rubbished such claims by Levine and wrote to him that he was supporting Russia and that the “efforts being made to colonize Jews in Russia must not be opposed because they aim at assisting thousands of Jews whom Palestine cannot immediately absorb.” Einstein had duly acknowledged how Stalin was the only international leader to have been supportive of the Jewish cause, so much so that Soviet Union was the first country to develop an autonomous territory for the Jewish people, a concept that Einstein had dreamt to see realized in Palestine, upon British promise. But reactionary Zionism was intolerant towards the communists and was refusing to credit the Soviet Union for their initiatives. As history would prove it later, and Einstein would attest, the British ended up deceiving the Jews, while Soviet Union continued to save millions of them.
Einstein was deeply committed to the welfare of Jewish people, but for that he also needed to be politically alert. His activism did not spare even Blumenfeld whom Einstein wrote demanding to peruse through the financial details of the Zionist Organization and started expressing doubts over the viabilities of Zionism. In the March 1926 letter to Blumenfeld, he wrote, “I appreciate the educational achievements of Zionism. However, as an enterprise, I don’t know it well enough to support it with good conscience.” Even as Einstein’s conscience would continue to haunt him, he was still optimistic about the forthcoming “Jewish center” of morality and intellectualism. He never got the “impression that the Arab problem might threaten the development of the Palestine project.” He said, “I believe rather that, among the working classes especially, Jew and Arab on the whole get on excellently together.” (1927)
Next year, in 1928, contrary to political wisdom, the British proposed a parliament for Palestine in a rushed manner that mandated equal representations from Jewish and Arab (and some British appointees) – a move that would result in the first major “riots” claiming hundreds of lives on each side. By the Jewish migrations in 1930, the British census report would declare almost 17 percent of the population in the Arab land to be Jews. Mass agitations among the Arabs would be “tackled” by the British in 1936 when for the first time the colonizers would station more troops in Palestine than in the entire Indian subcontinent. In 1937, the proposed mandate would be declared a failure because common grounds between the Arabs and Jews would not be allegedly found and the British conveniently would then “partition” Palestine, much to the chagrin of the Arabs (and, Einstein).
Before the proposed “Partition” could materialize, Zionist Weizmann demanded that all Arabs be deported to Jordan, an idea that was opposed by Einstein and resulted in further differences between the two of them. Describing Jewish nationalism as guided by militarism and conservatism, Einstein even compared it with Prussia in a letter to Weizmann: “Without honest cooperation with the Arabs there is no peace and no security. This is for the long range politics and not for the present times. In the last analysis, even if we were not practically defenseless, it would not be worthy of us to want to maintain a nationalism a la Prussienne.”
Einstein became bitterly opposed not just towards Weizmann (who went on to become the first President of Israel), but also towards the more liberal Zionists such as Selig Brodetsky, whom Einstein characterized as a “Mussolini”. Brodetsky defended himself as a socialist and as an “outspoken opponent of any form of chauvinism and militarism in connection with the Zionist movement”, but Einstein saw through the motives of such Zionists and criticized Brodetsky vociferously: “What I have against your talk is less what you have done but more what you have left unsaid. What’s missing is an analysis of the cause of the reaction of the Arab world against us – without which the question, in my conviction, cannot be solved.” Brodetsky was known for inciting caution against the allegedly growing power of Arabs and of their increasing population in Palestine – a jingoistic assertion that was attacked by Einstein thus: “I’m happy that we have no power. If national pigheadedness proves strong enough, then we will knock our brains out as we deserve.”
It was not any political power that Einstein wanted to see instituted in the Arab land. Refusing to be deluded by the Zionist propaganda, he was increasingly becoming concerned about the safety of the Arab people in Palestine. In a letter to Bernard Lecache in May 1930, Einstein wrote, “With regard to the question of Palestine, my most eager wish would be that, by policies preserving the legitimate interests of the Arabs, the Jews might succeed in proving that the Jewish people has managed to learn something from its own past, long ordeal.” In the same year, he wrote to Hugo Bergmann, “Only direct cooperation with the Arabs can create a dignified and safe life. If the Jews don’t comprehend this, the whole Jewish position in the complex of Arab countries will become step by step untenable.”
