The Tel Aviv Psychiatrist Who Became a Cultural Hero in America

A new book sheds light on the rather eccentric theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, one of the first psychoanalysts in Israel.

The time: the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. The place: planet Earth. The event: one of the most severe natural disasters to ever strike the planet. A comet is approaching Earth, and as a result of the friction generated in the atmosphere, a thin, rust-colored dust paints the surface of the planet a bold red hue. “The river is blood,” an Egyptian eyewitness wrote on papyrus, and in the Book of Exodus (7:20), it is said that all the waters of the Nile “turned to blood.”

The hills formerly known as Se’ir became the Hills of Edom (meaning “red”). The fish and the vegetation in the river turned rank – “the Nile stank” – and the reddish dust caused diseases, with people “breaking out in boils” and suffering from a “very severe pestilence.” After the reddish dust settled, soot fell from the sky and then a hail of blazing meteorites slammed into the ground. The Torah describes it thus: “The Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire ran down unto the earth; and the Lord caused to hail upon the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 9:23).

Immanuel Velikovsky’s astrophysical explanations of the natural phenomena described in the Bible gave the scholar a few decades of international fame. His book “Worlds in Collision,” published in the United States in 1950, became an instant best seller. The relatively unknown Tel Aviv-based psychiatrist became a cultural hero in America – and well-off, to boot. But Velikovsky was also a tragic hero who did not obtain what he most coveted: recognition by the scientific establishment. In fact, he was denounced by most scientists, with whom he engaged in unceasing confrontations.

Now almost completely forgotten, Velikovsky has been dredged up from the recesses of oblivion by Michael Gordin, a professor at Princeton who specializes in Russian history and the history of the modern physical sciences. In October 2012, Gordin published his book “The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe” (University of Chicago Press).

According to Velikovsky, natural disasters and collisions between planets shaped the history of Earth and the course of life on the planet. He maintained that the three-day plague of darkness, as described in Exodus and in Egyptian writings, was caused by a comet passing close to Earth, which altered the planet’s orbit and axial inclination and, during a second such passage, brought Earth’s rotation to a halt for a time. Extremely powerful earthquakes, he claimed, were the explanation for the description in Psalms (114.3), “The sea saw it, and fled; the Jordan turned backward,” meaning that, at the height of these earthquakes, the Red Sea parted and the Israelites passed through.

According to Velikovsky, the cosmic events between 1500 and 700 B.C.E., which fomented natural disasters on a colossal scale, were documented not only in the Scriptures but by many nations – on papyrus, clay and stone. He maintained that his thesis was backed up by archaeological, geological and paleontological finds.

Many readers, some of them devotees of science fiction, were enthralled by Velikovsky’s theory, presentation of which became a cultural and media event in the United States and elsewhere at the height of the Cold War. “Worlds in Collision” topped the best-seller lists in the United States and English daily The Times. The book upset the community of astronomers, and led to threats of a boycott against Macmillan, its publisher.

Debate revolved around the question of whether scientific explanations for events described in the Bible, and in the sacred texts of other ancient cultures, had any validity. Six decades ago, scientists thought the two realms were incompatible. What was perceived as a collision between two worlds – science and religion – brought about a boycott of Velikovsky, and a bitter argument between those who considered him a distinguished scientist and others who viewed him as a charlatan.

Freud’s refusal

Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979) was born in Vitebsk, in the Russian Empire (present-day Belarus), near the border with Russia. (Other Vitebsk natives include S. Ansky, the author and poet who wrote the play “The Dybbuk,” and Marc Chagall, who perpetuated its landscapes in his paintings.)

Velikovsky grew up in a Zionist home. Because of a quota that limited the number of Jews in certain educational institutions in czarist Russia, Velikovsky was rejected by a prestigious university and attended school in Montpellier, France. There he disseminated Zionist doctrine among the students and was the head of the local Jewish student union.

He broke off his studies in 1912, when he was 17, to visit Palestine with a friend. He paid a second visit the following year and then went on to pursue medical studies in Edinburgh.

Returning to Russia, he was accepted to medical school in the University of Moscow in 1915, but had to leave school in order to help out at home. His father, Simon Yehiel Velikovsky (1859-1937), led a Zionist group in Moscow – She’erit Yisrael (or, Remnant of Israel) – which raised funds to purchase lands around the Arab village of Jammama, in the northern Negev. The Jewish community of Ruhama (later a kibbutz), which was established there, is considered the first modern Jewish settlement in the Negev.

