The current crisis in the Labour Party concerning anti-Semitism has much to do (but not exclusively) to do polarising positions of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the related issue as to what extent antizionism is a variant of; an intrinsic part of or completely distinct from anti-Semitism. Much of the ballast behind the demonization of Zionism particularly its most explosive constituents, that there is an affinity between Zionism and Nazism and that there was a history of strategic collaboration between both was provided by the propaganda of former Soviet Union and its satellite states in the Cold War era. I now provide a brief history of the Soviet anti-Zionist campaign and how it relates to the anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic controversies of today as they impact on the crisis on the Left, particularly in the British Labour Party, on anti-Semitism.
In 1985, the KGB-supervised Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public, known by its Russian acronym as AKSO, issued a brochure, Criminal Alliance of Zionism and Nazism. The brochure was translated into English and distributed abroad by Novosti Press Agency, a news service and an important weapon of Soviet foreign propaganda (Tabarovsky: 2019).
This brochure portrayed a harrowing vista of Zionism. Senior members of the AKSO, most of whom were prominent Soviet Jews (a deliberate choice by the KGB in order to stymie accusations of anti-Semitism), claimed that they had cast iron proof of Zionist collaboration with the Nazis. They described Zionists of facilitators of Nazi expansionism, accused them of falsely inflating the import of anti-Semitism and Jewish victimhood in the Second World War and claimed that the Haavara 1930s transfer agreement that enabled the emigration of 60,000 German Jews to Palestine had made it "easier" for the Nazis to unleash World War II. They alleged that Zionists had colluded in the genocide of “Slavs, Jews and some other peoples of Europe”. They rejected in advance any attempts by the “Zionist press” to describe the committee’s claims as anti-Semitic and disassociated Zionists from Jews (Tabarovsky: p.1).
The cynical distortion of history that this scurrilous publication promoted was an integral part of a massive Soviet anti-Zionist campaign that assumed a particular momentum in 1967 - the year of the Six Day War. This campaign used the significant Soviet broadcasting and publishing capacity abroad as well as front organisations and allied communist and other far left organisations in the West and Third World countries to disseminate its messages to foreign audiences. In the course of the campaign hundreds of antizionist and anti-Israel books and thousands of articles were published in the USSR and were translated into numerous foreign languages in addition to the demonization of Zionism in many films, lectures, broadcasts and cartoons; many of the anti-Semitic tropes used were borrowed secretly from Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion despite Soviet protestations of antifascism and many of the authors were directly linked to Communist Party leaders and the KGB (Tabarovsky: p.2).
Since Soviet generated anti-Zionism was a significant factor in the morphing of perceptions of Zionism of many on the Left from an emancipatory movement for the Jewish people to one associated with racism, colonialism, militarism, Nazism and apartheid and contributed to the infamous 1975 UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 which held Zionism to be a form of racism and since its memes figure prominently in the anti-Semitic discourse of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, it is important to examine the origins of the far-left’s anti-Zionist discourse, especially its intersection points with anti-Semitism.
The idea of Zionism as a hostile ideology developed in the early 1950s in the post-World War II USSR as Israel’s alignment with the ‘imperialist camp’ rather than the Soviet Union became clear. Allegations of Zionist conspiracy was to be a salient feature of Stalinist purge trials. The Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia in 1952 in particular featured the idea of ‘international Zionism’ as a worldwide conspiracy aiming to destroy socialism. (Tabarovsky: p.2) The spectre of the ‘Cosmopolitan Jew’ also loomed large in the ‘Jewish doctors’ trial just before Stalin’s death.
A key moment in the early stage of the Soviet anti-Zionist campaign was the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 which with its exclusive focus on the extermination of European Jewry in the Shoah/Holocaust challenged Soviet concepts of Slavic victimhood in World War II. The Soviet response was to attack Israel’s diplomatic relationship with West Germany which the Soviets depicted as a ‘fascist’ heir to Nazi Germany. Drawing upon the enormous sacrifices of the Soviet people during World War II for whom fascism and Nazism were the greatest evils imaginable, the Soviet propagandist sought to portray Zionism as an ‘obvious’ and natural bedfellow with the evils of Nazism and fascism and to evoke a visceral reaction based not on facts but pure emotion. In the 1960s also, Soviet propagandists also began to develop the idea that Zionism was an outgrowth of Judaism which it saw, with its concept of Jews as a chosen people, as an inherently racist religion and linked to American imperialism and Israeli colonialism (Tabarovsky: p.3)
Acceleration Point: The Six Day War and Soviet Antizionist Campaign
The defeat of the USSR’s Arab allies in the Arab-Israel “Six Day War” was pivotal in Soviet anti-Zionist campaigning, The ideological triumph of the ‘anti-imperialist’ camp and the awakening of national feeling among Soviet Jews generated by Israel’s victory represented for Soviet ideologues the revival of the old international Zionist enemy and its Jewish fifth column in the Soviet fatherland. This Zionist triumph therefore necessitated a new propaganda tool for domestic and foreign consumption.