Although immigration of Jewish people to the Arab land was becoming legally inevitable, Einstein proposed there should be a limit to that. In a letter to Edward Freed, he wrote in 1932, “I am not a nationalist and I do not wish any discrimination of the Arabs in Palestine. The Jewish immigration to Palestine in the framework of ‘suitable limits’ can’t do harm to anyone.” The ‘limits’ were opposed by many Zionists of the time, principally by the anticommunist and Jewish nationalist Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Einstein attacked them as Fa
scists and in a letter to the Zionist Beinish Epstein, he accused them of “borrowing from the Fascists…methods that I abhor deeply, and use them to serve the interests of those who, relying on their ownership of the means of production, disfranchise and exploit the nonowners.” (1935)
Einstein’s communistic analysis irked many, and surprised many more. So disgusted were some Zionists that one of them, Elias Ginsburg threatened legal actions against Einstein. But the scientist remained persistent in objectively laying out the verifiable truths. In 1938, he declared his priorities based on that: “I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state…” These sentiments are more relevant today as the Gaza wars continue to oppress the Arabs in the name of defending the state of Israel. Back then, Einstein had warned the Jewish people not to fall into the trap of nationalism, and the following excerpt of his commentary sums it up: “The essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power..I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain – especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state. A return to a nation in the political sense of the word would be equivalent to turning away from the spiritualization of our community…”
However, Einstein’s plan was not laying the foundation for the future; British colonialism’s declarations were. As the Second World War unfolded, between 1939 and 1944, the British allowed for a limited number (75,000) of Jews to be settled in Palestine. In the meantime, Nazi Germany’s onslaughts made possible somewhat of a unity among the Arabs and Jews – Palestinian Communist Party (which supported the Soviet Union) as well as Jewish Communists and left-leaning Zionists Hashomer Hatzair worked towards forging alliances between antifascists from each side. At the same time, to counter the influence of the communists, the rightwing Zionists also grew in leaps and bounds (some of them assassinated Lord Moyne, British Minister of State in 1944). Next year, they demanded immediate admission of 100,000 Jewish refugees to Eretz Israel, Einstein sharply attacked these Jewish militants and said “I regard them as a disaster. I’m not willing to see anybody associated with those misled and criminal people”, in an interview with I.Z. David.
Anti-Israel: “The war is won, but the peace is not.” (Einstein, 1945)
While he rejoiced the defeat of Hitler and Nazism, Einstein continued to oppose the idea of a Jewish state. In January 1946, testifying before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine (AACIP), Einstein argued against the idea of Israel. He wrote to Rabbi Wise, “I’m firmly convinced that a rigid demand for a ‘Jewish State’ will have only undesirable results for us.” American radical journalist I. F. Stone, himself a fellow ‘cultural Zionist’ declared his support for Einstein saying that “to have the greatest Jewish figure of the period oppose a Jewish state as unfair to the Arabs is a very noble thing.”
When Menachem Begin (who would later become the sixth Prime Minister of Israel and win Nobel Prize for Peace in 1973) visited the US, Einstein denounced him and the right-wing Zionism as “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” Not only was he bitterly critical of the reactionary Zionists, Einstein was equally forthright in his support for the Soviet Union. At the annual Nobel Prize anniversary dinner at New York, he said, “We do not forget the humane attitude of the Soviet Union who was the only one among the big powers to open her doors to hundreds of thousands of Jews when Nazi armies were advancing on Poland.” Later that year, he released another statement revealing his support for Stalin in a time when most of his peers were distancing themselves, “We must not forget that in those years of atrocious persecution of the Jewish people, Soviet Russia has been the only great nation who has saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives. The enterprise to settle 30,000 more Jewish war orphans in Birobidjan and secure for them in this way a satisfying and happy future is new proof for the humane attitude of Russia towards our Jewish people.” Not only that, Einstein also gladly accepted the offer to become honorary president of the most prominent committee setup to coordinate Jewish settlements in Birobidjan (which was established within the Soviet Union under Stalin in the late 1920s as the first autonomous Jewish region in the world).
