Literary critic Adam Kirsch has made a career of taking potshots at cultural Zionists like Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein. Like the Mapai-niks of old, he dismisses the more humane Zionism they represented, or to be precise, he insinuates that they were Zionists manqués.
So before I get to his Zionist "take" on Einstein, let's recall the standard statist Zionist criticisms against cultural Zionists like Magnes and his circle.
They were naïve intellectuals.
They could not find an Arab partner for peace.
They foolishly believed that the Arabs would agree to Jewish immigration if the Jews promised not to have their own state.
They were assimilated Jews who worshipped Jewish powerlessness.
They assumed, wronglyת that the declaration of the Jewish state would provoke a war that would eliminate the Jews in Palestine.
And my favorite:
They didn't understand that a Jewish State could live in peace with the Arabs and provide equal rights for their Arab citizens, were it not for blind Arab intransigence and anti-Semitism.
This is the view of the Magnes-circle that is dominant in Zionist historiography. It places Magnes on the left and revisionist Zionism on the right, with the Mapai, statist labor Zionism taking the moderate center. This view was eminently reasonable for the first few years of the state. After all, the Jews were not thrown into the sea; on the contrary, they actually conquered more land than allotted to them by the UN Partition Plan – and their state was more independent of the Arabs than provided for in the Partition Plan. True, there was the problem of the refugees, but it was only natural that the Arab countries accept their brothers and sisters. And the mass exodus of Arabs provided opportunities and housing for another exodus, that of the Jews from Arab lands. An Israel that was Jewish and democratic would offer great opportunities for its citizens, its neighbors, and the region.
History has proven otherwise. After sixty years, Israel is considered, in the eyes of much of the world, a pariah or failed state – and if not a failed state, then one in danger of becoming one (according to Foreign Policy's 2009 Failed State index.) Far from living in peace with the Palestinian Arabs, it has made their lives miserable, reducing some of them to second-class citizens who are forbidden to learn their own history, and much of whose land was taken away from them; the others to stateless subjects without basic human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Thank God, there was not a massacre of Jewish Palestine in 1948, but there was a War of Independence that claimed many Jewish and Arab lives, and created the Palestinian refugee problem. And since that date, many more Jews have died in Israel and because of Israel, than all other places combined; the "new" anti-Semitism, from which Jews around the world, and especially in Europe, suffer, is really anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism in disguise.
But none of this fazes Kirsch, an America Jew raised on classic Zionist dichotomies of "power vs., powerlessness," "assimilationists vs. proud Jews," "realists vs. dreamers." Kirsch sticks to the standard Zionist take on the Magnes circle in his review of Einstein on Israel and Zionism, an anthology of Einstein's writings published in Germany and translated into English. Now, Einstein was a cultural Zionist, who, like other cultural Zionists, became increasingly disenchanted with the brand of Zionism that took over the Zionist movement. Since Einstein was a liberal nationalist, he found many problems with the idea of a Jewish state, and he also knew that such a state would inevitably clash with the native Arabs of Palestine. Like others of his kind, including Buber, Magnes, Scholem, and Simon, and mostly because of the Holocaust, he became reconciled with the state as a fait accompli. But this did not turn him into a statist Zionist.
All this is beyond Kirsch's intellectual ken. He does not see how somebody can be a Zionist, and deeply committed to the cause of Jewish nationalism, and yet not support the idea of a Jewish nation-state. So he really doesn't know what to do with the book or Einstein. Rather than try to understand Einstein's position, much less attempt to justify it, he argues with him, as he did with his New Yorker piece on Hannah Arendt. Kirsch writes:
As a result, [Einstein] is totally unable to face the truth, which is that Arab and Jewish visions for Palestine were incompatible. Einstein insists, for example, that the Jews then languishing in European DP camps be allowed to enter Palestine, contrary to British policy. One British expert asks Einstein, "What would you do if the Arabs refused to consent to bringing these refugees to Palestine?"—as, of course, they did, just as they had violently resisted Jewish immigration since the 1920s. "That would never be the case if there were no politics," Einstein replies. There is Einstein's fallacy in a sentence: his response to a desperate political problem is to wish that there were no politics, which is to say, no conflicting desires, no clash of rights, no power.
