Albert Einstein’s Early Zionist Involvement, 1918-1920

Niv Goldstein. Israel Affairs. Volume 23, Issue 4. August 2017.

Albert Einstein’s first known encounter with Zionism took place in 1911-1912, while he was teaching at the German university in Prague. His later recollection of the occasion showed the lack of interest, to put it mildly, he felt at the time to the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland, which he deemed an old and unrealistic desire: ‘a small troop of unrealistic people, harking back to the Middle Ages’.

His next conceptual familiarity with Zionism occurred in 1914 in Berlin, when he was 35 years old. According to his personal recollection, it was random and unplanned but produced an insight into the importance of rebuilding Jewish solidarity, as an essential step towards the decent existence of his people.

Thus, Einstein’s first encounters with Zionism kindled his identification with his troubled people but did not bring him to espouse its political solution to the Jewish Problem. At the time, Einstein was much closer to the universal pole of his political thought. For example, with the outbreak of the Great War he joined a German political party (Bund Neues Vaterland) that sought to establish an international organization that would prevent wars. In doing so he combined his cosmopolitan worldview with his pacifist stance, which stressed the outlook of individuals facing the same difficulties all over the world regardless of their national identity. This of course was very different from the Zionist focus on Jewish national revival.

In early April 1918, Einstein revealed in a daring article his views regarding the desirable mode of action for the Jews, whose misery in his homeland had intensified. Simultaneously, about seven months before Germany’s official surrender, anti-Semitic attacks against the Jews, blamed for its defeat, increased considerably. It is evident that Einstein was very disturbed by that and he apparently decided to devote his article to the reasons for this prevalent hatred of Jews and the consequences of that hatred which intensified in Europe in general and in Germany in particular.

At the outset of his article, Einstein mocked the attempts of many German Jews to fight anti-Semitism by defining themselves as ‘German citizens of the Mosaic faith’. He made it clear that this attempt to deny attachment to the Jews of the world was both futile and ridiculous. In his opinion, the Jews did indeed give up all-Jewish solidarity in order to curry favour with the anti-Semites but for the latter the hatred of Jews was constant and did not depend on their actions or on the way they defined their identity. Thus the Jews lost both ways.

In Einstein’s view, anti-Semitism was not a rational phenomenon but rather a psychological one. This meant that it was extremely difficult to uproot hatred of Jews from people’s hearts since it originated in sentiment rather than from a logical and coherent worldview that could form the basis for a rational discussion; and this sentiment stemmed from the apparent difference of the Jews from their surroundings, which in turn aroused instinctive hostility:

The psychological root of anti-Semitism lies in the fact that the Jews are a group of people unto themselves. Their Jewishness is visible in their physical appearance and one notices their Jewish heritage in their intellectual works, and one can sense that there are among them deep connections in their disposition and numerous possibilities of communicating that are based on the same way of thinking and of feeling … For the primitive and uneducated, being different is reason enough for hate.

In Einstein’s opinion, the Jews’ difference meshed well with the desire of the anti-Semites to find a scapegoat that could be blamed for their failures and misfortunes. Thus, the Jews who sought to understand the reasons for the hatred against them in the hope that they could evade it by changing their ways did so in vain because their unique difference was not something one should correct.

In the second part of the article, Einstein sought nevertheless to provide a few possible solutions for the reduction of anti-Semitism, directing his proposals both to the German Jews and to the state authorities responsible for the safety of their Jewish citizens:

The state, and in particular the German state, has to realize that the way it treats the Jews will prove whether it can live up to its true future tasks, whether minorities can be tolerated amongst its people without opposing them. Isn’t it its highest duty to ensure that people of any heritage or any origin be able to live within its borders in absolute freedom? There is no state today that has not made the protection and right of self-determination of minorities a part of its political program.

In fact, Einstein presented a highly focused view regarding the duties of the state, demanding that it fulfil only its basic mission to tend to and protect the lives of its citizens. In other words, he did not demand that the state work for the reduction of anti-Semitism through education or propaganda. This limited perception of the state as primarily a tool for enforcing law and order corresponded to the liberal outlook at the core of his thinking: that is, maintaining the equal rights of all citizens, especially minority members.

