On November 9, 1952, Chain Weizmann, the first president of Israel and one of the state’s co-founders along with David Ben Gurion, died. Weizmann had been in poor health when elected president in May 1948 and inaugurated on February 16, 1949, according to Knesset history. As such he was unable to actively craft policies and carry out the ceremonial state duties.
After his death, the Israel government, led by David Ben-Gurion, decided to offer the post of presidency to the 73-year-old renowned scientist Albert Einstein who resided in Princeton, New Jersey, USA. Abba Eban, then Israel ambassador to Washington and the state’s UN representative, wrote a letter to Einstein detailing Ben-Gurion's request for the scientist to accept the post of the presidency, subject to a vote by the Knesset.
The Offer Letter
The letter dated November 17, 1952, and today published in the Jewish Virtual Library, was delivered to Einstein by David Goiten who was Israel’s minister, at the embassy in Washington. In the letter, Einstein was required to move to Israel and take up citizenship. The Prime Minister also assured Einstein a facility, government support, staff, and freedom to continue his scientific research within Israel.
In the letter, Eban also stressed the high esteem Israel had for its esteemed scientist son, and the international symbolic importance of Einstein becoming Israel’s second president. The letter also stressed the ambition the Israel government had of the state rising to the level of greatness in spiritual and intellectual Jewish traditions, by tapping its best minds like Einstein. It also extolled the late president’s virtue of envisioning Israel’s destiny as great.
Declining The Offer
By the time the letter got to Einstein on the evening of November 17, 1952, the New York Times had informed him of the presidential offer from Ben Gurion. He had also received phone calls from people who wanted to find out if he would take up the offer. Though excited by the offer, he declined it cordially, when he phoned Eban at his Washington office. Eban nonetheless asked Einstein to provide a written statement declining the offer.
The following morning, Einstein wrote a letter expressing his sadness and shame for declining the offer of Israel presidency. He also cited his lack of natural skills and experience at dealing with people, and to exercise official functions. Even so, in the letter, he hoped a man suitable for the presidential role would be found.
The letter was delivered to Eban by an Israeli official who collected it from Einstein's home. After Einstein declined, Yitzhak Ben Zvi, a Zionist leader, and historian was elected the second president the Israel, in 1952 and reelected in 1957, and 1962. Ben Zvi, died in office on April 23, 1963, and became the longest serving Israel president, in history.