Was Albert Einstein antisemitic?

albert-einstein-1144965_640In 1948, the renowned scientist Albert Einstein co-authored an open letter to the New York Times expressing his concerns about the visit to America of Menachem Begin, leader of the Freedom Party in the newly-formed state of Israel. Earlier that year, Begin had been involved in the massacre of an Arab village which had shocked the world, including most in the Jewish community. In the letter, Einstein describes the Freedom Party as “a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” Begin went on to become Prime Minister of Israel in 1977 and remained in power until 1981.

Things are different now, which is perhaps why the 10th example given in the Working Definition of Antisemitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) sites “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” Einstein was not only a Jew but also a Zionist, although he resisted “the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power.” Nevertheless, if such a statement was to be made now, then the IHRA suggests it be branded antisemitic.

Then there is the 4th example, which sites “Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).”

On the face of it this seems eminently reasonable: Holocaust denial is abhorrent. However, there is the case of Irving v Penguin Books, dramatised so effectively in the film Denial. In her book Denying the Holocaust, Deborah Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz) characterised David Irving as a Holocaust denier. In response, Irving sued Lipstadt for libel, which under British law meant that it fell to Lipstadt to prove that he was indeed a holocaust denier. The film takes us through the court case to the point where Lipstadt’s defence, led by Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), has clearly proved that Irving’s evidence for denying the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz does no such thing.

It is at this point that the judge points out that Irving may still genuinely believe in his version of history. To be a Holocaust denier it is necessary to demonstrate that (to quote the film): “Irving was motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs, even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence.” In the event the judge believed this was indeed the case, and so found for the defence.

Antisemitism is a form of racism, and as such is wrong because no-one gets to choose their race. Comparing Israeli policy with that of the Nazis, or questioning the accepted history of the Holocaust, may well be motivated by antisemitism but are not, in themselves, proof of antisemitism. To paraphrase Voltaire, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

These are subtle points, but they are nevertheless important. If we are to defend our right to criticise the actions of Israel, or to draw our own conclusions about the Holocaust even if they are mistaken and abhorrent, then these two examples are wanting. I suspect it is because of reservations in these areas that the Labour Party is reluctant to endorse the IHRA definition as it stands. My only regret is that they seem incapable of expressing this in a coherent manner to the British press. Until they do so, suspicions of antisemitism will inevitably remain and will seriously and unnecessarily jeopardise their chance of winning a future election.

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