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When Einstein tried to convince Nehru to support Israel... but failed

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty | Updated on: 12 February 2017, 13:31 IST

India-Israel relations today are taken for granted. Bilateral ties are stable and growing stronger.

This was not so when Israel was born as an independent nation, in the teeth of Arab opposition. The new State had to struggle for the international community's recognition, after David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel and joined the United Nations on 14 May, 1948. Ben-Gurion went on to become the first PM of Israel.

Arguing for a composite State, wherein Palestinian Arabs and the Jewish people would live side by side in a secular State, India had voted against the United Nations Partition plan for Palestine. India's vote was overruled by a majority vote, approving the creation of Israel and Palestine as two independent States. (The Partition Plan got a two-thirds majority: the vote was 33 for and 13 against, with 10 States abstaining.)

The USA had supported the Balfour Declaration of 1917 (Arthur Balfour was a British Foreign Secretary), which called for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. US President Franklin D Roosevelt had, however, assured the Arabs in 1945 that the USA would not intervene without consulting both the Jewish and the Arab peoples living in the region.

Britain, the colonial power, made responsible for the mandate of Palestine until May 1948, opposed both the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine, as well as unlimited immigration of Jewish refugees to the region. Currently, except for Egypt and Jordan, no other Arab or Muslim country has diplomatic relations with Israel, and most Islamic countries ban travel of Israelis and Jews to their countries

Israel's conviction, and where Einstein fit in

Israeli leaders never wavered in their conviction, since the era of Ben-Gurion, that India and Israel would ultimately be close friends. Ben-Gurion and Nehru exchanged correspondence regularly. "Hodu" is the word for India in the Hebrew Bible, and the Jewish people, discriminated and persecuted in every country, have a long memory of their co-religionists finding refuge in India and thriving as a community, without discrimination.

Recognising that India's support would be crucial to win support of other nations, as the process of decolonisation gathered momentum and new independent States emerged in Asia and Africa, Israel worked overtime to convince a skeptical India to recognise the fledgling Jewish State. The Israeli leadership roped in Albert Einstein, arguably the most famous member of the global Jewish community, to persuade Jawaharlal Nehru.

Einstein, though a self-declared Jewish nationalist, was not an ardent supporter of Zionism, the movement that began in Europe to establish a Jewish homeland. Einstein had declared that the Zionist enterprise was threatened by "fanatical Arabs" (1938), but he argued that a Jewish homeland could become "a centre of culture for all Jews, a refuge for the most grievously oppressed, a field of action for the best among us, a unifying ideal, and a means of attaining inward health for the Jews of the whole world".

He lauded the "young pioneers, men and women of magnificent intellectual and moral calibre, breaking stones and building roads under the blazing rays of the Palestinian sun" and "the flourishing agricultural settlements shooting up from the long-deserted soil... the development of water power... [and] industry... and, above all, the growth of an educational system ... What observer... can fail to be seized by the magic of such amazing achievement and of such almost superhuman devotion?" (Letter to Manchester Guardian, 1929)

The duality in Einstein's thinking was reflected in his admiration for the liberal vision of a bi-national Arab-Jewish state. Einstein declared that "I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish State... My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish State with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power... I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain." (New York, 1938).

Yet, Einstein did not take up Ben-Gurion's offer to become Israel's first President, saying it would pose a moral dilemma for him.

Nehru's dilemma

Jawaharlal Nehru was fully aware of Jewish history and the travails of the Jewish people in Europe. He wrote eloquently and sympathetically about the plight of the Jewish people and the horrible atrocities they faced in Europe in the Holocaust.

Nehru's dilemma was clear, when he wrote that the Palestinian Arabs had lived in Palestine for centuries, and depriving them of their land, in order to create a Jewish State, would be grossly unfair, though he also acknowledged that the Jewish people had lived in Palestine for centuries.

It was clear that Nehru was against the partition of Palestine, and subscribed to the liberal view, also shared by Einstein to some extent, of a bi-national Arab-Jewish Palestine. The Partition of India had also left an open wound that was still fresh.

