Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Einstein’s Jewish Life

Albert Einstein, whose yahrzeit is the 26th of Nissan (today), is one of the most admired men in history. His name and his face are almost universally recognized, and his scientific theories changed the way the universe is perceived.

Einstein’s connection to Jewish life was complicated. His German-Jewish family was assimilated, but he is said to have pushed them to maintain a kosher home in his youth. He was immersed in a world of science, but did not hesitate to affirm his basic belief in God, Creator of the world. He was opposed to nationalism but supported Zionism because the anti-Semitism of Europe (which may have hindered him obtaining a teaching position when he completed his studies) was ceaseless. 

Einstein’s early Zionist activity included being a founder of The Hebrew University, which opened in 1918 in Jerusalem. A member of the Board of Governors and chairman of its Academic Community, Einstein presented the school’s first scientific lecture in 1923, the first and only time he traveled to the Middle East. Einstein’s support for Israel was so appreciated that in 1952, after the death of President Chaim Weizmann, Einstein was asked to become Israel’s second president. He regretfully declined.

Even though Einstein, who was born in Ulm and raised in Munich, had witnessed German anti-Semitism, he was surprised by the brutality of his fellow countrymen. As the Nazis gained power, Einstein’s scientific work, which had been recognized as groundbreaking since 1905 and for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1921, was discredited by the Nazis as being infected by foreign ideas. 

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein was in America serving as a visiting professor. It became clear that he could never return home, a fact made all the clearer when he learned that the Nazis had raided his cottage, confiscated his sailboat and put a price on his head. As his fellow Jewish scientists were cast out of their universities (without protest from their colleagues), Einstein went to England to seek the help of the British in trying to lead them to safety. 

Einstein returned to America from England that same year and accepted what would become a permanent position at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. 

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