September 11 Digital Archive: XML Document
Title:Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson and Israel
Author:William Loren Katz
Blurb:At a moment when so much of the world decries the shockingly senseless, destructive militarism of the Israeli state and demands protection of the sacred human rights of Palestinian people, the historic relationship between Jewish people and Zionism requires re-examination.
Body:At a moment when so much of the world decries the shockingly senseless, destructive militarism of the Israeli state and demands protection of the sacred human rights of Palestinian people, the historic relationship between Jewish people and Zionism requires re-examination. Even when most popular immediately after World War II, Zionist ideas never enjoyed unanimous support from the world Jewish community. As late as 1988 a Los Angeles Times poll found that 50 percent of US Jews identified a commitment to social equality as most important to their Jewish identity, and only 17 percent cited a commitment to Israel.
Jewish fear and even rejection of a Zionist state has a long history. In the United States where he had taken refuge from Hitlers Germany in the 1930s, the greatest scientific genius of the century and one of the worlds most noted philosophers, Dr. Albert Einstein, favored not a Zionist state but one in which Jews and Arabs shared political power.
As the most admired Jewish American of the day, Einstein did not hesitate to express his political views. On the contrary, he tended to be an outspoken foe of fascism and racial discrimination, and he had struck up a friendship with Paul Robeson, African American peace and justice advocate and activist, a foe of fascism and anti-Semitism. 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 opposed US government cold war policies that tolerated violations of civil liberties and repression of dissenters. Master of more than a dozen languages, Robesons 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 fascism -- as in his powerful Yiddish rendition of the Song of the Warsaw Ghetto.
In 1949 Einstein publicly announced his political preference for a socialist over capitalist system in the United States in the Monthly Review, a socialist publication. By then Robeson had been the worlds most admired American for more than ten years, surpassing even President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But in 1952 though the FBI was amassing a 1,500 page file on his progressive activities, the fanatical anti-Communists of the McCarthy era hesitated to challenge Einstein but waged a war against Robeson. His career was upended by government- sponsored hysteria: he was blacklisted, denied concert appearances, his income fell by 90 percent, the state department lifted his passport so he could neither leave the country nor make a living abroad, FBI agents tracked him and vacuumed his life.
In a stinging public rebuke to this Cold War era mentality, in October, 1952 Dr. Albert Einstein asked his old friend to visit him at Princeton University. Robeson brought along a young friend, writer Lloyd Brown, who vividly remembers the meeting. 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 them that while he had seen some merit in Zionism and wished the new state success, he had long opposed a Zionist 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 [New York: Philosophical Library, 1950] 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 in their own state his people, like others, would abandon their idealism and spirituality, slavishly follow a narrow nationalism, and capitulate to a state apparatus 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.
In the course of the conversation Einstein told Robeson he would love to attend any concert he gave near Princeton. Brown pointed out that Robeson was getting few concert invitations, and the last time he sang in Boston police officers took down the license plates of attendees. That wont bother us, Einstein said with a twinkle, We dont have a car. When Robeson briefly left the room, Brown told Einstein it was an honor to meet a great man. Einstein sharply fired back, You came here with a great man.
Einstein died in 1955 the sage of Princeton, committed to his people, still skeptical of the state of Israel, and like Robeson, still an advocate of justice and peace for the worlds people. Robeson died in 1976, still hounded by the FBI and other government agencies, and remains known to the world largely through his recordings, movie roles and a few books.
One can only speculate about how Albert Einstein, who feared an aggressiveness Jewish 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 freedom-fighters such as the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto would have reacted to the Israeli armys savagery against largely unarmed Palestinian civilians seeking liberty, sovereignty and justice.
i> William Loren Katz is the author of almost forty history books, and his website is www.williamlkatz.com. This piece appears with his permission. /i>