Einstein's letter to Nehru

On 13 June 1947, Einstein wrote a four-page letter to Nehru, first praising India for having taken up the cause of abolishing untouchability, and saying the Jewish people were also victims of discrimination and persecution, with a pariah status.

Appealing to Nehru, Einstein praised him as a "consistent champion of the forces of political and economic enlightenment", and exhorted him to rule in favour of "the rights of an ancient people whose roots are in the East". Einstein pleaded for "justice and equity", adding that "long before the emergence of Hitler, I made the cause of Zionism mine, because through it, I saw a means of correcting a flagrant wrong".

Einstein went on to say that "the Jewish people alone has for centuries been in the anomalous position of being victimised and hounded as a people, though bereft of all the rights and protections which even the smallest people normally has... Zionism offered the means of ending this discrimination...through the return to the land to which they were bound by close historic ties... Jews sought to abolish their pariah status among peoples".

To drive home his argument, Einstein wrote in his letter: "The advent of Hitler underscored with a savage logic all the disastrous implications contained in the abnormal situation in which Jews found themselves. Millions of Jews perished... because there was no spot on the globe where they could find sanctuary... The Jewish survivors demand the right to dwell amid brothers, on the ancient soil of their fathers."

Recognising Nehru's dilemma, Einstein went on to highlight: "Though the Arab of Palestine has benefitted... economically, he wants exclusive national sovereignty, such as is enjoyed by the Arabs of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria [sic]. It is a legitimate and natural desire, and justice would seem to call for its satisfaction." This satisfaction would be in the form of a Palestinian State.

Post-World War 1, the Allies gave the Arabs 99% of Arab lands liberated from the Ottoman Empire, to meet Arab national aspirations, and five independent Arab states were created. One per cent was reserved for the Jews "in the land of their origin", for the establishment of Israel.

In Einstein's words: "In the august scale of justice, which weighs need against need, there is no doubt as to whose is more heavy."

According to Einstein, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised a homeland for the Jewish people, redressed the balance of justice and history.

Einstein's final appeal to Nehru was to brush aside "the rivalries of power politics and the egotism of petty nationalist appetites" and to support "the glorious renaissance which has begun in Palestine".

Nehru's response

Nehru's response to Einstein's letter reflected his deep moral dilemma. Nehru did not hedge this, and acknowledged that India's policy was dictated by realpolitik, despite moral posturing.

Nehru wrote that national leaders, "unfortunately", had to pursue "policies... [that were] essentially selfish policies. Each country thinks of its own interest first... If it so happens that some international policy fits in with the national policy of the country, then that nation uses brave language about international betterment. But as soon as that international policy seems to run counter to national interests or selfishness, then a host of reasons are found not to follow that international policy.

This was Nehru's explanation for India voting against the partition of Palestine, and the creation of a Jewish State. The compelling reasons were India's own partition, India's large Muslim population which, like other Muslims elsewhere, was instinctively pro-Palestinian, seeing the issue as an Islamic cause, and India's need for support from inter alia Arab countries, in the impending 1948 war over Kashmir with Pakistan.

Nehru went on to argue in his letter: "I confess that while I have a very great deal of sympathy for the Jews, I feel sympathy for the Arabs also... I know that the Jews have done a wonderful piece of work in Palestine and have raised the standards of the people there, but one question troubles me. After all these remarkable achievements, why have they failed to gain the goodwill of the Arabs? Why do they want to compel the Arabs to submit against their will to certain demands [i.e., partition and Jewish statehood]"?

Eventually, India officially recognised the State of Israel on 17 September 1950. At the time, Nehru said: "We would have [recognised Israel] long ago, because Israel is a fact. We refrained because of our desire not to offend the sentiments of our friends in the Arab countries."

Though Einstein could not convince Nehru immediately, despite the latter's deep admiration for the great scientist, his letters did play a crucial role in convincing Nehru.

First published: 12 February 2017, 13:31 IST
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty @CatchNews

The writer is a former secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, former High Commissioner to Bangladesh and a former Ambassador to Thailand. He is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation