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.

Einstein subsequently went to Princeton, where he delivered a weeklong series of scientific lectures and received an honorary degree “for voyaging through strange seas of thought.” He did not get the $15,000 fee he had originally requested, but he did receive a more modest one, plus a deal that Princeton would publish his lectures as a book and give him a 15 percent royalty. Einstein’s lectures were very technical. They included more than 125 complex equations that he scribbled on the blackboard while speaking in German. As one student admitted to a reporter, “I sat in the balcony, but he talked right over my head anyway.”

Einstein seemed to like Princeton. “Young and fresh,” he called it. “A pipe as yet unsmoked.” From a man who was invariably fondling new briar pipes, this was a compliment. It would not be a surprise, a dozen years hence, that he would decide to move there permanently.

Harvard, where Einstein went next, did not endear itself quite as well. Einstein graciously took a tour of the campus, dropping in on labs and commenting on students’ work, even though he had been explicitly not invited to give a formal lecture there. For the rest of his U.S. trip, he and Frankfurter engaged in an exchange of letters in which the Harvard professor tried to deflect the blame for the snub. People have “accused me of having wanted to prevent your appearance at Harvard,” Frankfurter wrote in a short note. “The accusation is absolutely untrue.” Einstein, however, knew of the telegrams that Frankfurter and Mack had sent objecting to Einstein’s request for lecture fees. “It now does seem plausible to me that you acted the way you did with honest, good intentions,” Einstein replied, not quite accepting Frankfurter’s denial. He added a humorous jab at Jews such as Frankfurter who were eager to avoid ruffling the refined sensibilities of non-Jews. “It would not even have been serious if all universities had withheld invitations,” he wrote, “although I certainly know that it is a Jewish weakness always anxiously to want to keep the Gentiles [Gojims] in a good mood.”

One of the final stops on the grand Einstein-Weizmann tour was Cleveland, where several thousands thronged the train depot to meet the visiting delegation. The parade included 200 honking and flag-draped cars. Einstein and Weizmann rode in an open car, preceded by a National Guard marching band and a cadre of Jewish war veterans in uniform. Admirers along the way grabbed onto Einstein’s car and jumped on the running board, while police tried to pull them away.

The Zionist Organization of America was about to meet in Cleveland for its annual convention, and the “downtown” Jews loyal to Weizmann were preparing for a showdown with the “uptown” Jews loyal to Brandeis. The convention turned out to be raucous indeed, with bitter speeches that included denunciations of the Brandeis camp for, among other sins, not showing enthusiasm for Einstein’s trip. Weizmann’s supporters, fortified by his presence, were able to block a vote of confidence endorsing the leadership of Brandeis and his point man, Julian Mack. Mack immediately resigned as president, Brandeis resigned as honorary president, and others in the Brandeis camp—including Felix Frankfurter and Stephen S. Wise—resigned from the executive committee. The deep rift in American Zionism would persist, and would undermine the movement, for almost a decade.

Einstein was not at the convention. He had already boarded a ship back to Europe, feeling somewhat baffled and amused by what he had seen in America. “It is more easily aroused to enthusiasm than other countries I have unsettled with my presence,” he wrote to his best friend, Michele Besso.

I had to let myself be shown around like a prize ox … It’s a miracle that I endured it. But now it’s finished and what remains is the fine feeling of having done something truly good and of having worked for the Jewish cause despite all the protests by Jews and non-Jews—most of our fellow tribesmen are smarter than they are courageous.

The opposition he encountered served only to deepen his support for the Zionist cause. “Zionism really offers a new Jewish ideal that can give the Jewish people joy in its own existence again,” he wrote Paul Ehrenfest right after the trip. In this regard, he was part of a trend that was reshaping Jewish identity, by choice and by imposition, in Europe. “Until a generation ago, Jews in Germany did not consider themselves as members of the Jewish people,” he told a reporter on the day he was leaving America. “They merely considered themselves as members of a religious community.” But anti-Semitism changed that, and there was a silver lining to that cloud, he declared. “The undignified mania of trying to adapt and conform and assimilate, which happens among many of my social standing, has always been very repulsive to me.”

The fund-raising part of Einstein’s tour was only a modest success. Even though poorer Jews and recent immigrants had poured out to see him and donated with enthusiasm, few of the eminent and old-line Jews with great personal fortunes became part of the frenzy. Only $750,000 was collected for Hebrew University, far less than the $4 million that Einstein and Weizmann had hoped for. But that was a good enough start. “The university seems to be financially secured,” Einstein wrote Ehrenfest.

Four years later, the university did indeed open, on top of Mount Scopus, overlooking Jerusalem. In an ironic twist, some of the New York financiers who initially spurned Einstein ended up supporting it, and they insisted on installing as chancellor Rabbi Judah Magnes, the person who had clashed with Einstein in 1921 and canceled a reception when Einstein insisted on turning it into a fund-raiser. Einstein was so upset by the appointment of Magnes that he resigned from the board in protest. Nevertheless, he would eventually leave his papers and much of his estate to the university.

There was one other ironic footnote. In 1946, after he had emigrated to America, Einstein again became associated with fund-raising for a Jewish university. The organization was initially called the Albert Einstein Foundation for Higher Learning, and it acquired the campus of a dying university near Boston. But once again, Einstein clashed with some of the donors and their choices for administrators. When they asked whether they could name the university after him, Einstein refused. So the founders decided instead to honor their second choice, who had died five years earlier. They named the new university Brandeis.

Presented by

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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