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Seeing the Holy Land Through Einstein’s Eyes

August 1, 2018

Originally appeared in BREAKING ISRAEL NEWS

“Happy are the people whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage”. (Psalm 84:5)

Albert Einstein with his wife, Elsa. (Credit: via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1922, 42-year old Albert Einstein – arguably the greatest secular Jewish genius, and one of the most famous and admired people in the world for his publication of his monumental General Theory of Relativity – set off on October 6 of that year, with his second wife, and first cousin, Elsa, on his first, five-and-a-half-month lecture tour of the Far and Middle East.

It was a different age as Jews licked their wounds from persistent European pogroms; the “Great War” between the Allies and the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary ended in 1918; only18 years previously, the Wright Brothers sent the first gasoline-powered Flying Machine into the sky; and the British Mandate had just taken over from the Ottoman Empire and ruled the Jews and Arabs in Palestine (Eretz Yisrael).

Although the great Jewish theoretical physicist had left Europe in April 1921 to speak in New York for the first time, he did not document his experiences with pen and paper, and had never before traveled eastward. On that first visit to the U.S., he was accompanied by Chaim Weizmann (then president of the Zionist Organization in London who eventually became first president of the State of Israel in 1949 and a renowned chemist in his own right). The aim was to raise money for the planned Hebrew University in Jerusalem whose cornerstone was laid in 1918 and which opened in 1925, as well as to forge ties with the American scientific community in the wake of the World War I.

These personal connections were fortunate, because with the rise of Hitler and Nazism in 1933 and fearing anti-Semitic persecution, he and his family abandoned Europe forever – settling down at the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study at New Jersey’s Princeton University.

“… the revival of Palestine will mean the liberation and the revival of the soul of the Jewish people. I count it among my treasured experiences that I should have been able to see the country during this period of rebirth and re-inspiration.”

The visit to Palestine followed an invitation from Arthur Ruppin, director of the Zionist Organization’s Palestine Office in Jaffa, who thought the scientist’s visit would have “great propaganda value” not only for Jewish settlements but also for the Hebrew University. Einstein even spent a day in Singapore, specifically to raise money for the Jerusalem campus from Mannaseh Meyer, the wealthy leader of the Jewish community there.

Einstein, however, did keep a record in his diary in German every day of his trip eastward – a total of 182 lined pages, some of them with his own drawings of things he observed. Now, this unique document has been brought to light, with extensive comments by Ze’ev Rosenkranz, senior editor and assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and formerly curator of the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University. Published by Princeton University Press, the hardcover, $29.95 book – The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein – presents 357 fascinating pages.

“For the Zionists,” assessed Rosenkranz, “the visit of the most prominent… Jewish personality was an amazing propaganda coup. For Einstein, the tour was mainly a means to satisfy his curiosity about the country whose development he had been supporting for some years. It also afforded him the opportunity to be present at one of the defining moments of the Hebrew University, the Jewish cause that meant the most to him.”

Einstein referred to the news that he was selected to receive a Nobel Prize for Physics, but he did not attend the December 1922 ceremony because he was in the midst of his travels. Instead, a German diplomat spoke at the banquet and praised Einstein as both a scientist and a peacemaker.

The telegraphic-style diary entries record Einstein’s musings on science, philosophy, art and politics, as well as his immediate impressions and broader thoughts on events such as his inaugural lecture at the future site of the university in Jerusalem, a garden party hosted by the Japanese Empress, an audience with the king of Spain and meetings with prominent colleagues and statesmen. Entries also contain passages that reveal Einstein’s stereotyping of members of various nations and raise questions about his attitudes on race.

It includes facsimiles of the diary’s pages, accompanied by an English translation, Rosenkranz’s 77-page historical introduction, numerous illustrations and annotations. Supplementary materials include letters, postcards, speeches, articles, a map of the voyage, a day-by-day chronology of the visit, a bibliography and an index.

“We can be certain that he did not intend [his diary to be kept] for posterity or for publication,” writes Rosenkranz. “It was most likely intended both as a record for himself and as reading matter for his two step-daughters, Ilse and Margot, who remained at home in Berlin.” Both the harsh and positive words he uses “would account for the discrepancy between his more tolerant and guarded public statements and his candid and [at times] offensive private notes. The travel diary allows Einstein to explore his more irrational and instinctual side and to be freer in his expression of his personal prejudices.”

Another explanation is Einstein’s “pronounced elitism with regard to intellect. His humanism ends when he perceives a nation as intellectually inferior. Furthermore, it could be argued that in spite of his public advocacy of human rights, it was science, not humanity, that lay at the center of Einstein’s universe.”

Whatever is the reason, the diary has fortunately been published and opens a window on civilization a century ago, the state of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine and Einstein’s personality.

