Albert Einstein, the Pro-Palestinian Socialist

How the renowned physicist started out as a Zionist but ended up opposing the occupation of Palestine, and why everyone would rather talk about his science than his politics.

On top of revolutionizing the field of theoretical physics, Albert Einstein was an avid writer of letters. Whether offering careful advice to world leaders or dispatching blistering missives to mainstream newspapers, the renowned physicist was an ardent and influential communicator. Regularly weighing in on prominent issues of his day, his written correspondence reveals a gradual radicalization shaped by decisive moments in 20th-century history. Einstein was, in fact, decidedly a socialist.

Einstein’s legacy, however, has been largely depoliticized. This is for the expected reasons; Western universities and museums often choose to depict leftist historical figures like Helen Keller, Mark Twain, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pablo Picasso within a pro-capitalist framework. In Einstein’s case, there are other factors in play: for one, he was a prominent Jewish intellectual who started out as a Zionist but ended up strongly opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. His archives—preserved online and in Jerusalem—detail his awakening not only to the plight of Palestinians, but to the violence of settler-colonialism and global capitalism as a whole. 

This awakening also coincided with his support for Black liberation, and he befriended Black revolutionary figures like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois. When Du Bois was accused of being a communist spy, Einstein fought to have the investigation dismissed. These events would lead the Federal Bureau of Investigation to keep a file on Einstein totaling more than 1,400 pages. 

None of these are convenient facts for a Western political culture that would rather remember Einstein as an absent-minded physics nerd with a wacky accent and funny hair who muttered a lot of apolitical truisms (many of which he never actually said). But his journey to socialism is still very much worth examining, as well as his profoundly interesting political writings, especially when it comes to Palestine.

Einstein, who read and thought about much more than just physics, co-founded the German Democratic Party in 1918. At the time, he was a vocal supporter of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This early Zionism, however, needs to be viewed in the context of Jewish experience at the time. Einstein personally faced anti-Semitic insults after receiving the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics, with two other German Nobel Prize winners labeling his work as “Jew science.” In 1922, Einstein and his wife Elsa traveled to multiple countries including the United States, Japan, and Palestine—partly so that Albert could deliver lectures on his theories of relativity, but also to escape fears of anti-Semitic violence. Their friend Walther Rathenau, a German-Jewish politician and the foreign minister of the Weimar Republic, was assassinated shortly before their departure. A far-right paramilitary group named Organisation Consul took credit for Rathenau’s murder, and many of its members would go on to serve in the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS). 

The Einsteins would return to Germany for another decade, only to be forced to flee in 1933 under threat of assassination. Hitler had just come to power, and Einstein had been an open opponent of Nazi policies. German newspapers loyal to the new regime claimed that Einstein was spreading communist propaganda, while government forces burned his research documents and confiscated his and Elsa’s bank accounts. The Einsteins sought refuge first in the English countryside, then in Princeton, New Jersey, where they lived their remaining days.

Again, it is within this context that Einstein’s early Zionism must be understood. While in Palestine, the Einsteins—hosted by Zionist leaders in partnership with Great Britain—met several Jewish and Arab political figures, traveling to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa as well as several agricultural settlements. This tour left a deep impression on Albert, resulting in years of Zionist support. A letter to the Manchester Guardian in 1929 finds him applauding the “intellectual and moral caliber” of the early settlers. Ever the moralist, Einstein developed an ethical justification based on centuries of Jewish dispossession. While he may have opposed colonialism elsewhere, he exhibited a fairly limited understanding of the fact that an Israeli state would necessarily mean the colonization of Palestine.

The act of fleeing Nazi occupation 11 years later, however, changed Einstein’s views on the subject. He had interpreted pre-1948 Zionism in the spirit of the Hebrew prophets, who advocated for chesed—a word that represents love between people and piety toward God. His 1938 article titled “Why Do They Hate the Jews?” discussed the “bond that has united the Jews for thousands of years, and that unites them today… the democratic ideal of social justice, coupled with the ideal of mutual aid and tolerance.” This conception of the fundamental nature of Judaism was at odds, Einstein realized, with the post-1948 Zionist colonial project, which contained elements of the bigotry and nationalism he had just escaped. That same year, in a speech given to the National Labor Committee for Palestine in New York City, he explained his fear of what a Zionist state would mean for the Jewish soul:

“Apart from the practical considerations, 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 without a Jewish state. We are no longer the Jews of the Maccabee period. A return to a nation in the political sense of the word would be equivalent to turning away from the spiritualization of our community which we owe to the genius of our prophets.”

At this point, Einstein remained a Zionist in a sense: he still supported a homeland for Jews in Palestine, but only one where they could coexist peacefully with Palestinians, not a Jewish ethnostate. That ethnostate was born nevertheless in May 1948, and in a December 1948 letter to the New York Times, Einstein and more than 20 other Jewish intellectuals expressed concern about the ultra-Zionist politician Menachem Begin’s planned visit to the U.S., claiming that Begin’s party Herut (or the “Freedom Party,” a predecessor to the far-right nationalist Likud) was promoting “an admixture of ultra-nationalism, religious mysticism, and racial superiority.” 