In 1918, at the height of the October Revolution in Russia, a Zionist activist was arrested and a list of members of the group in Moscow was found in his possession. Simon Velikovsky, a publisher in Moscow, went into hiding.

Immanuel led the family on an escape route that traversed Ukraine and the Caucasus, a journey that lasted three years. His parents finally settled in Jerusalem, in 1921, and Velikovsky returned to the University of Moscow and completed his medical studies.

His father, who managed to take some of his capital out of Russia, decided to underwrite a collection of articles by Jewish scientists from around the world, in order to commemorate the founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Immanuel Velikovsky worked on the production and editing aspects of the project for several years. At his request, Albert Einstein edited the volume on mathematics and physics.

Also, Velikovsky asked Sigmund Freud to contribute an article for a different volume, but the father of psychoanalysis declined. According to Dr. Eran Rolnik, in his book “Freud in Zion: Psychoanalysis and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity” (English translation published in 2012), Freud did not wish to help promote the public relations of the Hebrew University and also was apprehensive that readers of Hebrew would not understand his work.

Velikovsky arrived in Palestine in 1923 with his wife, Elisheva Kramer, a violinist whom he had met in Berlin. They settled in Jerusalem, where he worked as a physician. In 1927 they moved to Haifa, where Velikovsky was the physician of Mount Carmel, making his rounds on a donkey. The Velikovskys had two daughters – Shulamit, born in 1925, and Ruth, born the following year. (Shulamit lives in a settlement in the northern West Bank; Ruth died in 2012, in the United States.) The young mother, Elisheva, who was played violin in quartets that performed in kibbutzim and also taught violin, left the housework to her unmarried sister, Miriam, according to Shulamit.

In 1928, Velikovsky began to study psychology and psychotherapy. He spent a few months in Vienna and studied under the Austrian-Jewish psychoanalyst and dream analyst Dr. Wilhelm Stekel (1868-1940), Freud’s rebellious pupil. Freud denounced Stekel and said he had damaged the cause of psychoanalysis, but Stekel, who possessed a gift for interpreting symbols intuitively, left some 500 articles and books.

Velikovsky’s approach as a psychoanalyst was influenced by Stekel, a Jew who fled to London from the Nazis and committed suicide in July 1940, 10 months after Freud’s death in that city. Rolnik notes that Velikovsky had no formal psychiatric or psychoanalytical training, but his friendship with Austrian-American Paul Federn, the president of the International Psychoanalytic Association, landed him several honorary titles. Federn described him as “A genius. A great man. An excellent psychoanalyst … some revolutionary ideas that some people think are crazy.”

One of Velikovsky’s articles, which appeared in the periodical The Psychoanalytic Movement, in 1933, dealt with the connection between the psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams espoused by Freud, and their interpretation according to Tractate Berakhot (Benedictions) in the Talmud. In another article, published in 1934 in Imago, a journal edited by Freud, Velikovsky shared with his colleagues his clinical experience with patients who did not speak Hebrew well (i.e., immigrants to Palestine or indigenous Arabs). Rolnik notes in his book that Velikovsky “claimed that for a person with a limited command of Hebrew, the symbolic meanings of the language are dictated by the sound of words and not by their literal meaning. Thus, Hebrew puns appearing in the dreams of Russian, Arabic or Yiddish-speaking patients actually play on sounds associated with both Hebrew and the dreamers’ mother tongue.” In short, Rolnik quotes Velikovsky, this “is probably connected with the manner of thinking of the Jewish race; the tendency toward similitudes and jokes is also derived from the same source.”

Already at this stage, Velikovsky showed an interest in subjects that were inimical to scientific explanation;. The question of telepathy also came up in his correspondence with Freud, Rolnik tells Haaretz: “At that time, psychoanalysis attracted many peculiar people. These were years in which psychoanalysis was perceived as avant-garde and as the spearhead of psychiatric thought. If Freud published articles by Velikovsky, he thought they were worthy and that Velikovsky was creative. Velikovsky made plenty of noise and he had work in Palestine. However, he did not belong to the group of Freud’s followers in the country, but to the group of physicians who took an interest.”