Moreover, in the spirit of the democratic-liberal tradition, Einstein did not call for the assimilation of the Jewish minority into the German majority but rather for granting the Jews the right to self-determination, for pluralistic tolerance towards them and for protecting their ethnic-national uniqueness. The Jewish individual, in Einstein’s opinion, was entitled to civil rights that must not be infringed upon as well as to protection and to enjoyment of the ‘Negative Freedom’, to use Isaiah Berlin’s words, namely the freedom to act and conduct his life in the state without any limitation by the authorities. Thus, at this point, Einstein’s universal stance regarding the appropriate character of the well-managed state meshes with his particular concern for the future of the Jews in Germany.

According to Einstein, providing ‘Negative Freedom’ to its Jewish citizens was not merely the German state’s duty—it was also in its best interest:

The general public needs to know, that it will only cause serious damage to itself by insisting that the Jews give up their human individuality and demand that they adapt by sacrificing their character, as, for example, through baptism, to their surroundings. Self-confident Jews of strong character will contribute, through their presence, to an ever-increasing sense of true humanity. They have the task of bringing about the success of the idea that only the respect for human individuality will guarantee a dignified life of nations, and that it is a sign of deepest lack of civilization to make a human group the scapegoat just because it is of different blood.

In those words, Einstein adopted another liberal argument, this time in the spirit of the teachings of the philosopher John Stuart Mill, and stated that the unification of the German population and the erasure of the uniqueness of the Jewish minority would be a source of a great harm to the German state itself, which would become too uniform. He made it clear that the multiplicity of shades and opinions in the state was precisely what made it richer both spiritually and culturally, noting that if the Jews were not restricted they could fulfil their ‘Positive Freedom’ too by giving free rein to their abilities and materializing their universal purpose, as he saw it at that point: to provide the world with proof that respect and tolerance towards every human being would ensure more dignified human life for all and that difference did not mean deficiency but rather the opposite.

Einstein ended the article with a direct appeal to the Jews and made it clear that their universal mission would materialize only after the realization of their specific one by keeping the Jewish people united and protected through Jewish solidarity. In other words, the supranational solution had to begin at the national level. It should be pointed out that the plural language Einstein used indicated his feelings of common fate and great solidarity with his people, subjected to physical and verbal attacks that in his view degraded all of humanity:

We Jews can only accomplish this task by unifying the entire Jewish people. Then we will be able to make demands in the name of humanity, which has been violated in our case through the most horrible indoctrination and attacks against our honor and our life; we will then successfully defend ourselves against expressions of hatred, which dishonor all people, with a clear understanding of ourselves and of the essence of Anti-Semitism. The beginning of an effective defense, however, is recognizing the truth.

Throughout the article Einstein interchangeably referred to anti-Semitism’s damage to both the tangible ‘Problem of the Jews’ and the abstract ‘Problem of Judaism’. This probably indicated his belief that the physical distress of the Jews and the alienation they suffered in exile adversely affected their self-respect and confidence. Thus, besides his concern for the safety and worldly existence of the Jews, he also wanted to bring about their spiritual revival by restoring their self-image and rehabilitating mutual solidarity among Jews. In the final account, Einstein still saw the solution to the Jews’ misery as a local problem, suggesting different behaviour by the Jews and the state authorities, but only in Germany.

Einstein’s focusing on the Jews’ distress only in Germany and his desire to relieve the stress ‘locally’ were very evident in his first documented interaction with the representatives of the Zionist movement in his homeland at that time. In this he appeared to have sought to help those Zionist initiatives that were not Palestine-centric but rather sought to consolidate Jewish solidarity in Germany. For example, on 23 May 1918, two delegates of the Zionist organization of Germany, Arthur Hantke and Otto Warburg, sent Einstein a letter inviting him to a meeting in Berlin, designed to achieve German Jewish support for the establishment of a college for Jewish teachers’ training in Poland. Although there is no mention in Einstein’s archive of his participation in that meeting, it was the opening shot for similar Zionist initiatives, and Einstein would find some of them worthy.