Now writers such as the KGB operative Yuri Ivanov and Trofim Kichko drew on age-old tropes of Jewish conspiracy and influence to present in an article titled ‘What is Zionism’ to present Zionism as a centrally-controlled international system whose tentacles reached into all aspects of global politics, finance and the media, had infinite resources and sought to establish monopolistic domination over the entire world. Kichko in in his 1968 book Zionism and Judaism attributed the ‘crimes’ of Israeli ‘aggressors’ to Judaism posing the question ‘Weren’t the actions of the Israeli extremists during their latest aggression against the Arab countries in keeping with the Torah?’
The animus against Judaism reflected the Soviet struggles against religion with Judaism persecuted with particular harshness through the prohibition of the study of Hebrew and of the training of the next generation of clergy in the 1970s and 1980s. Such religious persecution rendered Soviet claims that it was not anti-Semitic but merely anti-Zionist untrue.
More of the same staple was to follow. One of the USSR’s foundational anti-Zionist texts was Ivanov’s 1969 book Caution Zionism! It described Zionists as representative of colonialist powers, hostile to the working people of Palestine; portrayed Judaism as the world’s most inhumane religion which through its ‘chosen people’ idea of Jews spawned the world’s most brutal nationalism. Reflecting early Bolshevik assimilationist beliefs on the Jewish question, Ivanov sought to discredit the idea of a single Jewish nation as a ‘false and reactionary’ Zionist invention which promoted a ghetto mentality amongst Jews and therefore provoked anti-Semitism (Tabarovsky: pp3-4).
The Nazi-Zionist Analogy
In the eyes of many, the drawing of analogies or comparisons between the ideologies of Nazism and Zionism and between the actions and policies of the State of Israel and Nazi Germany are the most preposterous and gratuitously offensive features of anti-Zionist discourse. 1983 saw the publication of two books of this genre which attracted international publicity thanks to the campaign by US Jewish organisations to facilitate the emigration of Soviet Jews. Both were authored by Lev Korneev; a notorious anti-Semite with a doctoral degree. On the Course of Aggression and Fascism detailed Zionism’s alleged ‘criminal alliance with the Fascists’ and blamed the Zionists for the extermination of non-Zionist Jews during the Shoah/Holocaust. The Class Essence of Zionism declared Jews a ‘fifth column in any country.’ (Tabarovsky: p.4)
Each book publication spawned an infinity of reviews and ‘analytical pieces’ aimed at different audiences, including the military, party apparatchiks, trade unions and youth. In what could be a comment on the current convulsions in the Labour Party, the Washington Post ‘s report on this output in 1979 observed: ‘Soviet bureaucrats vehemently reject suggestions that “anti-Zionism” means “anti-Semitism.” But to many Soviet Jews, it is distinction without a difference. ‘(Tabarovsky: p.4)
In addition, the Soviets produced several documentaries in support of this campaign including one, The Concealed and the Apparent: Goals and Actions of the Zionists, deemed to be so inflammatory in its manipulation of historical footage and deeply anti-Semitic imagery and Nazi-Zionist parallels that it was only shown to selected audiences. (Tabarovsky: p.4)
The early 1980s saw the creation of the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public whose remit was to produce brochures and deliver press conferences on the evils of Zionism and Israel. A 1985 TASS broadcast commenting on one of the committee’s English-language brochures announced:
Zionist leaders are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews annihilated by the Nazis. It is precisely the Zionists who assisted the Nazi butchers by helping them to make up the lists of doomed inmates of ghettoes, escorting the latter to the places of extermination and convinced them to resign to the butchers. (Tabarovsky: p.4)
The Antizionist Campaign Goes Global
The main driver behind the Soviet anti-Zionist campaign in the later years of the Cold War was the prevention of Jewish emigration from the USSR to Israel and the related Western condemnations of human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. The Soviets did appear to believe that a vast Zionist conspiracy did exist aimed at undermining the USSR and socialism itself. Indeed, by the mid-1970s the KGB felt that the Zionist threat was so dangerous that it justified setting up a special department focusing specifically on Zionism (Tabarovsky: p.4).
The Soviets fought Zionism abroad through information warfare conducted via its powerful state-owned media apparatus whose goal was to ‘spread the truth about the USSR in all the continents. Perhaps the most important constituent of the Soviet media colossus (including Radio Moscow which broadcasted more than 1,000 hours per week in over 80 languages and the multi-lingual circulation of tens of millions of copies of newspapers and magazines) as the Novosti Press Agency, the USSR’s main foreign broadcasting arm and chief distributor of foreign propaganda, which worked in over 110 countries.
The Soviets organised their foreign antizionist messaging to suit their particular foreign policy concerns for that country or audience. For example, in Africa it was about South African apartheid and Zionism. In Latin America it was about American imperialism and Zionism.
In the Middle East the head of the Anti-Zionist Committee, General David Dragunsky, cultivated close relationships with the Arab world and especially Syria with the Soviet-Syrian Friendship Treaty of 1980 specifically named Zionism a common enemy.
