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Einstein and Israel

For more information about Isaiah Berlin, see the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. For permission to reprint any material by Isaiah Berlin, contact Curtis Brown Group Ltd.

Albert Einstein’s chief title to immortal fame is his transcendent scientific genius, about which, like the vast majority of mankind, I am totally incompetent to speak. Einstein was universally revered as the most revolutionary innovator in the field of physics since Newton. The exceptional respect and attention that were everywhere paid to his person and to his opinions on other topics sprang from this fact. He knew this himself: and although he was a genuinely modest man, embarrassed by the adulation which he excited, and disliked publicity, he expressed pleasure at the thought that, if homage was to be paid to individuals at all, it should go to those who could claim achievement in fields of intellect and culture rather than of power and conquest. Indeed, that a mathematical physicist should have become a great world figure is a remarkable fact and a credit to mankind.

If the impact of Einstein’s ideas outside the realms of theoretical physics and, perhaps, of the philosophy of physics is compared to that made by the ideas of other great scientific pioneers, an odd conclusion seems to emerge. Galileo’s method, to go no further back, and his naturalism, played a crucial role in the development of seventeenth-century thought, and extended far beyond technical philosophy. The impact of Newton’s ideas was immense: whether they were correctly understood or not, the entire program of the Enlightenment, especially in France, was consciously founded on Newton’s principles and methods, and derived its confidence and its vast influence from his spectacular achievements. And this, in due course, transformed—indeed, largely created—some of the central concepts and directions of modern culture in the West, moral, political, technological, historical, social—no sphere of thought or life escaped the consequences of this cultural mutation.

This is true to a lesser extent of Darwin—the concept of evolution affected many fields of thought outside biology: it upset the theologians, it influenced the historical sciences, ethics, politics, sociology, anthropology. Social Darwinism, founded on a misapplication of Darwin’s and Huxley’s views, with its eugenic and sometimes racist implications, did social and political harm. I hesitate (before this audience) to refer to Freud as a natural scientist; but there is no doubt that his teaching, too, affected fields far outside psychology—history, biography, aesthetics, sociology, education.

But Einstein? His scientific achievement touched on the philosophy of science; his own views—his early acceptance of Mach’s phenomenalism, and his subsequent abandonment of that view—show that he possessed the gifts of a philosopher, and so, indeed, did his views of the central doctrines of Spinoza, Hume, Kant; Russell. In this respect, Einstein and Planck were virtually unique among the outstanding physicists of our century. But his influence on the general ideas of his time? On educated opinion? Certainly he presented a heroic image of a man of pure heart, noble mind, unusual moral and political courage, engaged in unswerving pursuit of the truth, who believed in individual liberty and social equality, a man sympathetic to socialism, who hated nationalism, militarism, oppression, violence, the materialistic view of life. But apart from embodying a combination of human goodness with a passion for social justice and unique intellectual power, in a society in which many seemed to live by the opposite values—apart, that is, from his exemplary life, from being, and being seen to be, one of the most civilized, honorable and humane men of his time—what impact did Einstein have?

It is true that the word “relativity” has been, to this day, widely misinterpreted as relativism, the denial of, or doubt about, the objectivity of truth or of moral and other values. But this is a very old and familiar heresy. Relativism in the sense in which Greek sophists, Roman skeptics, French and British subjectivists, German Romantics and nationalists professed it, and in which theologians and historians and ordinary men have, in modern times, been tormented by it—this was the opposite of what Einstein believed. He was a man of simple and absolute moral convictions, which were expressed in all he was and did. His conception of external nature was that of a scientifically analyzable, rational order or system; the goal of the sciences was objective knowledge of an independently existent reality, even though the concepts in which it was to be analyzed and described were free, arbitrary human creations.

What general impact did his doctrines have? Modern theoretical physics cannot, has not, even in its most general outlines, thus far been successfully rendered in popular language as Newton’s central doctrines were, for example, by Voltaire. High-minded public men in England like Haldane and Herbert Samuel tried to derive general metaphysical or theological truths, usually somewhat trite ones, from the general theory of relativity, but this only showed that their gifts lay in other spheres.