Note that Kirsch, himself a statist Zionist, identifies statist Zionism as the Jewish vision for Palestine, thus delegitimizing other competing Jewish visions as not Jewish. Note also that he views the conflict as a case of a conflict of national rights. But Einstein did not wish away politics, nor did the greatest scientist of modern times commit a fallacy. Einstein was implying that that it was politics, i.e., precisely the desire for political independence and control on both sides, that destroyed the possibility of the increased immigration of Jews. And Magnes, because of this, was willing to restrict Jewish immigration rather than to plunge Palestine into war.
Kirsch's polemic continues:
But surely the lesson of Jewish history is that powerlessness is not a solution for the Jews, but the most dangerous problem. The same conclusion can be drawn from another valuable document in this book, an account of Einstein's 1952 meeting with an Egyptian journalist, Mohamed Heikal. Jerome interviewed Heikal in 2006, and he remembered his long-ago visit to Princeton to see Einstein. There the great man spoke with anguished sincerity about his desire to make peace between Jews and Arabs, and tried to use to Heikal to open up back-channel talks with Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's new ruler. Clearly hoping to find common ground with Heikal, Einstein said that "when it comes to people like Menachem Begin and his massacre of Arabs in the village of Deir Yassin … these people are Nazis in their thoughts and their deeds."
And what was Heikal's response? "Ben-Gurion is no less a Nazi than Menachem Begin." Here we see the ugly reality behind Einstein's dream of a binational state, and Jerome's present-day anti-Zionism. There was, in 1948, no way to ensure the survival of Jewish Palestine without a Jewish state, which meant an army, a flag, borders, and all the insignia of sovereignty that Einstein detested. Likewise, there is no way to establish a true peace in Palestine today as long as so many Palestinians, elite and ordinary, are committed to Israel's destruction. Still, Einstein has one advantage over his new editor: his reservations about Israel were voiced from the standpoint of his unquestionable commitment to Zionism. For that reason, he makes a less useful ally than [editor] Fred Jerome appears to think.
The Magnes circle indeed had a particular animus towards Begin, who was a Jewish terrorist, but they disagreed no less strongly with Ben-Gurion. But so what? The real issue is whether there was, as Kirsch claims, no alternative to the survival of Jewish Palestine besides the declaration of the Jewish State? How would he know this? Because the Arabs had declared their intention of driving the Jews into the sea? But wasn't that because they knew that what the Jews wanted was a Jewish state and control over Palestine?
And here is the real question that Kirsch never considers. Had the Zionist movement not adopted statist Zionism, had it been willing from the beginning to struggle for national group rights within a secular Palestinian state, would indeed the existence of a Jewish cultural center in Palestine been endangered? Of course, the question is unanswerable; some will point to Arab massacres of Jews during the Mandate and others to the close friendships and relations between Jews and Arabs during this period of Zionist settlement.
But at the very least, one would expect Kirsch to grapple with the claim that the very concept of statist Zionism endangered Jewish Palestine because it set the yishuv on a collision course with the nationalist aspirations of the native majority. This Kirsch cannot do, because he, like so many other Zionists, accepts the myth of Jewish powerlessness – that the actions of Jews do not have an effect on the actions and views of others, and if they do, the effect should only be benign because the Jewish agents are benign.
Kirsch cites Einstein's remark, "I believe that the existence of a Jewish cultural center will strengthen the moral and political position of the Jews all over the world, by virtue of the very fact that there will be in existence a kind of embodiment of the interests of the whole Jewish people" and then comments, "The case for Israel has seldom been better put." But Einstein was not making the case for Israel, not for the Israel of 1948, with the Jewish cultural giants of that time (all European), and certainly not for the state that is currently slashing budgets for the humanities and Jewish studies and funding settlements – and where the average age of the World Congress of Jewish Studies participants in Jerusalem (which I am attending) seems to be over sixty.
Einstein was making the case for something that never came to be – "a cultural center that would strengthen the moral and political position of the Jews all over the world." The statist Zionists, of course, claim otherwise; the moderates among them see no contradiction between the two sorts of zionism, and claim that, on the contrary, only a strong Jewish nation state guarantees the possibility of cultural Zionism. Yet there was a thriving Jewish cultural center in Palestine before the establishment of the state, and nothing would be lost to that center would the State of Israel become the nation state of all its citizens.
A final note: Kirsch begins his review by noting that the book is at war with itself because it paints Einstein as anti-Israel and yet refers to his Zionism Ironically, it is Kirsch's review that is at war with itself. The title of the review is "Relatively Speaking, a Zionist" and yet Kirsch refers to Einstein's "unquestionable commitment to Zionism".
How abolutely committed was he, Adam?