Arab-language anti-Zionist literature was an important part of Soviet propaganda aimed at the Middle East. It served as source material for Mahmoud Abbas’s 1982 PhD dissertation which he undertook at Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University and defended at Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies – an important institution within the Academy of Sciences which regularly spewed out ‘scholarly’ works demonising Zionism and Israel. The dissertation was published as an Arabic book in 2011 under the title The Other Side: The Secret Relationship between Nazism and Zionism. The book replicates several mainstays of Soviet antizionism including alleged Zionist collusion with the Nazis during the Shoah/Holocaust, casting doubt on the number of victims of it and the historical falsification that Adolf Eichmann was abducted by Mossad and later executed to prevent him from disclosing the “secret” of Zionist involvement in the Shoah/Holocaust. (Tabarovsky: p.6).
In July 1990, less than a year before the collapse of the USSR, an editorial in Pravda admitted the wrongs of the anti-Zionist campaign of the previous quarter century. It said that:
Considerable damage was done by a group of authors who, while pretending to fight Zionism, began to resurrect many notions of the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Black Hundred and of fascist origin.
It acknowledged that ‘Hiding under Marxist phraseology, they came out with coarse attacks on Jewish culture, on Judaism and on Jews in general’. But the damage had been done. A 1990 Soviet poll showed that a significant percentage of Soviet citizens thought that Zionism was ‘the policy of establishing the world supremacy of Jews’ and an ‘ideology used to justify Israeli aggression in the Middle East’. With the political freedoms brought about through Mikhail Gorbachev’s introduction of perestroika came the emergence of the fanatical anti-Semitic Pamyat (Memory) and Otechshestvo (Homeland) which fused Nazi and fascist ideas and Russian ethnic nationalism and led by some of the same ideologues who had waged the Soviet antizionist campaign. After the demise of the USSR, two million Jews left Russia in the following decade (Tabarovsky: p.6).
The history of the Soviet anti-Zionist campaign is a case study in how, discursively and in praxis, antizionism and antisemitism can become deeply enmeshed. In accordance with their ideological bearings they never engaged in explicit Jew hate, indignantly asserting (like many accused of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party) that they were merely antizionist. But their strategic deployment of anti-Zionism enabled antisemitism to flourish. That antisemitism can be a consequence of antizionist discourse and practice is proved by the example of Poland “Cleanse the Party of Zionists” campaign in 1968 which quickly descended into an anti-Semitic witch hunt, leading to expulsions and the forced emigration of 15,000 Jews (Tabarovsky: p.7).
The Soviet anti-Zionist campaign of 1967-1988 was one of agitprop and disinformation. It pickled together and weaponised narratives from twisted, out-of-context, alternative facts and bogus historiography. It used age-old propaganda techniques such as deception, guilt by association to drive home key messages. It shamelessly manipulated people’s memories and emotions such as those of the massive sufferings of the Soviet people during the “Great Patriotic War” and used both Soviet Jews and Muslims as propaganda pawns.
By substituting anti-Zionism for anti-Semitism, it appealed to many well-intentioned and progressive individuals (not useful idiots) in the West who would have been otherwise repelled by overt anti-Semitic overtones. Looking at the content of bitter debates over the relationship between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the Labour Party; Ken Livingstone’s view that Hitler supported Zionism in the 1930s and Jewish emigration to Palestine “before he went mad and killed six million Jews”; that Zionists collaborated in the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in 1944 to ensure that some Jews be allowed to go to Palestine; that Israel was a settler-colonial enterprise founded on the same racist ideology as Nazism and Apartheid-era South Africa; that it is an outpost of American imperialism ; that Zionists through the tentacles of Israeli embassies and advocacy/ campaign organisations and favoured spokespersons which comprise the ubiquitous Israeli Lobby control the world’s banks, media outlets and political decision-makers, one can trace a not so distant lineage to the Soviet anti-Zionist campaign (Tabarovsky: p.7).
Just as the Soviet anti-Zionist campaign had nothing really to do with justice for the Palestinians and proper peace and reconciliation with the Israelis but was about bolstering one of the twentieth century’s greatest tyrannies so their copycats in the Labour Party, many of whom have migrated from the Marxist-Leninist left, in treating Israel-Palestine as an empty vessel into which to project their own ideological and identity phantasies (as certain far right figures such as Katie Hopkins and lobbies such as Christian Dispensationalists project their pathologies onto Israel). Labour anti-Zionists may vehemently abjure any anti-Semitic prejudice or motivation but as has already been shown by those who have mined the seams of Corbynista and (purportedly) pro-Palestinian social media ecology these two “antis” have formed more than the occasional marriage of convenience. The post-Soviet careers of the manufacturers of the Soviet antizionist campaign provide a possible clue as to the ultimate political destiny of Labour’s antizionist campaign, if they have not already formed (informally at least) their red-brown alliance.
Izabella Tabarovsky, 2019, Soviet Anti-Zionism and Contemporary Left Antisemitism Fathom Journal, May.
⏩ Barry Gilheany has joined the Jewish Labour Movement as an affiliate member and encourages fellow labour movement colleagues concerned about Labour’s anti-Semitism problem to do the same.