By the end of Second World War, Einstein had already made his political commitments clear. Testifying before AACIP, he attacked the British as the root cause of the instabilities in the lives of Arabs and Jews. “Difficulties between the Jews and Arabs are artificially created, and are created by the English,” he thundered. Opposing a separate Jewish state, Einstein noted that Palestine could still rule with one government, but without British interventions, because in his impression, “Palestine is a kind of small model of India. There is an attempt, with the help of a few officials, to dominate the people of Palestine and it seems to me that the English rule it.” Attacking the British colonial rule as one that exploits the native while collaborating with landowners, Einstein laid bare a vicious critique of Western interests in the proposed partitions. In addition, Einstein denounced the idea of a new state while replying to a question by Judge Hutcheson: “The state idea is not according to my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with many difficulties and a narrow-mindedness. I believe it is bad.”
In short, Einstein was opposed to a separate Jewish state, opposed to a partition of Palestine, opposed even to an establishment of a Jewish government-in-exile, considered the Jewish underground movement a “disaster” and supported a bi-national self-government in Palestine with both Arabs and the Jews ruled with the consent of the Arabs.
On matters of Palestine, Einstein detested the Americans as having “inherited the inflatedness and arrogance of the Germans.” He accused the American administration of “taking on the role England has played up to now.” He predicted quite accurately that the English “old-fashion methods of suppressing the masses by using indigenous unscrupulous elements from the economic upper class will soon cost them their whole empire.” In a 1948 letter to a friend, Einstein deplored the Western world for preparing a war against Russia, “By now, it is not only the English, but also the Americans who have sold and betrayed us politically for a song. In Washington, they are conspiring for a preventive war against Russia, a fact that is also related to the villainy in Palestine. We Jews are not safe in America where anti-Semitism has increased very much…The psychological situation of the Jews over here is quite similar to the one in Germany before Hitler. The rich and the successful try to cloak their Jewish descent and act out as super patriots…”
In response to Shepard Rifkin, Einstein reiterated that, “when a real and final catastrophe should befall us in Palestine the first responsible for it would be the British and the second responsible for it the Terrorist organizations built up from our own ranks. I am not willing to see anybody associated with those misled and criminal people.”
With such criminal people, Einstein never made peace, not even after Israel was established despite his lifelong struggles against its formation. In 1952, when Weizmann died and to fill that vacuum a great name was sought to become President of Israel, Ben Gurion unashamedly approached Einstein. Not only did Einstein refuse to accept that positi
on, he also stated it would be “a difficult situation that would create a conflict with my conscience.” Although Gurion’s offer is a well-known historical episode, Einstein’s response is rarely mentioned because that would then brand the most honored Jewish person as the biggest anti-Semite in the political terms employed today.
Likewise, a day after Einstein’s death, the New York Times, on April 19, 1955 deliberately misconstrued history in its characteristic style by printing, “Israel, whose establishment as a state, Einstein had championed…” As Einstein’s chronicler Fred Jerome noted, it was “a description of Einstein the media had never used while he was alive.” However, the conspiracies to cleanse Einstein of his “dirty past” had started long ago with FBI employing anti-Stalinist agents to discredit him, while suppressing such facts from the public knowledge. Thanks to Jerome’s investigations (“The Einstein File”), it is now revealed that Louis Gibarti, who was expelled from the Communist Party by Stalin, soon became an informant for the FBI (interviewed by Democratic Party Senator Pat McCarran). McCarran, submitted the reports of allegations against Einstein’s international communist contacts, and his Republican counterpart Senator McCarthy ended up denouncing Einstein as an “enemy of America”.
Einstein’s deeply rooted friendship with Paul Robeson and his unconditional support for W.E.B. DuBois were also deliberately kept under wraps for decades – despite them possibly being the biggest influences in Einstein’s radical saga. Just as the facts – that he was the fiercest critic of British colonialism, a profoundly radical voice against American imperialism, a strong advocate for Stalin’s Russia, a steadfast supporter of the black communists, and a studied commentator against the reactionary Zionism upon which Israel has been founded – have been carefully concealed. For if the real Einstein were to inspire the world today, that would not just disturb the comfortable imperialists, more importantly, it would awaken and radicalize all the oppressed people of the world to stand up against injustice, as Einstein, not the marketable genius – but the collective conscience for a progressive world, once did.
(An abridged version of this piece has appeared on Kindle Magazine)