Turning point

In 1931, Velikovksy received his patients in a ground-floor apartment in a striking building at 4 Shadal Street in Tel Aviv (off Rothschild Boulevard). Years later, when “Worlds in Collision” became a media sensation in the United States, the journalist Uri Kesari was assigned by the newspaper Maariv to write an article about the unknown Palestine episode in the author’s life. Kesari, a subtenant of Velikovsky in the 1930s, described him as “a bespectacled giant, thin, with unkempt gray hair covering his lofty forehead.” He informed his readers that Velikovsky had made him sign a very rigid contract, adding, “The doctor of mental illnesses spends hours with the depressed and the repressed. In the next room his wife played sonatas by Schubert and Beethoven.”

Velikovsky was well-to-do relative to his milieu. His eldest daughter, Shulamit Velikovsky Kogan – who was a schoolgirl at the time – recalls that she felt ashamed at being a rich man’s daughter. When her mother picked her up from school, she was embarrassed to have her friends see that her mother “decorated herself with lipstick and arrived in a taxi.”

In July 1939, Velikovsky arrived at a turning point in his life. He decided to leave small, provincial Tel Aviv for New York. Elisheva and their teenage daughters, Shulamit and Ruth, joined him. The move was “the last chance, as I regarded it, to emancipate myself from the daily routine of an overburdened doctor-psychoanalyst and to give my full time to research,” Velikovsky wrote in his posthumously published memoir, “Stargazers and Gravediggers” (1983).

While still in Tel Aviv, Velikovsky had begun work on a book titled “Freud and His Heroes,” and had been in correspondence with Freud in this connection. He took Freud’s death – in September 1939, two months after Velikovksy moved to New York – as a personal blow.

“We lived close to Columbia University,” Kogan tells me when I met with her at her home in the settlement of Shaked. “Father spent a great deal of time in libraries. He worked a little as a psychoanalyst in New York. Mother didn’t work. She helped father and typed up his writings. My parents were careful about every nickel at that time. In 1952, my husband, Avraham, and I lived near Princeton University. Later, with the money that came in from the sales of ‘Worlds in Collision,’ father bought a two-story house there, with a verandah and a basement, in which mother sculpted.”

Eric Larrabee, an editor of Harper’s Magazine who believed in Velikovsky, wrote in the introduction to “Stargazers and Gravediggers” that the Velikovsky household was “a civilized and familial one, where music and art were routinely at home and where the Western humanist, rationalist and religious inheritance was held in respect.”

On April 6, 1940, after Velikovsky had submitted the “Freud” manuscript to a publisher in New York, the family prepared to return to Tel Aviv. They had tickets for an Italian liner to Naples, from where they would fly back to Palestine. However, the publisher suggested that Velikovsky postpone the trip for a few weeks. In the meantime, Italy entered the war and it was impossible to return to Palestine, Kogan says. The weeks in New York stretched into years. Velikovsky never returned to Israel, other than to visit his family there.

In the end, the publisher who had persuaded the Velikovsky family to remain in the United States decided not to publish the book. (It was published years later, in 1960, by Doubleday under the title “Oedipus and Akhanton: Myth and History,” when Velikovsky was already a famous author.)

“My father looked for a connection between the history of Israel and the history of Egypt, and he found it in an Egyptian papyrus,” Kogan says. “He concluded subsequently that the Egyptian chronology was mistaken. In 1940, he arrived at the insight that a huge natural upheaval had occurred at the time of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, and he started to look for documentation of similar natural events in ancient Egyptian texts.”

Six years later, Velikovsky completed his work on integrating biblical tales with cosmic events, and gave the manuscript of “Worlds in Collision” to the science editor of The New York Herald Tribune, John O’Neil. After O’Neil published a favorable article about the work in his column, Velikovsky – who now felt sure of himself – offered the book to a number of publishers in New York, among them the venerable Macmillan firm, which was known for publishing scientific and scholarly works of research. Macmillan had a few experts peruse the manuscript, among them Gordon Atwater, director of the Hayden Planetarium and chairman of the astronomy department of the American Museum of Natural History, who wrote a warm recommendation.

Blustering letters

In January 1950, still before the book’s publication, Harper’s Magazine published an enthusiastic article by Larrabee about the forthcoming work. The public’s curiosity was piqued and the issue quickly sold out. Other media quoted the Harper’s article, and items about “Worlds in Collision” appeared in popular magazines such as Collier’s and Reader’s Digest.