Begin himself had a particularly ugly history: he was closely associated with the paramilitary organization Haganah and had risen up the ranks in the Zionist Irgun terrorist group, which garnered a reputation for attacking British Mandate authorities in Palestine. Irgun and the Stern Gang, led by Yitzhak Shamir, also murdered hundreds of Palestinians in the Deir Yassin massacre of April 1948. “It is inconceivable,” Einstein and others said in the letter to the Times, “that those who oppose fascism throughout the world, if correctly informed as to Mr. Begin’s political record and perspectives, could add their names and support to the movement he represents.” 

Begin and Shamir would later go on to serve multiple terms as Prime Minister; the kind of violent, racist nationalism that Einstein decried was a foundational and accepted part of Israeli politics. In 1952, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion actually offered Einstein the presidency of Israel after the death of its first president, Chaim Weizmann. Among Einstein’s reasons for rejecting the offer was that he would have to “tell the Israeli people things they would not like to hear.” These “things” likely included Einstein’s belief that the occupation of Palestine was fundamentally antithetical to the nature of Judaism.     

On top of his belief in the immorality of the occupation, Einstein also seemed to think it would prove unsustainable in the long term. As evidence, see a recent article for the Middle East Monitor, where Yvonne Ridley points to another 1948 letter that Einstein wrote to the American Friends of the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel. The group had written to Einstein to request his help in legitimating Israeli statehood following the Deir Yassin massacre. In a curt telegram, Einstein responded, “When a real and final catastrophe should befall us in Palestine the first responsible for it would be the British and the second responsible for it the Terrorist organizations build [sic] up from our own ranks. I am not willing to see anybody associated with those misled and criminal people.”

Ridley argues that this abrupt condemnation functions as a prediction of Israel’s eventual downfall. “The most famous Jewish scientist in history knew from its bloody conception that an Israel created and run by right-wing, gun-wielding zealots was not viable,” she noted. “It shouldn’t have taken a genius to tell us that.”

In the final years of his life, expanding outward from his views toward Israel, Einstein would argue that colonialism breeds fascism, and capitalism thrives on human sacrifice. These ideas are best expressed in his essay titled “Why Socialism?” which appeared in the first issue of independent socialist magazine Monthly Review. In the essay, he contended that the developed world largely exists due to “conquest” and that Western economics sustains itself by manufacturing consent. As he wrote:

“The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.”

He then took these claims one step further, stating that the “socialist society of the future” must advance beyond this “predatory phase of human development.” Science can introduce new ideas and the means of achieving them, he said, but it cannot “create ends,” thus proving insufficient when it comes to addressing social issues. “For those reasons,” he argues, “we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems, and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.”

This is a significant claim for a scientist working within a discourse that touts the supremacy of objectivity, and it stands in stark opposition to present-day neoliberals who promote their commitment to science while opposing a radical restructuring of society. The underlying assumption on their part is that science should work to maintain the dominant capitalist order despite any evidence that might undermine its legitimacy. Richard Dawkins, in the spirit of Milton Friedman, has argued that natural selection is an inherently individual process and thus a non-competitive society could never exist. Neil deGrasse Tyson, meanwhile, regularly criticizes philosophy and religion all while seemingly avoiding a structural critique of economics. What is needed, he says, is simply more research:

“Any time scientists disagree, it’s because we have insufficient data,” Tyson said. “Then we can agree on what kind of data to get; we get the data; and the data solves the problem. Either I’m right, or you’re right, or we’re both wrong. And we move on. That kind of conflict resolution does not exist in politics or religion.”

The physical world has only gotten more mysterious thanks to Einstein’s work, and many of the core questions in physics remain unresolved. Meanwhile, the problems of politics and religion have not been solved by ignoring them as “irrational.” Contradicting the supposedly “rational” liberal-capitalist mindset, Einstein exemplified how a socialist worldview is rooted in the non-scientific virtues of compassion and morality, and he made great efforts to rectify his errors based on new moral information. 

This was particularly the case after he helped influence the development of the Manhattan Project, a widely publicized decision that he ended up regretting. As the story goes, fellow scientist Leo Szilard visited Einstein’s Long Island summer home in 1939 and explained the possibility that Hitler might develop an atomic bomb. Szilard then drafted a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with these concerns, co-signed by Einstein. The Nazis failed to produce a nuclear weapon (though not for lack of trying), while the U.S. wielded its new firepower on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Einstein viewed these bombings in Japan as a travesty, writing in his 1950 book Out of My Later Years: “If I had known that the Germans would not succeed in constructing an atom bomb, I never would have moved a finger.” 

With Albert Schweitzer and fellow socialist Bertrand Russell, Einstein lobbied to stop nuclear testing and future bomb development. Days before his death, he signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, a declaration that called on world leaders to pursue peaceful resolutions to international conflict (and also led to the still-ongoing Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs): “There lies before us, if we choose,” read the manifesto, “continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.”

Time has run its course on Einstein’s life story, distilling his legacy into nostalgia for a singular scientific genius. The Cold War and neoliberal ideologues have also ensured that the history of socialism remains muddled in American culture. But Einstein’s long pattern of humanist thinking, informed by his Judaism, speaks to the kinds of political revelations that can come about through faith and compassion. In “Why Socialism,” Einstein wrote:

“The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society.  But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence … All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egoism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naïve, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.”

In the end, it seems Albert Einstein believed that scientific inquiry must have its counterpart in a selfless love for others. In any discussion of his career and his legacy, it’s critical to note that his politics remain inseparable from his life’s work.

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