On December 4 , 1948, the New York Times published a letter by a group of Jewish dignitaries, including Albert Einstein and political theorist Hannah Arendt, protesting a visit to the United States by Menachem Begin and denouncing his Herut (Freedom) party on the grounds that it was, as they wrote, “a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.”
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Begin’s visit, they argued, was “obviously calculated to give the impression of American support for his party” ahead of general elections in the newly-formed State of Israel, which had come into being as the British Mandate formally ended at midnight, May 14, 1948.
Herut had been formed out of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, one of the Jewish resistance organizations fighting the British prior to independence. But Herut, the letter to the Times claimed, was “a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.”
“It is inconceivable that those who oppose fascism throughout the world, if correctly informed as to Mr. Begin’s political record and perspectives, could add their names and support to the movement he represents,” the letter read. Never mind the party’s rhetoric following Israel’s independence: their past actions spoke volumes, they wrote.
The signatories on the letter were Isidore Abramowitz, Hannah Arendt, Abraham Brick, Rabbi Jessurun Cardozo, Albert Einstein, Herman Eisen, M.D., Hayim Fineman, M. Gallen, M.D., H.H. Harris, Zelig S. Harris, Sidney Hook, Fred Karush, Bruria Kaufman, Irma L. Lindheim, Nachman Maisel, Symour Melman, Myer D. Mendelson, M.D., Harry M. Orlinsky, Samuel Pitlick, Fritz Rohrlich, Louis P. Rocker, Ruth Sager, Itzhak Sankowsky, I.J. Schoenberg, Samuel Shuman, M. Znger, Irma Wolpe and Stefan Wolpe.
Einstein had not supported Israel’s establishment, arguing 10 years earlier in an address at New York’s Commodore Hotel that the formation of a state with borders and an army ran counter to “the essential nature of Judaism.” In 1946 he would tell the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on the Palestinian issue, “I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with narrow-minded and economic obstacles. I believe it is bad.”
A German by birth and a socialist, Einstein had been a professor at the Berlin Academy of Sciences and was on a visit to the U.S. in 1933 when Nazi Germany arose. He stayed in America and received citizenship in 1940. For all his opposition to Israel’s establishment as a state, he was Zionist, and was among the founders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1925, when Palestine was under British Mandate rule.
Jewish defense against escalating Palestinian Arab violence in Palestine was, in the last years of the Mandate, handled by the Haganah. Its perceived restraint led to the formation of the paramilitary Irgun and Lehi organizations, which, the letter accused, employed “gangster methods” and “inaugurated a reign of terror in the Palestine Jewish community.”
The massacre at the Arab village of Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948 was particularly described. “This village, off the main roads and surrounded by Jewish lands, had taken no part in the war, and had even fought off Arab bands who wanted to use the village as their base,” they wrote in the letter. Yet 240 uninvolved people were killed, and though the Jewish community condemned the slaughter, “the terrorists, far from being ashamed of their act, were proud of this massacre, publicized it widely The Deir Yassin incident exemplifies the character and actions of the Freedom Party.”
They went on to describe Herut’s fascist tenets, including “an admixture of ultranationalism, religious mysticism and racial superiority.” It was no ordinary political party, he wrote, but bore the “unmistakable stamp of a Fascist party for whom terrorism (against Jews, Arabs, and British alike), and misrepresentation are means, and a ‘Leader State’ is the goal.”
America should turn its back on Begin and not support “this latest manifestation of fascism,” the letter ended.
Ironically, in 1952, when its first president, Chaim Weizmann, died, Israel was to offer Einstein – though not an Israeli citizen – the presidency. He declined.
Ultimately the Herut party was turn into the Likud (“consolidation”), an amalgamation of several right-wing parties led by Begin, prior to the 1973 Knesset election. The Likud lost that poll but went on to become the biggest winner of the 1977 election, making Begin prime minister after three decades of dominance by the left-leaning Labor Party.
Among his many accomplishments, Begin would sign the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979 – but, despairing as Israel sank into the mire of the 1982 first Lebanon war and depressed by the death of his wife Aliza, he would ultimately resign in October 1983. He died in 1992.