“The Greatest Day” of Einstein’s life

Dan Izenberg. Jerusalem Post. Feb 24, 1998.

Seventy-five years ago this month, Albert Einstein paid his first and only visit to the Land of Israel to witness the accomplishments of the 90,000 Jews living here at that time and to present the first scientific address ever delivered at the Hebrew University.

Historians of the brilliant physicist paid virtually no attention to his brief visit in February 1923, according to Ze’ev Rozenkranz, curator of the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University.

But in a speech delivered in the now-defunct Lemel School in Jerusalem on February 6, Einstein declared: “I consider this the greatest day of my life.”

All we know of Einstein’s visit derives from his rather stenographic diary entries, handwritten in German, plus accounts in the two Hebrew papers of the day—Doar Hayom and Ha’aretz—and the effusive English-language Palestine Weekly.

“Palestine has been honored this week by the visit of Prof. Albert Einstein, accompanied by his wife,” the paper wrote on February 9, 1923.

“Palestine has been honored during recent years by many visits from many great men, but this week is a greater occasion than any, for today Jerusalem contains within its walls the greatest man of science of the day.”

Indeed, Einstein arrived in Palestine shortly after being awarded the Nobel Prize. His general theory of relativity had been published in 1916, in the middle of World War I. Because of the hostilities, however, it was only scientifically verified in May 1919. Six months later, Einstein and his discovery became famous throughout the world.

Einstein was a proud Jew, a modernist and an internationalist, and all these qualities come through in the terse entries he made during his stay here.

He believed in Ahad Ha’am’s idea of cultural and spiritual Zionism and, as such, was a strong advocate of the proposed Hebrew University. Two years before coming to Palestine, he accompanied Chaim Weizmann on a tour of the US to raise money for its medical faculty.

Einstein and his wife Elsa reached Port Said on February 1, 1923, at the end of a visit to Japan and the Far East.

After crossing the Sinai Peninsula by train and reaching the coastal plain, he recorded his first impression of the Holy Land: “We traveled along a plain with very meager vegetation. From time to time, Arab villages and Jewish colonies, olive trees, cactus plants and orange trees flashed by.”

The following day, Einstein’s train stopped at Lod (Lydda) and he was met by Zionist leaders, including Menachem Ussishkin, Benzion Mosinson, Meir Dizengoff and David Yellin.

From there, via “a spectacular valley of rocks, to Jerusalem,” where he was met by Shlomo Ginzburg, the son of Ahad Ha’am, who had been appointed by the Zionist Executive to be Einstein’s official escort.

A British officer drove the entourage to the official residence of British High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel (which now serves as a UN headquarters on the edge of East Talpiot).

Einstein sketched a pencil portrait of the Jewish high commissioner. “English manners, high education, multi- faceted, an aristocratic outlook tempered with humor,” he wrote.

The following day, Samuel took his guest to the Old City. On his way there, Einstein saw a “stern, bare, hilly landscape, breathtakingly beautiful, with white houses, some of them capped with domes, and a blue sky. The city is also beautiful, crammed into the square walls.”

Einstein seemed to like the Dome of the Rock, but described al-Aksa as a “basilica-like mosque of mediocre taste.”

Descending from the Temple Mount to the Western Wall, he found “mindless co-religionists praying loudly, their faces turned to the Wall, swaying their bodies backwards and forwards. A pitiful sight of people with a past but without a present.”

Later that evening, Einstein visited Shmuel Hugo Bergman, the Czech-born philosopher who founded the National Library and was the first rector of the Hebrew University. He described Bergman as “the serious saint.”

On Sunday, Einstein visited Jericho and called it a day of “unforgettable brilliance.” He was impressed by the landscape of the Judean Desert, the Beduin and the “dark and elegant native Arabs dressed in their tattered clothing.”

On Monday he was taken to see the new Jewish neighborhood of Bnei Bayit (later renamed Beit Hakerem.)

“The construction work is conducted by a union of Jewish workers whose managers are elected to their posts,” he wrote. “The workers have no previous experience or training, and yet, in a short time, do wonderful work. The managers don’t earn more than the workers.”

The next day, Einstein made his speech at the Lemel School, describing the day’s events in a few dry sentences. But the Palestine Weekly provided more color, not to mention a bit of preaching which rings familiar today.

