Albert Einstein as a secular humanistic Jew: By Bennett Muraskin

Einstein is universally acknowledged as one of the most renowned Jews and influential persons in modern history, but not as much is known about his conception of Judaism and his political activities. He was born in a small town in Germany in 1879 and grew up in Munich. His family moved to Italy when he was a teenager. He was educated in Switzerland and taught at universities in Zurich, Switzerland and Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before returning to Germany in 1913 to teach in the University of Berlin. In 1905, he discovered the theory of relativity. He won the Noble Prize for Physics in 1921.

Einstein resisted nationalist hysteria in 1914 to oppose German participation in World War One. As a pacifist and an internationalist, he was revolted by national and ethnic hatred. “Nationalism,” he said, “is an infantile sickness. It is the measles of the human race.” During the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), Einstein was known as a militant pacifist, who advocated draft resistance. In politics, he was a socialist with a strong commitment to civil liberties. He rejected communism as undemocratic and authoritarian.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein was visiting the US. The Nazis vilified Einstein in their propaganda and ransacked his home. In protest, he renounced his German citizenship, and after a brief return to Europe, he settled permanently in the US, accepting a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Concerned with the fate of his colleagues, he used his influence to facilitate the immigration of many Jewish professors and scientists from the Nazi Germany. He also raised funds to aid other Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler. In 1938, he became a charter member of an American Federation of Teachers local at Princeton commenting, “I consider it important, indeed urgently necessary, for intellectual workers to get together, both to protect their own economic status and also to secure their influence in the political field.” 1

During the mid to late 1930s, Einstein renounced pacifism in reaction to Nazi Germany’s belligerency and in 1939, he wrote to FDR alerting him to the possibility that Germany could develop nuclear weapons and urging him to explore building them first. This prompted FDR to launch the Manhattan Project, which resulted in US development of the A-bomb, but Einstein had no role in it. In fact, after the war, he stated that he would never have made his historic proposal to Roosevelt if he knew that Germany was so far behind in building an atomic bomb. For the rest of his life, he was outspoken in his demanding the abolition of all nuclear weapons and asserted that a world government was essential to prevent a nuclear war. One of his last acts was to issue a joint manifesto with philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1955 warning against the danger of nuclear annihilation.

Beginning in the late 1940s, Einstein condemned McCarthyism, defended its victims and criticized US saber rattling during the early years of the Cold War. In 1949, Einstein wrote an article for the first issue of a leftist journal, Monthly Review, entitled “Why I am a Socialist.” In 1952-53 he made forceful appeals to high government officials to spare the lives of the Rosenbergs, a Jewish couple convicted of conspiracy to commit nuclear espionage for the Soviet Union. He counseled witnesses called before the Congressional committees investigating communist influence to refuse to testify based on the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, rather than invoke their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. He continued to oppose communism but believed, as a matter of principle, that governments had no right to pry into the political opinions of its citizens.

As far back as 1940, the same year Einstein proudly became an American citizen, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover opened a file on Einstein and kept him under surveillance as a suspected communist and potential threat to national security. His file grew to 1427 pages without revealing any evidence of disloyalty. The worst that can be said about Einstein in this regard is that he refrained from outright condemnation of Stalinist Russia, tempering his criticisms with unwarranted rationalizations for its brutality.

As a socialist and a humanist, Einstein had a long record of opposing racism in the US, extending back to 1932, while still living in Germany when he endorsed the international campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, nine young Southern Black men falsely accused of raping two white women. Once in the US, he joined the Princeton chapter of the NAACP and donated to its Legal Defense Fund. When opera star Marian Anderson was denied accommodations in a Princeton hotel after a concert performance in 1937, Einstein invited her to stay with him, and she became his house guest whenever she returned to the area. Einstein also befriended Paul Robeson, despite his communist affiliations, and worked with him in the late 1940s to promote the passage of legislation to make lynching a federal crime. Einstein also volunteered to serve as a character witness for W.E.B. Du Bois, another pro-communist civil rights leader, put on trial in 1951 for his political beliefs. This gesture was apparently sufficient to convince the judge to dismiss the case to avoid the adverse publicity. Addressing white America in 1946 he stated “Your ancestors dragged these Black people from their homes by force and in the white man’s quest for wealth and an easy life, they have been ruthlessly suppressed and exploited…The modern prejudice against Negroes are a result of the desire to maintain this unworthy condition.”