But if the impact of Einstein’s scientific thought on the general ideas of his time is in some doubt, there can be none about the relevance of his nonscientific views to one of the most positive political phenomena of our time. Einstein lent the prestige mondial of his great name, and in fact gave his heart, to the movement which created the state of Israel. Men and nations owe a debt to those who help to transform their realistic self-image for the better. No Zionist with the least degree of self-esteem can refuse to pay him homage if the opportunity of doing so is offered to him. Einstein’s support of the Zionist movement and his interest in the Hebrew University were lifelong. He quarreled with Weizmann more than once; he was highly critical of the Hebrew University and, in particular, of its first president; he deplored the shortcomings of Zionist policy toward the Arabs; but he never abandoned his belief in the central principles of Zionism. If young people (or others) today, whether Jews or gentiles, who, like the young Einstein, abhor nationalism and sectarianism and seek social justice and believe in universal human values—if such people wish to know why he, a child of assimilated Bavarian Jews, supported the return of the Jews to Palestine, Zionism, and the Jewish state, not uncritically nor without the anguish which any decent and sensitive man cannot but feel about acts done in the name of his people which seem to him wrong or unwise, but, nevertheless steadily, to the end of his life—if they wish to understand this, then they should read his writings on the subject. With his customary lucidity and gift for penetrating to the central core of any issue, whether in science or in life, Einstein said what had to be said with simplicity and truth. Let me remind you of some of the things he said and did, and in particular of the path which led toward them.

He was born in Ulm, the child of irreligious parents. He was educated in Munich where he seems to have encountered no discrimination; if he reacted strongly against his school and suffered something approaching a nervous breakdown, this does not seem to have been due to anti-Jewish feeling. What he reacted against was, perhaps, the quasimilitary discipline and nationalist fervor of German education in the 1890s. He studied intermittently in Milan and Zurich, taught in Zurich, obtained a post in the patent office in Bern, then held university chairs in Prague and Zurich, and in 1913 was persuaded by Nernst and Haber, as well as Planck, whose reputations were then at their peak, to accept a research post in Berlin.

I need not remind you of the atmosphere of Prussia on the eve of the First World War. In a letter written in 1929 to a German minister of state, Einstein said, “When I came to Germany fifteen years ago [that is, in 1914], I discovered for the first time that I was a Jew. I owed this discovery more to gentiles than Jews.” Nevertheless, the influence of some early German Zionists, in particular Kurt Blumenfeld, the apostle to the German Jews, played a significant part in this—and Einstein remained on terms of warm friendship with him for the rest of his life. But, as in the case of Herzl, the decisive factor in his awakening as a Jew was not so much encounter with an unfamiliar doctrine (he had met adherents of it in Prague but apparently took no interest in it then) as the chauvinism and xenophobia of leading circles, in this case in Berlin, which led him to a realization of the precarious predicament of the Jewish community even in the civilized West. “Man can flourish,” he declared, “only when he loses himself in a community. Hence the moral danger of the Jew who has lost touch with his own people and is regarded as a foreigner by the people of his adoption.” “The tragedy of the Jews is…that they lack the support of a community to keep them together. The result is a want of solid foundations in the individual which in its extreme form amounts to moral instability.”

The only remedy, he argued, is to develop a close connection with a living society which would enable individual Jews to bear the hatred and humiliation to which they are often exposed by the rest of mankind. Herzl is to be admired, Einstein tells us, for saying “at the top of his voice” that only the establishment of a national home in Palestine can cure this evil. It cannot be removed by assimilation. The Jews of the old German ghettos were poor, deprived of civic and political rights, insulated from European progress. Yet

these obscure, humble people had one great advantage over us—each of them belonged in every fiber of his being to a community in which he was wholly absorbed, in which he felt himself a fully privileged member, which asked nothing of him that was contrary to his natural habits of thought. Our forefathers of those days were pretty poor specimens intellectually and physically, but socially they enjoyed an enviable spiritual equilibrium.

Then came emancipation: rapid adaptation to the new open world: eager efforts to don clothes made to fit others, involving loss of identity, the prospect of disappearance as a group. But this was not to be:

However much the Jews adapted themselves, in language, manners, to a large extent even in the forms of religion, to the European peoples among whom they lived, the feeling of strangeness between them and their hosts never vanished. This is the ultimate cause of anti-Semitism, which cannot be got rid of by wellmeaning propaganda. Nationalities want to pursue their own goals, not to blend.

To ignore, or argue against, emotional prejudice or open hostility, Einstein declared, is wholly futile; the baptized Jewish Geheimrat was to him merely pathetic. National frontiers, armies, he regarded as evil, but not national existence as such: the life of peaceful nations, with reciprocal respect for one another and toleration of each other’s differences, was civilized and just. There follows a statement of Zionism not unlike the reaction to a similar predicament of another internationalist and socialist, Moses Hess, in the 1860s. Let me quote Einstein’s words in 1933: “It is not enough for us to play a part as individuals in the cultural development of the human race, we must also attempt tasks which only nations as a whole can perform. Only so can the Jews regain social health.” Consequently: “Palestine is not primarily a place of refuge for the Jews of Eastern Europe, but the embodiment of the reawakening of the corporate spirit of the entire Jewish nation.”

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