Walter Isaacson: How Einstein Divided America's Jews

Roundup: Talking About History

[Walter Isaacson is the president and chief executive officer of the Aspen Institute and the author of Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007).]

Albert Einstein’s first tour of America was an extravaganza unique in the history of science, and indeed would have been remarkable for any realm: a grand two-month processional in the spring of 1921 that evoked the sort of mass frenzy and press adulation that would thrill a touring rock star. Einstein had recently burst into global stardom when observations performed during a total eclipse dramatically confirmed his theory of relativity by showing that the sun’s gravitational field bent a light beam to the degree that he had predicted. The New York Times trumpeted that triumph with a multideck headline:

Lights All Askew in the Heavens / Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations / EINSTEIN THEORY TRIUMPHS / Stars Not Where They Seemed or Were Calculated to Be, but Nobody Need Worry

So when he arrived in New York in April, he was greeted by adoring throngs as the world’s first scientific celebrity, one who also happened to be a gentle icon of humanist values and a living patron saint for Jews.

Newly published papers from that year, however, show a less joyful aspect to Einstein’s famous visit. He found himself caught in a battle between ardent European Zionists led by Chaim Weizmann, who was with Einstein on the trip, and the more polished and cautious potentates of American Jewry, including Louis D. Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, and the denizens of established Wall Street banking firms. Among other things, the disputes about Zionism apparently caused Einstein not to be invited to lecture at Harvard and prompted many prominent Manhattan Jews to decline an invitation from him to discuss his pet project, the establishment of a university in Jerusalem.

The full extent of this controversy, which has been only touched upon in previous books (including a biography I wrote in 2007), is revealed in a volume of Einstein’s correspondence and papers for 1921 that was recently published by the Princeton University Press. None of the letters is newly discovered (all are available in public archives), but most have not been published before. The 600-page volume, the 12th compiled so far by the editors of the Einstein Papers Project, pulls all of the letters and related documents together in a way that allows us now to see, even more clearly than Einstein did at the time, the political and emotional struggle he stumbled into.

Einstein was raised in a secular German Jewish household, and (except for a brief fling with religious fervor as a child) he disdained religious faith and rituals. He did, however, proudly consider himself Jewish by heritage, and he felt a strong kinship with what he called his fellow tribesmen or clansmen. His outlook in 1921 can be seen in the brusque answer he sent early that year to the rabbis of Berlin, who had urged him to become a dues-paying member of the Jewish religious community there. “In your letter,” he responded, “I notice that the word Jew is ambiguous in that it refers (1) to nationality and origin, (2) to the faith. I am a Jew in the first sense, not in the second.”

German anti-Semitism was then on the rise. Many German Jews did everything they could, including converting to Christianity, in order to assimilate, and they urged Einstein to do the same. But Einstein took the opposite approach. He began to identify even more strongly with his Jewish heritage, and he embraced the Zionist goal of promoting a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

He had been recruited by the pioneering Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld, who paid a call on Einstein in Berlin in early 1919. “With extreme naïveté he asked questions,” Blumenfeld recalled. Among Einstein’s queries: With their intellectual gifts, why should Jews create a homeland that was primarily agricultural? Why did it have to be its own nation-state? Wasn’t nationalism the problem rather than the solution? Eventually, Einstein came around. “I am, as a human being, an opponent of nationalism,” he told Blumenfeld. “But as a Jew, I am from today a supporter of the Zionist effort.” He also became, more specifically, an advocate for the creation of a Jewish university in Jerusalem, which became Hebrew University.

Einstein had initially thought that his first visit to the United States, which he jokingly called “Dollaria,” might be a way to make some money in a stable currency. He and his first wife had gone through a bitter divorce, and they were still fighting over finances. Hamburg banker Max Warburg and his New York–based brother Paul tried to help Einstein line up lucrative lectures. They asked both Princeton and the University of Wisconsin for a fee of $15,000. In February of 1921, Max Warburg informed him, “The amount you wish is not possible.” Einstein was not terribly upset. “They found my demands too high,” he told his friend and fellow physicist Paul Ehrenfest. “I am glad not to have to go there; it really isn’t a pretty way to make money.” Instead, he made other plans: he would go to Brussels to present a paper at the Solvay Conference, the preeminent European gathering of physicists.

It was then that Blumenfeld came by Einstein’s apartment again, this time with an invitation—or perhaps an instruction—in the form of a telegram from the president of the World Zionist Organization, Chaim Weizmann. A brilliant biochemist who had emigrated from Russia to England, Weizmann asked Einstein to accompany him on a trip to America to raise funds to help settle Palestine and, in particular, create Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When Blumenfeld read the telegram to him, Einstein balked. He was not an orator, he said, and the idea of using his celebrity to draw crowds to the cause was “an unworthy one.” Blumenfeld did not argue. Instead, he simply read Weizmann’s telegram aloud again. “He is the president of our organization,” Blumenfeld said, “and if you take your conversion to Zionism seriously, then I have the right to ask you, in Dr. Weizmann’s name, to go with him to the United States.”

“What you say is right and convincing,” Einstein replied, to the “boundless astonishment” of Blumenfeld. “I realize that I myself am now part of the situation and that I must accept the invitation.” Weizmann was thrilled and somewhat surprised. “I wholeheartedly appreciate your readiness at such a decisive hour for the Jewish people,” he later cabled Einstein from London.

Einstein’s decision reflected a major transformation in his life. Until the completion of his general theory of relativity, he had dedicated himself almost totally to science. But the anti-Semitism that was oozing up around him in Berlin led him to reassert his identity as a Jew and to feel more committed to defending the culture and community of his people. “I am not keen on going to America, but am just doing it on behalf of the Zionists,” he wrote to his French publisher. “I must serve as famed bigwig and decoy-bird … I am doing whatever I can for my tribal brethren, who are being treated so vilely everywhere.”
And so Einstein and his new wife, Elsa, set sail in late March 1921 for their first visit to America...

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