Einstein received little Jewish education as a child. His parents sent him to a Catholic elementary school where he was the only Jew in his class. He was raised in a completely secular household and was not bar mitzvahed. However, as he grew older, he personally experienced anti-Semitism and associated with Jewish intellectuals while living in Prague before World War One. He learned much about the plight of East European Jews from refugees who arrived in Germany during and after World War One, fleeing destruction, pogroms and economic ruin. It was a lesson he never forgot.

Convinced that European Jews needed a safe haven, Einstein joined the Zionist movement a few years after the British government issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917. By this time he was a celebrity. His friend and fellow scientist Chaim Weizman convinced Einstein to join him on a tour of the US in 1921 to raise money for Jewish settlement in Palestine and for the establishment of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Einstein lent his name to the Zionist cause throughout the next three decades. At the same time, he affirmed that most Jews in the Diaspora were there to stay and urged them to establish strong communities.

Einstein’s Zionism would be barely recognizable today, because it did not include support for a Jewish state. He favored the creation of a “national home” that would welcome Jewish immigrants and foster Jewish cultural development within the framework of a bi-national state guaranteeing equal rights to Arabs. His model may have been Switzerland, which is divided into regions (“cantons”) where various nationalities enjoy autonomy. In 1938, for example, he asserted that he would “much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state,”2 claiming that statehood was inimical to the “essential nature of Judaism.”

Einstein continued to oppose a Jewish state after World War Two. In testifying before an Anglo-American Committee on the future of Palestine in 1946, he called for an international trusteeship, free immigration of Jewish refugees and eventual independence under conditions of Arab-Jewish equality. However, by 1947, he accepted the necessity of partition and like nearly all Jews and progressive forces in the world, Einstein greeted the establishment of Israel in 1948. After Weizmann’s death in 1952, Einstein declined an offer to run for election for the honorary position of President of Israel.

He remained a supporter of Israel for the rest of his life, but continued to express misgivings about its failure to reach a settlement with its Arab neighbors and cautioned it against over-reliance on military force. At a time when no attention at all was paid to the plight of Arab citizens in Israel, who remained under military rule until 1966, Einstein warned “The attitude we adopt toward the Arab minority will provide the real test of our moral standards as a people.” Just before his death, Einstein met with Abba Eban, Israel’s ambassador to the US, to plan a nation-wide radio broadcast in honor of Israel’s seventh anniversary.

Although Einstein averred belief in “God” and “religion” he did not use these terms in the traditional sense. Let’s allow Einstein to speak for himself:

On God: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who revealed himself in the harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of human beings.”

On religion: “I think there are many things in the universe that we cannot perceive or penetrate. We experience some of the most beautiful things in life in a very primitive form. Only in relation to these mysteries do I consider myself to be a religious man… What I cannot understand is how there could possibly be a God who would reward or punish his subjects or who could induce us to develop our will in our daily life.”3

On the source of morality: “Ethical behavior should be based effectively on sympathy, education and social ties and needs. No religious basis is necessary. Man [sic] would be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”

Einstein had great respect for the humanistic elements in Jewish tradition. “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice and the desire for personal independence—these are the features of the Jewish tradition which makes me thank my stars that I belong to it.”4 He saw no contradiction between devotion to the Jewish people and to universal human rights. “To be a Jew means to bear a serious responsibility not only to his [sic] own community, but toward humanity.” It is clear from his many writings on the subject that he valued Judaism not for its rituals and laws, but for its ethics and positive attitude toward human life. He was no atheist, but neither did he see any need for religious observance.

On the most endearing aspects of Einstein’s personality was his sense of humor. Knowing full well that Jews also have their flaws, he wrote this piece of doggerel:

Looking at the Jews at leisure Tends to give me little pleasure. When to others I turn my view I feel glad I am a Jew.

He applied the same whimsy to his greatest scientific achievement:

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.

Einstein may have engaged in a bit of wishful thinking, when he said that the “the bond that united the Jews for thousands of years and unites them today is above all, the democratic ideal of social justice, coupled with the ideal of mutual aid and tolerance among all men [sic]…” but that should only inspire us to live in his spirit.

Einstein lived in Princeton until his death in 1955. It is impossible, however, to visit his grave because in accordance with his wishes, his body was cremated and his ashes scattered in the Delaware River.

  1. American Federation of Teachers
  2. Murray Polner and Naomi Goodman, eds., The Challenge of Shalom: The Jewish Tradition of Peace and Justice (1994), p. 204
  3. James A. Haught, ed. 2000 Years of Disbelief (1996), p. 240
  4. Albert Einstein, The World As I See It (1949), p. 90