Top ge­nius, su­per Jew

A bi­og­ra­phy deal­ing with Al­bert Ein­stein’s early life is strong on schol­arly de­tail but weighed down by pon­der­ous prose

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment - RE­VIEWED BY DAVID ED­MONDS

Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, £24.95

IN 1921, the stan­dard of jour­nal­ism at the Jewish Chron­i­cle was not quite what it is to­day. In June of that year, the pa­per pub­lished an ar­ti­cle pur­port­edly penned by the most fa­mous sci­en­tist in the world. But when Al­bert Ein­stein found out, he must have been might­ily miffed: it seems he had given an in­ter­view to the JC, and they had ex­tracted his an­swers and passed them off as a piece of writ­ing. Tut tut.

The JC piece ap­peared shortly af­ter Ein­stein’s trip to Amer­ica as part of a del­e­ga­tion led by Chaim Weiz­mann, the head of the Zion­ist Or­gan­i­sa­tion. In 1919, the ver­i­fi­ca­tion of the gen­eral the­ory of rel­a­tiv­i­ty­had­madeEin­steinas­tar.His­rep­u­ta­tion was ce­mented with the award of the No­belPrize­for­physic­sin1921.TheZion­ist move­ment was keen to ex­ploit his fame for fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal ends. As Ein­stein­him­self wrote,“Ihad­to­let­my­self be shown around like a prize-win­ning ox”.

Ein­stein Be­fore Is­rael is a (too) de­tailed ac­count of the great man’s com­plex re­la­tion­ship with Zion­ism up to the Nazis’ as­cent to power in Ger­many in 1933 and Ein­stein’s move to the United States.

As Ze’ev Rosenkranz ex­haus­tively demon­strates, the great­est ge­nius of the 20th cen­tury had an am­bigu­ous attitude both to his Jewish­ness and to Zion­ism. Raised in Ger­many, Ein­stein was a vic­tim of the era’s per­va­sive, ca­sual an­ti­semitism. He was highly sen­si­tive to the dis­crim­i­na­tion af­fect­ing other Jews, most no­tably to the fate of the Ostju­den.

In the late 19th cen­tury, Ein­stein was listed as be­ing “with­out re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion”. He spoke of his fel­low Jews as “my eth­nic com­rades”. He de­spised Euro­pean na­tion­al­ism so, to con­vince him­self that Zion­ism was a be­nign force, he had to en­gage in what Rosenkranz calls “in­tel­lec­tual ac­ro­bat­ics”. Thus Jewish na­tion­al­ism was dif­fer­ent, be­cause the Jews weren’t Euro­peans. He once de­scribed him­self as an “in­do­lent Ori­en­tal”.

In a tour of Pales­tine in 1923, Ein­stein de­liv­ered a speech in which he said, “only Zion­ism can heal the sick Jewish soul”. He mar­velled at the en­ergy of the place, par­tic­u­larly with the rapid growth of Tel Aviv: “What an in­cred­i­bly lively peo­ple our Jews are!” His pet Zion­ist pro­ject was the set­ting up of the He­brew Univer­sity and he worked hard to cam­paign and raise funds for this in­sti­tu­tion. An elit­ist (snob?), he was con­cerned that Jewish in­tel­lec­tual tal­ent didn’t “go wretch­edly to waste”.

Yet his com­mit­ment to Zion­ism was al­ways luke­warm. He care­fully chose the projects he was will­ing to em­brace. He ac­cused Zion­ists of be­ing “shameless and im­por­tu­nate” and squirmed at some of the views of the po­lit­i­cally hard­line.Even­his­in­volve­mentintheHe­brew Univer­sity vir­tu­ally dried up af­ter he fell out with the authorities there.

This is all, po­ten­tially, fas­ci­nat­ing stuff. Rosenkranz works at the Ein­stein Pa­pers Pro­ject and the schol­ar­ship on dis­play here is com­mend­able. Yet the book is let down by dry, so­porific prose, full of throat-clear­ing phrases: “In this con­text, it is per­ti­nent to ask…” “it is highly sig­nif­i­cant that…” “we saw in the pre­vi­ous chap­ter how…” et cetera.

Hope­fully, the au­thor will do bet­ter if and when he moves on to Ein­stein’s life through the Nazi pe­riod and Sec­ond World War to the pro­posal in 1952 for Ein­stein to be­come the Pres­i­dent of Is­rael — an of­fer he was “sad­dened and ashamed” that he could not ac­cept. David Ed­monds is a re­search as­so­ciate at Ox­ford’s Ue­hiro Cen­tre for Prac­ti­cal Ethics


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