Einstein as a Jew and a Philosopher

Ferdinand Schmutzer/Austrian National Library/Anzenberger/Redux
Albert Einstein, Vienna, 1921

Why would anybody want to write another book about Albert Einstein? Why would anybody want to read it? These are two separate questions, but both of them have satisfactory answers. In spite of the large number of books already written about Einstein, there is still room for one more.

There were several good reasons for writing this book. Yale University Press is publishing a big series of short biographies under the heading “Jewish Lives.” Among the twenty already published are Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Sarah Bernhardt, Mark Rothko, and Leon Trotsky. Among the twenty-five announced as forthcoming are Benjamin Disraeli, Bob Dylan, Jesus, and Moses. Einstein obviously belongs on this list.

John Reed in his eyewitness report, Ten Days That Shook the World, describing the Bolshevik Revolution in Petrograd in 1917, proclaimed Leon Trotsky to be “the greatest Jew since Jesus.” Over the last hundred years, Einstein has displaced Trotsky as the second-brightest star of the Jewish pantheon. It would be absurd to display a gallery of famous Jews without putting Einstein in a prominent place. Another reason this Einstein book is welcome is that it is short. Most of the earlier books are much longer, with detailed and lengthy accounts of Einstein’s personal life and scientific thinking. The time is now ripe for a short book, summarizing briefly the well-known facts about Einstein’s rocky road as a husband and father and scientist, and emphasizing his lasting importance as a politician and a philosopher. This book is accurate and well balanced. It presents Einstein’s Jewish heritage as he saw it himself, not as the core of his being, but as a historical accident bringing inescapable responsibilities.

The reasons for reading this book are also simple. The majority of famous scientists have books written about them that are of interest to historians and specialists. The scientists remain famous for a few decades and then gradually fade. The books contain almost all the information about them that is worth preserving. But there are a few scientists whose lives and thoughts are of perennial interest, because they permanently changed our way of thinking. To the few belong Galileo and Newton and Darwin, and now Einstein. For the select few, there will be no end to the writing of books. New books will need to be written and read, because these people had enduring ideas that throw light on new problems as the centuries go by.

The later chapters of Steven Gimbel’s book describe Einstein’s deep involvement with the Zionist movement, promoting the settlement of Jews in Palestine. Einstein saw these settlements as a benefit both to Jews and to Arabs, giving Jews a place to live and prosper, and giving Arabs a chance to share the blessings of progress and prosperity. In 1929, when some Palestinian Arabs organized a violent opposition to Jewish settlement and…

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