Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson and Israel

by William Loren Katz on January 21, 2006

At a moment when so many people in the world decry the shockingly senseless, destructive militarism of the Israeli state and demand protection of the sacred rights of Palestinian people, the historic relationship between Jewish people and Zionism requires reexamination. Even when most popular immediately after World War II as a rescue effort, Zionist ideas enjoyed limited Jewish support across the board from leading intellectuals to ordinary citizens. Theologian Marc Ellis documents this in his Beyond Innocence and Redemption: Confronting the Holocaust and Israeli Power1 In 1988, for example, a Los Angeles Times poll found that 50% of US Jews identified “a commitment to social equality” as most important to their Jewish identity, and only 17% cited a commitment to Israel.

Jewish fear and even rejection of a Zionist state has a long history that transcends the many Jewish levels of class, wealth and education. In the United States, Dr. Albert Einstein, the greatest scientific genius of the century and one of the world’s most noted philosophers, favored not a Zionist state but one in which Jews and Arabs shared political power. He was appalled by those Zionist leaders who wanted to create a government based on their beliefs in Arab inferiority and felt such a step could have fatal consequences in the Middle East.

The most admired Jewish American of the day, Einstein readily expressed his strongly-held and often radical views on peace, human rights and racial justice and the FBI began a secret file on him before he arrived here in 1933 as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Since Einstein was an outspoken foe of fascism, war and racial discrimination, agents tapped his phones, opened his letters and examined his garbage, and his file grew to 1500 pages by his death. Einstein also struck up a friendship with Paul Robeson, African American peace and justice advocate, foe of fascism, colonialism, and anti-Semitism, and a prime target of J. Edgar Hoover.

In 1946 Robeson and Einstein served as co-chairs of a nationwide anti-lynching petition campaign, and Robeson delivered their collected petitions to President Harry Truman at the White House. Two years later Einstein and Robeson united to support Henry Wallace’s Progressive party that strongly opposed US policies that fostered a nuclear arms race, interventions abroad and massive violations of Constitutional rights at home. Master of more than a dozen languages, Robeson’s musical concerts and records celebrated the gallant contributions of African Americans and other minorities, the heroism of union organizers such as Joe Hill, and paid homage to those who bravely fought world fascism—as in his powerful Yiddish rendition of the “Song of the Warsaw Ghetto.”

In 1949 Einstein publicly announced his preference for a socialist over capitalist system in the United States in the Monthly Review, a Marxist periodical. By then Robeson had been the world’s most admired American for more than ten years, surpassing even President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But in 1952 Cold War fanatics, who hesitated to challenge the famous scientist, declared war on Paul Robeson. The popular Cold War slogan “Better dead than Red!” aimed at selling nuclear war and humiliating its opponents. Robeson’s career was upended by a government-generated hysteria that trickled down: he was blacklisted, denied concert appearances, the state department lifted his passport so he could neither leave the country nor make a living abroad, his income fell by 90%, and picket-lines greeted his public appearances.

In a stinging public rebuke to this rising frenzy, in October, 1952 Dr. Albert Einstein asked his old friend to visit him at Princeton University. Robeson brought along a young friend, World War II GI and writer Lloyd Brown, who vividly remembers the meeting.2
It was a momentous time for Einstein because he had been invited to serve as president for the new state of Israel. The request weighed heavily on his mind when Robeson and Brown sat down to talk at his home.

Einstein told his guests that while he saw some merit in Zionism and wished the new state success, he had long opposed a Jewish state. Instead, he had always favored a “reasonable agreement” between Palestinians and Jews to share power in any state carved out of British-controlled Palestine. He brought out his book, Out of My Later Years 3 and read aloud from an article he wrote in 1938 that asked that power be divided between the two peoples.

Einstein was worried that once having crafted their own state apparatus, his people, like others, would abandon their idealism and spirituality, slavishly follow a narrow nationalism, and capitulate to a state machine concerned with its borders, building an army, demanding conformity and exerting repressive power. He could not encourage this course, so Einstein denied the new state his enormous prestige and declined its presidential office. When Robeson briefly left the room, Brown told Einstein it was “an honor to meet a great man.” Einstein fired back, “You came here with a great man.”

Einstein died in 1955 the sage of Princeton, still skeptical of Israel, and like Robeson, still an advocate of world justice and peace, and for these reasons stll within the cross-hairs of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. 4 Robeson died in 1976, a militant foe of racism and imperialism, still under surveillance. Today this heroic figure is still absent from US textbooks, denied other forms of national recognition, and remembered in the world through magnificent recordings, movie roles and books.

One can only speculate about how Albert Einstein, who feared an aggressive Zionist state, would have reacted to the Israeli occupation and invasion of Palestinian territories in violation of United Nations resolutions. One can only speculate about how Robeson who sang the praises of anti-fascist Jews rising to fight for freedom from the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto would have reacted to the Israeli mechanized assaults that reduced to rubble Palestinian communities seeking self-determination.

  1. New York: Harper and Row, 1990. See particularly chapter 3, “A Tradition of Dissent.”
  2. Conversation with Lloyd L. Brown, April 24 and 26, 2002. Brown, author of The Young Paul Robeson: On My Journey Now (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998) also is novelist whose books has been translated into many languages, including Hebrew.
  3. Out of My Later Years. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.
  4. Einstein’s commitment to racial and social justice never flagged. In 1951 he attended a birthday party for W.E.B. Du Bois, Black intellectual and a founder of the NAACP, then under indictment as a foreign agent for directing a Peace Information Center. In 1953 he urged clemency for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg sentenced to death for conspiring to commit espionage, but believed by many to be victims of Cold War hysteria. That same year Einstein, in an open letter to William Frauenglass, a New York City teacher who refused to kowtow to the House UnAmerican Activities committee, urged others “ought to refuse to testify (and) to be prepared for jail.” He added that if “enough people are prepared to take this step” sanity and democracy could be restored. Days before his death in April, 1955 Einstein joined with Bertrand Russell to urge those nations still under the influence of the Cold War slogan “Better Dead than Red” to either renounce use of their nuclear weapons or “choose death.” (New York Times, May 7, 2002, Science Times, 1, 4.)
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  • I preface this by saying that I’m not a Zionist. But you overlook the writings Einstein about his visit to Palestine, which absolutely were glowing. He blamed the Arabs for their violent uprising against the Jewish settlers and showed a dismaying lack of interest in why they rose up in the first place. That said, he was critical of the facist-tinged Revisionist faction and publicly denounced them. But I have not come across any denunciation of the mainstream Labor Zionists who were responsible for the foundation of the State of Israel, with all its expulsions and confiscations.

    As for Robeson, he wasn’t just some champion of peaceful coexistence but a shameless apologist for the Stalinist murder machine. His sole act of resistance was to sing a song in Yiddish at a public meeting for him which was understood as a song for his Jewish friends who were being systematically executed. But when asked about their fate on his return to the United States, he simply denied that there was a problem.

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