The physicist made five more trips abroad (to South America and the US) and kept journals for all of them, but this first volume of his travel diaries offers an initial, intimate glimpse into a brilliant mind encountering the great, wide world. Yet he was not a saint, but a human-being shaped by his childhood experiences, the culture and society that encompassed him as an adult and his prejudices, some of which seem xenophobic and embarrassing to the contemporary reader.

Einstein was not a trained, objective anthropologist. The book’s editor himself notes that “a lot of comments strike us as pretty unpleasant…They’re kind of in contrast to the public image of the great humanitarian icon. I think it’s quite a shock to read those and contrast them with his more public statements. They’re more off guard, he didn’t intend them for publication.”

His reputation of caring about the poor and stateless was even used later by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to promote positive feelings for refugees. “A bundle of belongings isn’t the only thing a refugee brings to his new country. Einstein was a refugee,” was the slogan of its campaign. But although he was regarded as a peace activist, a Zionist, a democratic socialist and a world federalist, the diaries contain various generalized insults to people he had observed for only a few hours or days.

For example, while spending less than a week in China, he describes its citizens as “industrious, filthy, obtuse people… Chinese don’t sit on benches while eating but squat like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods. All this occurs quietly and demurely. Even the children are spiritless and look obtuse… It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary… A peculiar herd-like nation… often more like automatons than people.”

His views of the Arabs and the Jews of Palestine are also variable and conflicted. He and his wife crossed the Suez Canal by ferry and then took a train on February 1 to Lod, where they were welcomed the next day by Zionist dignitaries, changed trains and went on to Jerusalem, staying with Sir Herbert Samuel, the High Commissioner.

It was the early days of the Mandate, and Jewish newcomers mostly from Eastern Europe made up the Third Aliyah. There were about 86,000 Jews and 600,000 Arabs, with tensions high and Arab attacks on Jewish residents common. The economic conditions after World War I were dire. The landscapes Einstein encountered were very foreign to the eyes of a central European. “In all his accounts,” writes Rosenkranz, “he downplayed the potential explosiveness of the situation. Einstein’s first impression of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine reveals his idealistic (and somewhat condescending) perception of them: ‘extraordinary enchantment of this severe, monumental landscape with its dark, elegant Arabian sons in their rags.’”

Einstein wrote: “We are spending beautiful, unforgettable days in Palestine with the sun shining brightly and in joyous company… The spirit which reigns among the land and building workers is admirable. They take boundless pride in their work and have a feeling of profound love for the country and for the little locality in which they work.”

In the Old City of Jerusalem, he observed both beauty and squalor. “Walked with Sir Samuel into the city (Sabbath!) on footpath past the city wells to picturesque old gate, walk into the city in sunshine. Stern bald hilly landscaped with white, often domed white stone houses and blue sky, stunningly beautiful, likewise the city pressed inside the square walls.”

His view of the ultra-Orthodox who had set down roots before Zionist immigration was negative: “Then downwards to the Temple wall (Wailing Wall), where obtuse ethnic brethren pray loudly, with their faces turned to the wall, bend their bodies to and fro in a swaying motion. Pitiful sight of people with a past but without a present.”

Yet this negative description of religious Jews should not surprise us. His parents, salesman and engineer Hermann Einstein and his wife, Pauline Koch, were secular Jews who sent Albert to a non-Jewish elementary school in Munich between the formative ages of five to eight years old. His observations at the Kotel were probably not very different than those of some secular American Jews coming to the holy site today for the first time.

The physicist strongly supported the goals of labor Zionism, and he had great admiration for young Russian-Jewish pioneers in the collective kibbutzim and moshavim. He also enthused over the builders of homes and institutions in Tel Aviv (founded in 1909) on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the garden suburbs of Jerusalem and of the future site of the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus, where he delivered lectures: “The most blatant symbolic representation of Zionist efforts that would be of great benefit to the peoples of the region. Western knowledge was once again emanating from Zion,” wrote Rosenkranz.

In a letter to Ruppin, Einstein wrote: “We are spending beautiful, unforgettable days in Palestine with the sun shining brightly and in joyous company.” After a visit to Kibbutz Degania, the visitor notes: “The spirit which reigns among the land and building workers is admirable. They take boundless pride in their work and have a feeling of profound love for the country and for the little locality in which they work.”

Additional points on the itinerary were the Mikve Yisrael agricultural school, the “Jewish Rothschild colony, Rishon LeZion,” the Reali School in Haifa, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Jezreel Valley, the Nahalal “colony” under construction (“virtually all Russians”) and Tiberias.

Palestine, wrote Einstein later, “will not solve the Jewish problem, but the revival of Palestine will mean the liberation and the revival of the soul of the Jewish people. I count it among my treasured experiences that I should have been able to see the country during this period of rebirth and re-inspiration.”

Today, the State of Israel has more Jews than any other spot on Earth and a sophisticated, productive and growing population and a healthy if imperfect society. One can only wonder after reading this diary what Einstein would have thought it he had had the opportunity to visit it today.