However, Dr. Harlow Shapley, the director of the Harvard College Observatory and known as the “czar of astronomers,” was incensed. He began by sending blustering letters to the editors of Macmillan: “[A] few scientists with whom I have talked about this matter (and this includes the president of Harvard University and all the members of the Harvard Observatory staff) are not a little astonished that the great Macmillan Company, famous for its scientific publications, would venture into the Black Arts without rather careful refereeing of the manuscript ... The Velikovsky declaration or hypothesis or creed that the sun stood still is the most arrant nonsense of my experience.”

Macmillan’s directors were shaken by the possibility that the astronomers and other scientists who were assailing Velikovsky and his theories would boycott the company’s textbooks and scientific publications. Shapley was not a lone voice. He was backed by scientists who, though they had not read “Worlds in Collision” but only the controversy in the press, wrote articles condemning the book. Macmillan was forced to give up its publishing gold mine – 55,000 copies of the book, at $4.50 each, had been sold within a short time of its publication on April 3, 1950.

The company voluntarily transferred the rights to the hottest literary property of the year to a competitor. On May 25, George Brett, the president of Macmillan, asked Velikovsky to release him from their contract. Brett organized the book’s transfer to another major publisher, Doubleday.

Velikovsky signed a contract with Doubleday on June 8, 1950, and the media noise continued unabated. The New York Times reported about the pressure that “outraged” scientists had exerted on Macmillan, which had “reluctantly … surrendered its rights to the biggest moneymaker on its list.”

Revising chronology

In 1952, Velikovsky published “Ages in Chaos,” in which he maintained that a mistake had occurred in the dating of Egyptian history, from the start of the destruction of the Middle Kingdom (the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., a period of scientific, cultural and social efflorescence in Egypt). As the body of archaeological knowledge about the Middle East is based on Egyptian chronology, the correction proposed by Velikovsky – moving the events about 540 years forward – seemed to resolve many of the contradictions that archaeologists had found in the biblical account. To put it another way: the new archaeology would create harmony between the texts in the Bible and the findings on the ground.

According to Prof. Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, “The idea that it was possible to undo the chronology of the ancient Middle East in one fell swoop was not tenable even when Velikovsky wrote his book. It is clear today that the chronological structure of the Middle East is extremely stable. This was proved as soon as we moved to Carbon-14 dating, which began in 1949 and enables us to estimate the age of geological and archaeological findings.

“Velikovsky’s ideas are now considered a scholarly curiosity,” adds Finkelstein. “His story is interesting as a story but has no scientific value.”

In his 1955 book “Earth in Upheaval,” Velikovsky purported to cite geological and paleontological proof that sudden worldwide changes occurred at the time the Israelites left Egypt. Finkelstein: “None of us archaeologists is looking any longer for natural phenomena in biblical texts – which reflect primarily the reality at the time their authors lived. It is impossible to go to the Exodus story to look for the reality of the third century B.C.E.”

True believer

Prof. Michael Gordin first heard about Immanuel Velikovsky as a boy. Years later, totally by chance, he encountered his name again. “One day in 2005,” he tells me by email, “I opened my web browser at Princeton and the university’s home page came up, including a list of featured stories. The top of the list was that the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in Firestone Library had opened up the archive of Immanuel Velikovsky to researchers, and it mentioned briefly some of the debates surrounding him.

“I have long been interested in the issue of what counts or does not count as a ‘pseudoscience,’ so I walked over to the library and began to read through the material there, which included correspondence, rough drafts, fan mail, hate mail and much more. The archive contains roughly 20 meters of material, and is the richest personal archive I have ever had a chance to work with. At first, I had thought of writing an article, but it quickly grew into a book. My approach followed the path that had brought me there: I read through the archive, and the more I read, the more the book’s structure took form.”

I asked Gordin to explain the connection between the Velikovsky affair and the spirit of the time in America, after World War II and at the start of the Cold War. “Velikovsky’s book appeared at a time when American scientists were experiencing a great deal of anxiety,” Gordin notes. “Due to the tremendous successes of science in World War II – especially surrounding the development of the atomic bomb and radar – science had never been more visible in the American context. Along with visibility came state support, and along with state support came unprecedented political scrutiny. This was an age of enormous enthusiasm and prestige for science, but also anticommunist persecution of scientists for their political views, concerns about the expanding scale of science, and worries about the fate of humanity in a nuclear age.