Similarly, about a month after the end of World War I, another senior German Zionist, Felix Rosenblüth (who later changed his name to Pinchas Rosen—and was a minister in several Israeli governments), invited Einstein to another and more significant activity sponsored by the Zionists—a conference in Berlin that was to deal with two subjects very close to Einstein’s heart: the misery of the German Jews and the idea of supra-nationalism.

One of the two drafts attached to the letter so that Einstein could approve their wording included a declaration about his joining the temporary committee for the preparation of the Jewish congress in Germany that was about to represent officially all German Jews in the forthcoming peace talks between the powers. In the second draft the importance of a new ‘Jewish Politics’ was emphasized, so that the Jews could demand that Palestine be recognized as a national home for the Jewish people and that national autonomy would be granted to the Jews in the various states. Einstein signed his name on that draft.

The letter and the attached drafts presented Einstein’s first steps of support for the Zionist movement, which still mainly centred in Germany. His support derived mostly from his increasing concern in the face of the local distress of his people, which was the reason he chose to aid the Zionist initiative that focused on the constitution of one representative organization for all German Jews. No less important, Einstein signed his name on a draft declaration calling for recognition of Palestine as the appropriate site for the national home of the Jews. This is significant since although the draft contained no denial of the continuity of Jewish life in the Diaspora—which somewhat weakened its ‘Level of Zionism’—it indicated Einstein’s initial support for the main Zionist claim, namely the mass migration of Jews to Palestine backed by the nations of the world. However, it is important to recall that Einstein was not the one who wrote those drafts—even though he was asked to approve their wording.

During 1919 the German Zionist leaders, who were encouraged by the political backing granted to the Balfour Declaration (November 1917), tried to expand German support for the Zionist movement. Kurt Blumenfeld, the chief ideologue of the German Zionists and eventually one of its prominent leaders, decided to contact Einstein, who at this point was well known only in Germany. Blumenfeld wanted to persuade Einstein to engage in Zionist affairs, which focused on Jewish immigration to Palestine. Their meetings had a tremendous importance on the process of Einstein’s enlistment to the main Zionist effort, though Einstein never officially joined the Zionist movement.

In his book, Blumenfeld described in detail the various steps in his contacts with Einstein, until the point when he believed he had succeeded in gaining the physicist’s confidence in the Zionist movement’s worldview:

I started by telling him [Einstein] about the Jewish Question in the world. ‘What does that have to do with Zionism?’ he asked. ‘The Zionist idea wants to give the Jews internal security,’ I answered. ‘It wants to eliminate the torn heart of the contemporary Jew; an unchained soul and internal freedom are the companions of the Zionist idea.’ … With divine innocence … He then asked his own questions: ‘Is it good to take the Jews away from the intellectual professions, for which they were created? Would it not be regressive to put manual skills and workmanship, and primarily agriculture, in the center of matters, as Zionism does?’ … He had doubts, and he continued asking: ‘Have the Jews not gone too far from the village and village life as a result of a religious tradition that developed outside Palestine? Have not all the skills that they possess led them to scientific accomplishments, the result of extreme intellectuality? Is it necessary, for the sake of a struggle on the Jewish question, to create a national Jewish movement?’ … I invited Einstein to a lecture on another day of that week … When we returned home, he said to me: ‘I oppose nationalism, but support Zionism. The reason for that became clear to me today: If a man has two arms, and he declares repeatedly: “I have a right arm”, he is a chauvinist. But if a man lacks his right arm, he must do all that he can to achieve compensation for his missing arm. Consequently in my general human position I object to nationalism, but as a Jew today I am in favor of Jewish national Zionism.’

This description must be taken with a pinch of salt. For one thing, Blumenfeld’s account was published (in German) in 1962—more than four decades after his meetings with Einstein, with all the attendant implications. For another, this is the only known account of the effort to harness Einstein’s name and assistance to the Zionist cause, and it goes without saying that Blumenfeld had a vested interest in crediting himself with this achievement. Yet one can learn quite a lot about Einstein’s initial attitude towards the Zionist ideology by this detailed description. It seems that the German Zionist leader managed to strike the right note in Einstein’s increasing Jewish national awareness. By presenting Zionism as an ideal that sought to give Jews self-confidence, end their dependence on non-Jewish society and give them the liberty to act as they wished, he provided an answer to Einstein’s demand for granting his people ‘Negative Freedom’, as they appeared in his article on anti-Semitism.

