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Albert Einstein's Last Speech, 1955
Published on 14/04/2013 


Nobel-prizewinning scientist Albert Einstein was an early supporter of Zionism, but his pacifist and unorthodox views sometimes led him into clashes with the movement. In 1952 he refused the offer to become Israel's second president. However a fascinating exchange between the Israeli consul in New York and the famous scientist, shortly before his death, shows that Einstein was eager to make a TV speech on behalf of Israel in April 1955.

"Dear Professor Einstein:- I am taking the liberty of writing to you with a rather unusual request." wrote Reuven Dafni, the consul who was helping to organize the celebrations for Israel's seventh independence day, in a letter found in the files of the Foreign Ministry held in the Israel State Archives. The ABC TV company had agreed to show a short film on the development of atomic energy for peaceful uses in Israel – if Professor Einstein would be filmed speaking about it in his home in Princeton. Dafni added that in view of the criticism of Israel after a retaliation raid against the Egyptians in Gaza in February 1955, it was even more important to present Israel's achievements in a positive light.

For some years Einstein had been refusing to do any interviews. He devoted himself to the search for a unified equation (field theory) which would explain all the forces of nature. Dafni was surprised and touched by his reply which arrived a few days later. "I should very much like to assist our Israel cause under the prevailing difficult and dangerous circumstances", he wrote. However Einstein added that he did not believe that the public would be impressed by a talk on Israel's cultural achievements, when the Arab-Israeli dispute was so much more prominent. Einstein proposed that he should speak about the political situation, even suggesting that he might criticize the Western nations' (he later corrected this to world powers) attitude towards the Middle East. He realized that he would have to co-ordinate his speech with "responsible Israelis".

Einstein's house in Princeton, New Jersey (Wikipedia)

Dafni replied that he had been deeply moved by Einstein's letter and had passed it on to Ambassador Abba Eban. Due to the Passover holiday the meeting was postponed and on April 11 Eban and Dafni met Einstein at his home to discuss the speech, a meeting later described in Dafni's report to Walter Eytan, the director-general of the Foreign Ministry. "I was enormously impressed with his personality, his charm and his warmth towards everything connected with Israel and the Jews."
Einstein had already prepared some notes in German (shown below courtesy of the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University), and Eban made suggestions. Two days later Dafni returned with an outline for the speech prepared by Eban, most of which Einstein accepted. Dafni also mentioned that he had been told by Einstein's housekeeper, Helen Dukas, about an article by the journalist Dorothy Schiff, publisher of the "New York Post", claiming that he was disappointed in Israel. Einstein told him with great indignation how Schiff had misinterpreted his remarks.

A draft was made and Einstein suggested that Eban should complete the speech but Dafni felt it would have more impact in his own words. Meanwhile all three networks had agreed to carry the speech simultaneously coast to coast, for the first time ever, on April 26.  Dafni told him that 60 or 80 million people would be watching. Einstein commented in German with a twinkle in his eye: "In the end, I will even be famous."

Shortly after Dafni had left Einstein was taken ill and moved to hospital. He was expected to make a full recovery and plans for the speech continued. But on April 18 he died suddenly at the age of 76. The pages on which he was making his final notes, together with equations for the field theory, disappeared, apparently taken by souvenir hunters. Only the original page in German was left, and the Israeli diplomats decided not to use it since it did not fully represent his views. A great opportunity for Israel was lost, even though the story was prominently reported – in the "New York Times."

Newspaper report on Einstein's death (Wikipedia)

Two months later Dafni sent the report to Eytan,with a covering letter adding that the media frenzy surrounding Einstein's death and the fact that quite by chance he had been one of the last people to see him had overwhelmed him. "The imprint which the Professor made on me in the few hours I was privileged to spend with him was of such impact that even now, while writing this letter to you, I somehow feel as an intruder upon his privacy. In all my life I never met a person of such genuine humility and modesty".

The notes in German for Einstein's speech (courtesy of the Albert Einstein Archives, all rights reserved to the Hebrew University)

Historical editing
: Amir Kogan
English translation and editing: Louise Fischer
Internet content editing: Oranit Levi and Nurit Madar

A Special Joint Publication by the Israel State Archives and the Center for Educational Technology (CET)