“Given the way Velikovsky could be interpreted (and was in fact interpreted in 1950) as providing a religiously sympathetic science for the postwar age, scientists mobilized and attacked Velikovsky in a way that was disproportionate to their usual reaction to such ‘fringe’ doctrines.”

In the second stage, Gordin observes, “the hostility to science expressed by members of the student movement and counterculture at American universities both made scientists newly nervous and also elevated Velikovsky’s ideas in the minds of youth, who saw this man as proposing an alternative science to that of the ‘establishment.’ Thus, a transformation in the prestige of science in Cold War America produced another flare-up in the Velikovsky affair, as scientists (such as Carl Sagan) mobilized to debunk his theories.”

Why is it relevant to return to the Velikovsky affair more than six decades later?

Gordin: “Velikovsky’s theories of cosmic catastrophism received a great deal of attention and popularity in the 1960s and ’70s, as well as the burst of excitement about them when ‘Worlds in Collision’ was published in 1950. Since Velikovsky’s death in 1979, the enthusiasm propelling the support for his theories has waned, and very few individuals today are explicit advocates for his views. (Many of his former supporters have moved on to articulate their own alternative theories of the solar system; others have become severe critics of Velikovsky’s ideas.)”

Nonetheless, Gordin continues, “I believe the controversies over Velikovsky are very relevant to the 
present day. As I argue in the book, many of the features of ‘fringe’ doctrines today – the totalizing worldview, the allegations that mainstream science is covering up evidence, and so on – have their origins in the debates over Velikovsky’s ideas. The same is true for the mechanisms by which mainstream science exorcises or expels individuals who they see as ‘pseudoscientific.’”

Gordin says one of the goals of his book is “to raise once again the issue of demarcating science from nonscience as a historical as well as a philosophical topic of discussion. This used to be a very prominent topic in the history and philosophy of science, but it has faded over the last few decades.” When it comes to “demarcating established science from so-called pseudoscience, we are, in a sense, still living with some of the structures that were established in the controversies over ‘Worlds in Collision.’ I argue in the conclusion that today’s debates over the status-scientific consensus in many areas continues to be shaped by the way the debate over Velikovsky was conducted, even if they are not informed by the content of his theories.”

What is your own opinion of Velikovsky’s theories?

“I am a historian, not a physicist, astronomer or any other kind of natural scientist, and I make a point in the book not to evaluate any of the various theories – either those of Velikovsky or the many other doctrines discussed – in terms of whether they are correct or incorrect. What I can say is that the consensus of mainstream science today overwhelmingly rejects Velikovsky’s scenario, and this rejection was also true back in 1950. What I do in the book is chronicle the course of the debates over Velikovsky across the decades. I include, of course, many references to books that either debunk or refute Velikovsky’s theories – and also to works that support or defend him. I encourage people who are interested in the astronomical specifics to turn to those studies.”

In any event, Gordin does not believe there was justification to label Velikovsky’s work “pseudoscientific.” “I find the term ‘pseudoscience’ very problematic,” he explains. “After all, no one ever calls the topics they are interested in ‘pseudoscientific’; it is only a term applied by opponents to abuse a particular doctrine … Certainly all these terms – as well as ‘charlatan’ – were applied to him during his lifetime. I wished to chronicle the history, not to demonize (or praise) Velikovsky. I would object, however, to the term ‘charlatan’ – which, to my mind, implies knowing insincerity and a desire to defraud people. Reading through Velikovsky’s private papers has convinced me that he was utterly sincere in proposing his theories. He did not cynically publish his books in a hope to fool people or make money; he truly believed in the validity of his scenario.”

‘New horizons’

Velikovsky’s daughter, Shulamit – still active and vigorous at the age of 88 – has not lost hope that she will live to see her father’s work vindicated and he himself praised as a legitimate, important scientist.

Kogan, whose home functions as a library and archive of her father’s works – the section of the archive inherited by her late sister is at Princeton – lives and breathes her father’s projects. “His assistant related that my father told him in the early 1970s that he had 50 manuscripts he wanted to publish. But the last book was published in 1978, a year before his death,” Kogan says.