“The brass band of the Tachkemoni School played Hebrew folk songs, and bouquets of flowers were pressed upon Mrs. Einstein. After Prof. Einstein had entered the school, there was no holding back the crowd which had assembled outside. The outer gates were stormed, and the crowd burst into the courtyard and tried to force the inner gates, which were held by three or four stalwarts.

“Though this acclamation testifies to the enthusiasm awakened throughout Palestine by the visit of Einstein, it was not a little disturbing to the ticket-holders, who had to fight their through the surging mob. A little self- control on such occasions would not be amiss.”

On this occasion, Einstein gave an impassioned speech. “I consider this the greatest day of my life,” he said. “Hitherto, I have always found something to regret in the Jewish soul, and that is the forgetfulness of its own people—forgetfulness of its being, almost. Today, I have been made happy by the sight of the Jewish people learning to recognize themselves and to make themselves recognized as a force in the world.

“This is a great age, the age of the liberation of the Jewish soul. And it has been accomplished through the Zionist movement, which has remained a spiritual movement, so that no one in the world will be able to destroy it.”

The highlight of the visit came the following day, when Einstein delivered a speech on the theory of relativity, attended by British High Commissioner Samuel, senior British officials, Jewish and Christian notables, heads of Jewish institutions and scientists from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Moslem notables were also invited but declined to attend, the Hebrew papers reported at the time.

Einstein began his speech in Hebrew, which, he recorded, he could barely read. As a gesture to his audience, few of whom knew German, Einstein gave his speech in French and said, with self-deprecating humor, that if his listeners did not understand him it would not be because of the material, but because of his poor French.

Afterwards, he walked the length of the hill where the Hebrew University was to be built.

During the next few days, Einstein visited Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Mikve Yisrael, Haifa, the Jezreel Valley and Lake Kinneret.

After a day-long tour of Tel Aviv, he wrote: “What the Jews have done in the city in just a few years is incredible. A modern, Hebrew city bursting with economic and spiritual life which is created out of the soil. It is hard to believe what an urban people we Jews are.”

Einstein also wrote about the agricultural and industrial accomplishments of the pioneers.

At the Mikve Yisrael Agricultural School, he was impressed by the artificial techniques developed to hatch chicken eggs. At Rishon Lezion, he was impressed by the size of the winery.

Heading north to Haifa, Einstein visited the Reali High School and the Technion. He also stopped over at the home of an unidentified Arab friend, where he was visited by an Arab author and his German wife.

“The Arab man-on-the-street hardly knows anything about nationalism,” he observed.

Later, on the way to the Kinneret, Einstein visited Nahalal, which was under construction, and Nazareth. He stayed over at a private estate at Migdal and drove along the Kinneret, which he described as “landscape similar to Lake Geneva. The sun bursts forth and the surroundings are fertile but suffer from the plague of malaria.”

Afterwards, Einstein visited “the Communist settlement of Deganya” and commented that “the settlers are very nice, most of them Russian, dirty but full of genuine desire. With tenacity and love, they persist in the fulfillment of their ideal, fighting off malaria, hunger and debts. This kind of communism won’t last forever, but it will educate the people to be whole.”

Einstein made his way back to Port Said on February 14, and from there to Germany, where he resumed his position at the Berlin Academy of Research. In 1929, he began three years of research in California and returned to Europe less than two months after Hitler came to power.

After spending six months in Belgium, England and Switzerland, he took up a part-time position at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton University, and remained there for the rest of his life.

Einstein never returned to Europe. He died in 1955 at the age of 76. Three years earlier, he had rejected an offer to become the second president of the state of Israel.

“All my life I have dealt with objective matters,” he explained. “Hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions… I am more distressed over these circumstances because my relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond, ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation among the nations of the world.”

Although Einstein never returned to Israel, one of his cousins, Lisa Einstein Samuel, and her husband, Benjamin, moved to Nahariya from Los Angeles in 1970.

Samuel first met Einstein when she was six years old, and saw him for the last time in 1948. In one of their meetings, she told him that she eventually planned to move to Israel.

“Einstein told me he was very happy to know that at least one member of his family would live here,” she recalled.