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. This is quite natural considering the ruling class elites have a stake in appropriation of his legacies – the United States which granted him residency needed to use him for its Cold War propaganda, while Israel and the Jewish Diaspora 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 myth and certainly exposed to the world how little we knew about this man. 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 have 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.
Although Einstein 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 and 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 crises.
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… I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them.”
Such outright rejection 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 favour 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 Centre, 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 labour 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 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 East European Jews not to be 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.
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 realised 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.
In the March 1926 letter to Blumenfeld, Einstein 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 centre” 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.”
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.”
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 Fascists 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)
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.