A letter Velikovsky wrote in the early 1960s, to a friend from Kibbutz Ein Harod, reflects his tremendous creative productivity. “A great deal of work still lies ahead of me,” Velikovsky wrote. “Imagine that stalks in the field grew fivefold and are waiting to be collected, that the cows multiplied and ten times as many need to be milked, that the vines are laden with very heavy clusters waiting to be picked, and that evening is approaching. That is my situation. I have completed only some of my researches in the form of books, and many more that number are awaiting their turn.”

Velikovsky did not achieve fame for his work, his daughter says today. Although he was invited to lecture in universities in the United States and Canada in the 1960s, and was awarded a few honorary doctorates, “He did not obtain true esteem,” Shulamit says.

“He continued to work and to defend his hypothesis,” she continues. “He thought he had fulfilled himself by the very fact that he had gained a certain recognition. A conference about his studies was held in Switzerland in 1971 and another in Canada in 1974.”

His wife, Elisheva, said after his death that he had been subject to mood swings. “He was like a hunter in the chase. Tension and pressure were reflected throughout his life. There were times when he fell into depression, as a result of difficulties that stood in his way, and this is hardly surprising … He possessed a distinctive character: proud and humble, brave, not despairing, even when all the odds were against him and the personal attacks that were leveled at him would have vanquished almost every person.”

Velikovsky himself struck an optimistic note in an introduction he wrote late in his life to a Hebrew edition of “Worlds in Collision”:

“Today, in 1974, my hypotheses are no longer heretical and many of them can be found in textbooks, even if recognition is not granted properly,” Velikovsky wrote. “My work has not ended, I am only opening new horizons.”

In April 1979, seven months before his death, Velikovsky was invited to lecture at Princeton again, and he pursued his research until his final day. “He died during the night,” his daughter relates. “He was speaking with my mother and his voice grew fainter, and he ebbed and died. My father was convinced that he was right and that one day, many years after his death, his hypotheses would be acknowledged. He told me, ‘My greatest achievement will not be realized in my lifetime or in yours.’”

Untenable scenario

The astronomer Prof. Tsevi Mazeh, from the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Tel Aviv University, was a member of the team that discovered the first planet outside the solar system, in 1989. He insisted on perusing a few of Velikovsky’s books again before offering an opinion about him.

“It’s a pity he didn’t study astrophysics, because then he could have been ‘inside’ and done meaningful things as a thinking person who was very creative and not be shackled to the conventional rules,” Mazeh says. “Velikovsky took some biblical descriptions literally, and asserted that they were genuine astronomical events. He argued that the planet Venus detached from Jupiter, passed near Earth and generated the astronomical phenomena that are described in the Bible. Carbohydrates fell from its tail, and they were the manna that nourished the Israelites in the desert. He claimed that when Venus passed by Earth, which ceased to rotate, the result was high tides, allowing the Israelites to cross the Red Sea.

“All this was accompanied by supposed physical arguments, but various energy-related considerations show that it is not possible, from the astrophysical point of view, for the planet Earth to stop rotating on its axis and then resume its rotation. Velikovksy has no real astrophysical scenario to explain how that could have happened.

“If, as he maintains, Venus passed by and stopped Earth’s rotation, he has to say at what distance it passed, which direction it came from and at what speed, and how it was able to bring Earth’s rotation to a halt. According to Velikovsky, Venus had to enter an eccentric orbit, extremely elongated, whereas Venus’ orbit is very circular. That can’t happen within thousands of years; it would take billions of years. He was obliged to present astrophysical details so that others could discuss his work or confront him, but he did not present them.”

Mazeh adds that Velikovsky was among the first to think about magnetic fields, when he stated that Jupiter has a magnetic field. “It’s been known since the time of the Greeks that our planet is a huge magnetic field, a fact with various implications. There are astronomical phenomena which we see today, in which particles that approach Earth are influenced by Earth’s magnetic field and therefore fall in all kinds of places. Velikovsky said that Jupiter must also have a strong magnetic field, and he turned out to be right.

“He talked about the warming of Venus, and that turned out to be correct, too – that the side of Venus that does not face the sun, the dark side, is also hot,” Mazeh adds. “But he put forward all these ideas, which turned out to be correct, in order to justify the scenario he devised, according to which comets fell during the Exodus from Egypt and when Joshua conquered the land, and the planet ceased its rotation. That cannot be, and that was what he argued about with Einstein.