However, Einstein’s answers give the impression that, at that point, he still perceived Jewish nationality and the spiritual purpose of his people as contradictory. His questions indicated his concern about what might happen to the Jews if they joined the Zionist movement in droves and had to manage their worldly issues on their own. He doubted that Diaspora Jews were suited to strenuous manual labour, which would necessarily be a part of the nation-building endeavour in Palestine. But even if the Jews did indeed succeed in making the country flourish by themselves, he feared that this might force them to abandon their current intellectual way of life and in this way harm their scientific and cultural achievements.

Finally, Einstein raised the question that was the most significant for him, as a man who principally and ideologically objected to the idea of nationality as such: was there no other way to solve the Jews’ misery apart from Zionism, which was, after all, a national Jewish movement? This forced him to carry out—and not for the last time—a spiral mental exercise in order to reconcile the contradiction between his universal support for the supranational idea and his sympathy for the Jewish national movement, which was particularistic by definition. It seems that he realized that Zionism could ease the Jewish predicament, which troubled him more and more, while at the same time gradually recognizing that there was actually no other solution to the endemic hatred of the Jews, which was irrational in nature.

At this point Einstein used his short allegory about ‘The Man with Two Arms’ and made it clear that in his opinion, in order to fulfil their supranational purpose, the Jews must first unite as a nation. He clarified that he sided with the nascent Jewish nationality out of expectation that once it fully materialized and ameliorated the Jewish predicament, it would give up its birthright for the sake of supra-nationalism. This was, in a nutshell, Einstein’s stance regarding the Zionist enterprise. He almost tried to ‘square the circle’—to side with Jewish nationality while at the same time refining through it the incompatible idea of supra-nationalism, which he supported consistently.

About a month after his meetings with Einstein, Blumenfeld’s success became evident as Einstein seemed satisfied with the information he received regarding the fortunes of Zionism in Palestine, which he considered a positive contrast to the events in post-war Europe:

Politics disappoint me very much these days. The states whose victory during the war I felt would be by far the lesser evil are now proving to be only slightly the lesser evil … One doesn’t know where to look to get satisfaction from human affairs. I get most joy from the emergence of the Jewish state in Palestine. It does seem to me that our kinfolk really are more sympathetic (at least less brutal) than these horrid Europeans.

It is important to stress that although Einstein used the phrase ‘the Jewish state in Palestine’, and in such a positive context, this was a very unusual and atypical statement by him. It is not clear why he chose to express himself that way and it is possible that this related to his perception of the Jewish state in predominantly spiritual terms. Indeed, Einstein was to stress time and again in the coming decade and beyond his support for the non-political character of Zionism. One proof of many to this claim came from his letter to his old friend and confidant approximately two months later. In the letter he noted that he saw himself as an uprooted plant, which was not rooted in his homeland with all his heart. Einstein made it clear that all he had ever known was the feeling of duty towards people and implicitly not towards states.

Einstein’s first show of interest in the establishment of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem was indicated in his September-October 1919 correspondence with his friend Paul Epstein. To Epstein’s report that he had heard from an influential Zionist of Einstein’s interest in the establishment of a Jerusalem university and ‘if he [Einstein] personally is not considering a teaching position, it is only because (or primarily because) he does not believe he can learn Hebrew sufficiently anymore’, Einstein replied:

The Zionist cause is very close to my heart. It would be of great profit to this affair if you went there. You can count on my recommendation … I have great confidence in a positive development of the Jewish colony and am glad that there should be a little patch of earth on which our kindred brethren are not considered aliens… One can be internationally minded without being indifferent to one’s kinsmen.

These words underscore the nature of Einstein’s support for the establishment of the national home in Palestine, namely his wish to find a practical solution for the misery of the Jews that would provide them with their own piece of land outside the countries where they presently lived. The use he made in phrases such as ‘kindred brethren’ and ‘kinsmen’ indicated once again his deep emotional identification with the Jewish people, which brought him to side with the Zionist solution.

