National Review: For Wisdom about the Jews and Civilization, Consult Albert Einstein
This article was originally posted at National Review.
In September 1933, when the world’s most famous scientist, a Jew, was forced to renounce his German citizenship and flee for his life, he knew he would find safe harbor in the democracies of the West. With help from friends in Great Britain, Albert Einstein arrived in England and settled into a country hut in the coastal town of Cromer.
After it was reported that the Nazis had put a hefty price on Einstein’s head, Commander Oliver Lampson, a benefactor, placed an armed guard at the property. Einstein quipped: “I really had no idea my head was worth all that.” Before leaving for the United States, where his arrival was eagerly awaited, Einstein confessed to a reporter: “I could not believe that it was possible that such spontaneous affection could be extended to one who is a wanderer on the face of the earth.”
Such affection for a Jew — regardless of his credentials or circumstances — no longer seems possible in the West. Israel’s war against Hamas, following the terrorist group’s genocidal assault on Israeli civilians, has unleashed an ancient hatred. Historian Paul Johnson once called it “a disease of the mind.” The sickness of antisemitism that has expressed itself in the streets, universities, and capitals — from London to Paris to New York — is another symptom of the crisis of the West. Near the heart of this catastrophe is a staggering ignorance of our history: of the ideals and institutions that built our civilization and made possible achievements in human freedom, equality, and justice unrivaled in the human story.
Einstein knew all about them. On October 3, 1933, just before he left for his permanent home in America, he delivered a speech to an international audience at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Entitled “Science and Civilization,” it was his first public appearance since Hitler’s rise to power. Scotland Yard had received a warning earlier in the day: “Be on your guard — there’s a plot to assassinate Einstein tonight.” Other critics of Hitler’s regime — and Einstein was unsparing — had recently been murdered by the Nazis. Nevertheless, as the New York Times reported, “he spoke as unconcernedly as if lecturing in a classroom.”
It was quite a lecture — an unabashed tribute to Western civilization that, in today’s climate, would probably be shouted down at nearly every Ivy League university in America. “Today,” he warned, “the questions which concern us are: How can we save mankind and its spiritual acquisitions of which we are the heirs? How can we save Europe from a new disaster?” Einstein’s answer was to recommit ourselves to defending the achievements of our civilization: in politics, science, philosophy, literature, medicine, and the arts.
“We are concerned not merely with the technical problem of securing and maintaining peace, but also with the important task of education and enlightenment,” he said. “If we want to resist the powers which threaten to suppress the intellectual and individual freedom, we must keep clearly before us what is at stake and what we owe to that freedom which our ancestors have won for us after hard struggles.” Without this freedom, Einstein explained, there would have been no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Pasteur. Without these thinkers, without the scientific and technological advances pioneered in the West, “most people would live a dull life of slavery.” Despotism would be the norm.
Einstein’s general theory of relativity, published in 1915, revolutionized the world of physics and made him an international celebrity. But his Jewish identity, and his criticism of the Nazis, made him an object of scorn in the German press. His scientific works were publicly burned in Berlin. Nazi propaganda showed a photograph of Einstein with a caption in capital letters: “Not yet hanged.” The assassination of one of his associates in Czechoslovakia, the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Lessing, convinced him to leave the continent.
Although sympathetic to the Zionist cause, Einstein had lived through the industrial slaughterhouse of the First World War, seeing firsthand the consequences of militant nationalism. He initially resisted the idea of a Jewish state. He also regarded the Arab peoples living in Palestine as “kinfolk” and worried that a Jewish state on Arab land would create hostilities. But the deepening antisemitism in Germany and Europe helped to change his mind.
When he was asked to explain what he found most compelling about his Jewish heritage, Einstein extolled the “pursuit of knowledge for its own sake,” as well as “a strong critical spirit” that prevents “blind obeisance to any mortal authority.” He also revealed his understanding of the gift of the Jews to Western civilization. It involved, in his words, “the democratic ideal of social justice” and “tolerance among all men.” Einstein argued that the Jewish concept of a moral law, rooted in the belief in a purposeful Creator, had powerfully influenced Christianity and Islam and “had a benign influence upon the social structure of a great part of mankind.”
These historical insights are no longer part of the educational outlook of the West. Instead, the contribution of Judaism to the cause of justice and freedom is virtually unknown in the academy. Likewise, courses in Western civilization have all but vanished from the nation’s leading colleges and universities. Interest in studying the humanities — the disciplines that reveal the stunning achievements of the West — has hit an all-time low. Meanwhile, there has never been a moment in the modern period when self-loathing, directed at our own democratic and religious traditions, has been so violent and widespread.
These problems are not unrelated. If we want to understand the nature of this fearsome outbreak of antisemitism today, the war-torn streets of Gaza are not the place to begin. In 1933, when the Nazi Party took over Germany, a Jewish refugee fled to the West and explained what the unfolding crisis meant for his generation. Albert Einstein implored his audience to “care for what is eternal and highest among our possessions.”
The fate of the Jews and the fate of the West were inextricably linked. They have become so again.
Joseph Loconte, PhD, is a Presidential Scholar in Residence at New College of Florida and the C.S. Lewis Scholar for Public Life at Grove City College. He is the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West. His most recent book is the New York Times bestseller A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War.