“In ‘Before the Day Breaks,’ he writes that Einstein told him that his ideas about the magnetic fields were fine and possible, but that he should drop the story about Venus and the rotation of Earth.”

Points of disagreement

In an unpublished book from 1976 titled “Before the Day Breaks” (available online at the Velikovsky Archive), Velikovsky documents his relations with Albert Einstein and describes himself as “a heretic ostracized by the entire scientific community.” He says Einstein respected him, on the one hand criticizing his ideas but at the same time being ready to argue about them.

The two first came into contact in 1921, when Einstein assumed the editorship of the volume “Mathematics and Physics” in a series published by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Velikovsky, who was 27 at the time, met with the 43-year-old physicist in the latter’s Berlin flat.

In 1946, he tried to renew the relationship in the United States. Einstein advised him to “rework” his still unpublished “Worlds in Collision” in a way that would “make it acceptable to physicists.” Velikovsky did not take this advice, but within a few years realized that Einstein had been right. “Most astronomers declined even to deliberate my evidence,” he wrote.

As the story is told in “Before the Day Breaks,” in the summer of 1952 – about two months after Velikovsky and Elisheva had taken up residence in Princeton – they happened to be on the shore of Carnegie Lake, near their new home, when they saw a small sailboat approaching. The person who alighted from the craft turned out to be Einstein. Velikovsky went over and introduced himself.

“Ah, you are the man who brought the planets into disorder,” he quotes Einstein as saying in German. “But what do you know of astronomy?” Einstein added, before getting into a car and leaving.

The ties between them were renewed in the last 18 months of Einstein’s life (November 1953 until April 1955). Einstein read some of Velikovsky’s manuscripts and made notes in the margins. The Velikovskys were invited to Einstein’s home. “We started at opposite points,” Velikovsky wrote in reference to Einstein in “Earth in Upheaval,” his third book, “and though at his death (our last meeting was nine days before his passing) there remained clearly defined points of disagreement, his stand then demonstrated the evolution of his opinion in the space of 18 months.”

Princeton’s Prof. Michael Gordin notes that we do not possess sufficient information to deduce Einstein’s true opinion of Velikovsky, “since our sources for what he thought are almost all through hearsay.

“The only direct comments we have,” he adds, “are some letters from Einstein, which are consistently critical of the Venus scenario, and his reported comments on the phone to his friend Hanna Fantová, who recorded Einstein speaking fondly of Velikovsky as a person, but considering his theories ‘crazy.’”

 ‘A sad case’

Joseph Agassi, philosopher and professor emeritus from Tel Aviv University, was one of the members of the international Philosophy of Science Association who proposed that a session of its annual meeting should be devoted to Immanuel Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision” so as to give him and his supporters the opportunity to present his ideas there.

“This was in the 1970s, if I’m not mistaken,” Agassi recalls. “Velikovsky was handsome and tall and affable, as well as being extraordinarily intelligent. He impressed the audience. Lecturers told me they thought he didn’t have an inkling of what he was talking about, but they were totally hooked on him. He was a fantastic storyteller – they viewed him as a guru. He had exceptional luck with ‘Worlds in Collision.’”

Agassi likens that book to another best seller, “Chariots of the Gods? Was God an Astronaut?” penned in 1968 by Erich Von Daniken. “Velikovsky didn’t have theories,” Agassi observes. “He put forward assumptions, a few of which were correct, but there is no fact that supports his theory. The scientists attacked him, and the one to blame was [Harlow] Shapley, the astronomer, a particularly dumb person, who threatened [the publishing house] Macmillan.

“The boycott of Velikovsky was severe and superfluous. The whole thing was a tempest in a teapot, and if the tempest continues to be of interest today, it is only because of his distinctive personality.”

Agassi does think Velikovsky was a charlatan. “To be a charlatan you have to be someone, and Velikovsky had an impressive personality. He is a sad case, because he was a promising person but got nowhere.”

Immanuel Velikovsky and his wife Elisheva in the 1980s. Photo reproduction: Nir Kafri
Immanuel Velikovsky in the 1950s. Photo reproduction: Nir Kafri
Velikovsky lecturing in the 1970s. Photo reproduction: Nir Kafri
Shulamit Velikovsky Kogan. Nir Kafri
Albert Einstein. AP

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