However, the apologetic end to his words witnessed the ambivalence he felt about his principled support for universalism and his practical support for the political initiative of the Jewish national movement in Palestine (i.e. national particularism). Einstein sought to clarify that while he gave priority to his particular concern for his people he did not view it as an act that dimmed the glow of his universal consciousness. He sought to square the circle both by stressing the smallness and non-state character of the national home in Palestine (which he called ‘a colony’ and ‘a little patch of earth’) and by stressing that his support for the Zionist movement conformed to his worldwide awareness and was not meant to replace it. Moreover, in Einstein’s view the envisaged Hebrew University would provide a great relief etc. to the Ostjuden (East European Jews), who encountered growing difficulties in their desire to pursue academic studies in their countries of residence: ‘This university will contribute to reducing the scope of Jewish talent, particularly in Poland and Russia, that has to go wretchedly to waste.’

The growing plight of East European Jewry after the war drove Einstein to publish an article titled ‘Immigration from the East’, where he explained that the mass Jewish flight from Eastern Europe was a spontaneous response to growing persecution (rather than part of a master plan to flood central Europe as argued by German anti-Semites), suggesting that part of the problem could be ameliorated by the incorporation of tens of thousands of refugees into the national home that was being built in Palestine: ‘Hopefully, many of them will find a true homeland as free sons of the Jewish people in the newly established Jewish Palestine.’

In mid-January 1920, a relative sent Einstein a Danish newspaper clipping describing him as an ardent Zionist and asked whether there was some truth to the assertion. In his reply, Einstein explained that,

Not much time has elapsed since I became a Zionist. But I nevertheless am happy about it. Our people will attain its own home, and the university that should be established in Palestine particularly interests me. They even say that I myself would like to move to Jerusalem; but that is a myth, like many other things that have been printed about me. I am both too old to master the Hebrew language, and it is almost entirely foreign to me.

In these words, Einstein actually admitted his recent sympathy for Zionism, which had become public knowledge given his worldwide fame. Yet he denied considering moving to Palestine, as one could have expected from a man devoted with all his heart to the ideal, and emphasized the centrality of the Hebrew University in his Zionist vision as something that would greatly help the development of the national home as well as the absorption of Eastern European Jews. So much so that he termed it a ‘temple’—a rather exceptional definition for the secular scientist that he was. In his opinion, the university would function not only as a cultural centre for Palestine alone, but as a fountain of Jewish solidarity across the world that would contribute from a universal perspective to the dissemination of Jewish achievements throughout the civilized world:

The thought that the dream of a Jewish university is now close to materialization elates me. Considering the general interest among Jews in academic things and the great hurdles impeding the Eastern European Jews from studying, establishing the Jewish university would be a necessity even if the development of Palestine had no need for an intellectual center. However, we also need the university to train Palestine’s academic youth so that the country can be motivated to develop its own cultural life. Interest in the new university among Jews living abroad will assure that a lively exchange be maintained between the new university and the civilized nations of Europe and America so we do not need to fear crippling isolation. May the university become a new shrine for our nation!

On 12 February 1920, Einstein felt the lash of anti-Semitism, which kept intensifying in Germany, after allowing Eastern European students who had been expelled from their studies to attend his lecture at the University of Berlin. That privilege annoyed some anti-Semitic students, who interrupted Einstein’s lecture and forced him to leave the auditorium. The next day he published a declaration in which he gave notice that he would continue with his lectures in a different way, but would stop them completely if he was interrupted yet again. He maintained that no anti-Semitic comments had been voiced by the students, but noted there might have been such a tone in their heckling. Yet the anti-Semitic character of those comments was recognized as such by the state newspapers.

The growing anti-Semitism towards the German Jews kept bothering Einstein and he wrote a critical article titled ‘Assimilation and anti-Semitism’, which sought to fight the two interlinked phenomena. In his view, it was the very existence of Jews alongside anti-Semites that was the trigger for their hatred, which was bound to erupt sooner or later. This in turn meant that there was no solution to the plight of the Jews apart from their non-existence alongside those rejecting their presence. Thus Einstein made another conceptual step towards the insight that, at least for some of the Jews, relief was to be found in the Zionist enterprise and not in their places of residence.

