History December 2009

How Einstein Divided America's Jews

In 1921, Albert Einstein’s first trip to America triggered the kind of mass hysteria that would greet the Beatles four decades later. But as newly published documents show, it also tore a sharp rift between European Zionists and some of their fellow Jews across the Atlantic, men like Louis D. Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, who felt that the best way for Jews to get ahead was to assimilate, not agitate for a Jewish homeland.

But two of Brandeis’s closest associates expressed misgivings. His protégé Felix Frankfurter, then a professor at Harvard Law School, and Judge Julian Mack, the person Brandeis had tapped to be president of the Zionist Organization of America, argued that it would be better if Einstein’s visit were cast primarily as a trip to lecture on physics, rather than one to raise money for Palestine.

Frankfurter and Mack sent Weizmann telegrams urging him to make sure that Einstein scheduled some physics lectures during his trip. But they quickly changed their minds when they were informed that Einstein had tried to extract large fees from various universities for such lectures, even though he was speaking about Zionism for free. That was even worse. So they sent another telegram, this one warning of the danger that Einstein would be seen as trying to “commercialize” his science. Such crassness would hurt his image and that of Jews, Frankfurter and Mack feared. Some of the physics lectures should be done for free. As Mack cabled to Weizmann: “Einstein situation extremely difficult expedient you explain us fully his exact negotiations … also awaiting you promised cable whether he accept your suggestioncouple university lectures free.” In one telegram, they went so far as to urge that Einstein’s trip be canceled. Another telegram made clear that there would be no lecture at the university where Frankfurter was an influential professor. “Harvard absolutely declines Einstein,” the telegram read. It did add that he would be welcome to come for an informal visit without a lecture or a lecture fee. When Einstein found out about the telegrams, he was furious. Mack defended himself and Frankfurter—and by extension Brandeis—in a letter to Einstein insisting that their only motive was “to protect you against unjust attacks and to protect the organization against the result of such unjust attacks.”

Brandeis and his cohorts at the Zionist Organization of America made matters worse, during Einstein’s visit, when they reacted to a deadly clash between Arab and Jewish rioters in Jaffa by reinforcing their desire that adequate “safeguards” be in place before money was raised for Hebrew University. Einstein confided that this attitude made him suspect that the Brandeis crowd was “committing sabotage” of his mission. When Brandeis’s friend and supporter Rabbi Judah Magnes proposed hosting a gathering in Manhattan for intellectuals to talk about the university, Einstein replied that he would come only if Magnes made the event a fund-raiser. “I did not have in mind a fund-raising meeting,” Magnes replied in a cold and curt letter. “Under the circumstances, it is probably better to forego the meeting.”

The resistance to Einstein’s mission came not only from the Brandeis camp of cautious and restrained American Zionists, but also from successful New York Reform Jews of German heritage, many of whom were opposed to Zionism. When Einstein invited 50 or so of New York’s most prominent Jews to a private meeting in his hotel, many of them declined. Paul Warburg, who had served as his agent soliciting lecture fees, wrote:

My presence would be of no use; on the contrary, I fear that, if at all, its effect would be rather to cool things down. As I already told you on another occasion, I personally have the greatest doubts relating to the Zionist plans and anticipate their consequences with genuine consternation.

Other rejections came from Arthur Hays Sulzberger of The New York Times; the politically connected financier Bernard Baruch; the lawyer Irving Lehman; the first Jewish Cabinet secretary, Oscar Straus; the philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim; and the former Congressman Jefferson Levy.

On the other hand, Einstein and Weizmann were wildly embraced by less assimilated and more enthusiastic Jews, the ones who tended to live in Brooklyn or on the Lower East Side rather than on Park Avenue. More than 20,000 showed up at one event, causing “a near riot,” The Times reported, when they “stormed the police lines.” After three weeks of lectures and receptions in New York, Einstein paid a visit to Washington. For reasons fathomable only to those who live in that city, the Senate decided to debate the theory of relativity. On the House side of the Capitol, Representative J. J. Kindred of New York proposed placing an explanation of Einstein’s theories in the Congressional Record. David Walsh of Massachusetts rose to object. Did Kindred understand the theory? “I have been earnestly busy with this theory for three weeks,” Kindred replied, “and am beginning to see some light.” But what relevance, he was asked, did it have to the business of Congress? “It may bear upon the legislation of the future as to general relations with the cosmos.”

Such discourse made it inevitable that when Einstein went with a group to the White House, President Warren G. Harding would be faced with the question of whether he understood relativity. As the group posed for the cameras, he smiled and confessed that he did not. The Washington Post carried a cartoon showing him puzzling over a paper titled “Theory of Relativity” while Einstein puzzled over one on the “Theory of Normalcy,” which was the name Harding had given to his governing philosophy. The New York Times ran a front-page headline: “Einstein Idea Puzzles Harding, He Admits.”

During the Washington visit, the noted journalist and power broker Walter Lippmann tried to set up a peace meeting between Weizmann and Brandeis. Negotiations between the camps of the two Zionist leaders broke down over a variety of issues, and the summit never occurred. Einstein, however, was happy to pay a call on Brandeis, even though Weizmann urged him not to. They hit it off well. Einstein told the friend who arranged the visit that he came away with an “utterly different” opinion of Brandeis than the one pushed on him by Weizmann. Brandeis was also pleased. “Prof. & Mrs. Einstein are simple lovely folk,” he wrote his wife the next day. “It proved impossible to avoid some discussion of the ‘break,’ though they are not in [it]. They specialize on the University.” The one day of personal harmony, however, ended up doing nothing to heal the rift between the Weizmann-Einstein camp and the Brandeis-Frankfurter one, which continued to worsen during the visit.

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Walter Isaacson is the president and chief executive officer of the Aspen Institute and the author of Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007).

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