In a century that will be remembered foremost for its science and technology -- in particular for our ability to understand and then harness the forces of the atom and universe -- one person clearly stands out as both the greatest mind and paramount icon of our age: the kindly, absent-minded professor whose wild halo of hair, piercing eyes, engaging humanity and extraordinary brilliance made his face a symbol and his name a synonym for genius, Albert Einstein.
I was something of a science geek when I was younger. My bedroom walls were adorned with various posters of the great physicist Albert Einstein. I had Einstein biographies on my bookshelf. My friends all sent me photos of Mr. Einstein when they came across them. I even attended a one-man play in a small local theatre on the life of Mr. Einstein. Mr. Einstein is and was, singularly, a scientific icon whether he wanted to be or not. This iconic status was confirmed when Time magazine chose Mr. Einstein as its Man of the Century. But Mr. Einstein transcended science; he was outspoken in his support for peace, racial harmony, and socialism.
As is often the case when a figure reaches such larger-than-life proportions, it sometimes becomes difficult to separate the myth from the legend. Simon Jones wrote an excellent piece “We are all Jews,” in which he explored thought-provokingly the pseudo schism that has arisen whereby Jews are a group, not only distinct, but separate from others. Mr. Jones skillfully concluded his article:
Einstein, a Zionist we can all admire, argued in his dying moments that peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews was a prerequisite to healthy development of a Jewish home in Palestine. “The attitude we adopt toward the Arab minority will provide the real test of our moral standards as a people.” (1)
The deathbed sentiment accurately reflects the humanism of Mr. Einstein but labeling Mr. Einstein a Zionist does not concord with the great scientist’s outlook. Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq wrote a compelling article on the false attribution of Zionism to Mr. Einstein. He reasons that Zionists quickly latched onto the legitimacy that Mr. Einstein’s fame and reputation lent many causes although there is little supporting evidence for their assertion. (2) Zionists often play down their claim by pointing out that Mr. Einstein is only a cultural Zionist. (3)
Zionism is the ideology that was called racism and its practice discrimination by UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 in 1975. The UN under the stewardship of President George Bush, the elder, rescinded it in 1991.
It is important to understand what exactly Zionism is. Referencing Dictionary.com gives us: “A Jewish movement that arose in the late 19th century in response to growing anti-Semitism and sought to reestablish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Modern Zionism is concerned with the support and development of the state of Israel.” This definition gives us a separate modern notion of Zionism. This cannot apply to Mr. Einstein. Two other streams of Zionism are often recognized: cultural and political. Cultural Zionism is a cultural focus on the land historically tied to Jews -- Zion. It is seen by some as a uniting force, encouraging a gathering of the diaspora. Political Zionism had its inception with Hungarian-born Theodor Herzl in 1897. It was a response to the palpable anti-Semitism of the times in Europe. To escape this anti-Semitism a national homeland was desired for the Jewish people. At first Argentina and Uganda were considered but finally Palestine was settled upon as a homeland for Jews.
For Jews or any other people to have a homeland is not wrong in itself. However, when the need for a homeland subverts the life, language, religion, and aspirations of an Indigenous people then it takes on a sinister form. Surely the need for a homeland cannot, in any moral sense, ignore the will of the people long inhabiting the land.
Mr. Einstein feared the kind of nationalism that ideologies like Zionism give rise to, wrapped in the veneer of the State and patriotism. The oft-quoted Mr. Einstein said, “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.” He lamented, “Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism – how passionately I hate them!” Revealingly Einstein stated:
“My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest. 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.” (4)
In a letter to the NY Times in 1948, Albert Einstein and other intellectuals warned of the insidious fascism of the Israeli Freedom Party under Menachem Begin, the mastermind of the Deir Yassin massacre. The Freedom Party had its roots in right-wing terrorism and chauvinism and was condemned as “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” (5) Since then a political evolution has seen the Freedom Party merge with many others to form the Likud Party, which Mr. Begin led to victory in 1977 to become the sixth Israeli Prime Minister. Mr. Begin’s protégé and fellow war criminal Ariel Sharon is now the Likud Party leader and prime minister of Israel. The Palestinians have reaped the consequences.
Mr. Einstein reifies the notion, “larger-than-life.” Although Mr. Einstein died in 1955 his presence still reaches out today. Sadly, if Mr. Einstein were still alive today he would surely be mortified that people who were once the victims of genocide could shroud themselves in the mantel of victimhood and perpetrate of atrocities upon another weaker group. Yet there is hope. Many Israelis and Jews bravely speak out against the injustice and horrors of the State. An incipient revolt is the rise in the number of conscientious objectors among Israelis who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. These refuseniks have taken heed of the wisdom offered by Mr. Einstein when he warned: “The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives.”
Kim Petersen is an English teacher living in China. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) Simon Jones, “We are All Jews now,” Dissident Voice, 30 April 2003: www.dissidentvoice.org/Articles4/Jones_Palestine.htm
(2) Mohammad Omar Farooq, “Einstein, Zionism and Israel: Setting the record straight,” Global Web Post: www.globalwebpost.com/farooqm/writings/other/einstein.htm
(3) Adam Shapiro, “Einstein was a Strong Supporter of Zionism,” Jerusalem Indymedia, 6 March 2003: http://jerusalem.indymedia.org/news/2003/03/109435_comment.php
(4) Quoted in Chuck Goodman, “Was Einstein Right?” Dissident Voice, 5 April 2003: www.dissidentvoice.org/Articles3/Chuckman_Einstein-Palestine.htm
(5) Albert Einstein and others, New York Times, Letter, 1948,” Third World Traveler: www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Dissent/Einstein_NYTimes_Israel.html
Kim Petersen is a writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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