In the second part of the article, Einstein opposed the two main methods used by Jews for fighting anti-Semitism. The first was assimilation, which in his opinion not only failed to lessen the natural alienation between Jews and non-Jews but also brought the assimilating Jews disrespect, denial of their origins and the loss of inter-Jewish solidarity. He even called assimilation ‘morally questionable’.

Einstein was no less incensed by West European Jews’ renunciation of their East European brothers in the hope that this would spare them anti-Semitic ire:

Another method of combating anti-Semitism … is to draw a sharp dividing line between Eastern European Jews and Western European Jews. Everything evil blamed on Jews as a totality is heaped on the Eastern European Jews… The result of this… is, of course, just the opposite of what was intended. Anti-Semites have no intention of clearly distinguishing between Eastern European and Western European Jews… instead, they… accuse those Western European Jews of betraying their own people… Most Western European Jews are nothing but former Eastern European Jews… And since the major concern of the anti-Semites is to prove that Jewish inadequacies and vices have not been acquired during a few generations, but can allegedly be shown to have existed through the entire history of the Jewish people, the inference from the Eastern European Jews to the Western European Jews appears logically justified.

In Einstein’s view, just like assimilation, this renunciation would not put an end to anti-Semitism since for anti-Semites a Jew would always be a Jew even if he denied his tradition or even his own people. Hence those Jews who desperately sought to be a part of German society must not internalize anti-Semitic perceptions of their inferiority and let themselves be patronized and incited into fighting each other. Rather, they should circle their wagons, proudly maintain their national identity and their ethnic isolation in the face of the hostility of their surroundings, and foster inter-Jewish communal solidarity. Interestingly enough, the article made no mention of the Zionist solution, despite Einstein’s conviction that anti-Semitism would prevail as long as Jews and non-Jews continued to interact on a daily basis—something that Zionism’s founding father Theodore Herzl had argued over two decades earlier.

Einstein reiterated this view when declining an invitation to participate in a conference dedicated to the fight against German anti-Semitism. He argued yet again that only when the Jews took pride in their origins and their people, and did not see themselves as inferior to their surroundings, would they be able to expect the latter’s appreciation:

I would gladly attend if I believed that such an endeavor might prove successful. But first we must fight with enlightenment Anti-Semitism and submissive sentiments among us Jews. More dignity and more independence in our own ranks! Only when we dare to see ourselves as a nation, only when we respect ourselves, can we earn the respect of others, or rather, they arrive at this conclusion themselves … But I am a Jew and I am glad to belong to the Jewish people… Leave the Aryan to his anti-Semitism; and let us keep the love of our brethren.

While it is evident that Einstein’s attitude to the issue of anti-Semitism was still passive, it is reasonable to assume that he was keenly aware that his call to ‘leave the Aryan to his anti-Semitism’ could not offer a real solution to the physical and verbal abuse directed at the Jews. Einstein seems to be gradually inclining to the view that the answer to anti-Semitism had to be much more proactive, creating a viable alternative to their wretched lives. This disillusionment would lead him over the years to increased support for the Zionist efforts for the establishment of a national home in Palestine, out of the hope that it would improve the status of the Jews in the various countries of the Diaspora.


The process of Einstein’s early involvement on behalf of the Zionist cause was gradual and slow. Though already exposed to the Zionist idea before World War I, he tended to view it as unrealistic and opposed to his universal ideals. Yet given the growing anti-Semitism in Germany following its defeat in the war Einstein rediscovered his affinity to the Jewish people and gave his blessing to various Zionist projects, notably the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which in his view would help alleviate the plight of Eastern European Jewry fleeing the post-war pogroms. Thus, by the end of 1920 Einstein had come to conclude that the answer to anti-Semitism needed to be much more proactive and create a real alternative to their lives in Germany and the rest of Europe. This disillusionment would lead him, in the course of the following years and decades, to increase his support for the Zionist efforts to establish a national home in Palestine.