Jewish Identity main content.

Jewish Identity

Part of the Einstein exhibition.

Einstein and Israel

Einstein in Israel.
Photo: courtesy AIP, Emilio Segré Archives

He retained a powerful sense of his Jewish identity

Einstein's personal experience of anti-Semitism while in Germany, combined with the extreme brutality of the Holocaust, further cemented his ties to the Jewish people. Referring to the prejudices faced by Jews around the world, Einstein noted that "there are no German Jews, there are no Russian Jews, there are no American Jews....There are in fact only Jews." Near the end of his life, Einstein was offered the presidency of the State of Israel, but he declined, citing ill health and a lack of experience "dealing properly with people and…exercising official functions."

Hebrew University

When Einstein spoke of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, he initially envisioned more of a spiritual and cultural center than a political state. One of the most important features of such a homeland, in Einstein's view, would be its excellent educational system. To this end, Einstein toured the United States in 1921 with Chaim Weizmann, then head of the World Zionist Organization and later the first president of Israel, to raise money for a new university in Jerusalem.

Hebrew University opened its doors in April 1925, and to mark the occasion, Einstein wrote "The Mission of Our University. In an interview with The New York Times that month, Einstein commented, "I know of no public event that has given me such pleasure as the proposal to establish a Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The traditional respect for knowledge that Jews have maintained intact through many centuries of severe hardship has made it particularly painful for us to see so many talented sons of the Jewish people cut off from higher education."

February 2, 1923—Einstein arrives in Palestine.

Einstein visited Palestine only once, in February 1923. He and his wife stayed for 12 days, traveling to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa. While in Jerusalem, he delivered the first scientific lecture at Hebrew University, on the site where the school officially opened in 1925.

Einstein and God

Einstein was not religiously observant, but he was, in his words, "a deeply religious nonbeliever." He often spoke of a "cosmic religion" and a God seen in the harmony of the universe. Einstein rejected the idea of a "personal God" who rewards or punishes. Instead, Einstein said, "it is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity and to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive...."

Although Einstein did not observe Jewish rituals, he strongly identified with Jewish tradition: "The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence—these are features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my lucky stars that I belong to it." Einstein's strong support for Jewish welfare emerged when he faced anti-Semitism in Germany. Throughout his life, the man whose work the Nazis and German scientists dismissed as "Jewish physics" worked tirelessly against anti-Semitism.