The Toxic Legacy of Soviet Antisemitism

SSSJ (Students Struggle for Soviet Jewry) demonstration, 1960s. co RS
A 1960s Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry protest. (Courtesy of Yeshiva University Archives, Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry Collection)

Esther Walker is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.

It is remarkable how the lingering toxicity of the Soviet Union’s antisemitic anti-Zionism continues to have echoes on contemporary behaviour towards Jews and Israel. The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 infamously describing Zionism as a form of racism, was passed by the weight of the Soviet Bloc in 1975. Yet almost fifty years after what Moynihan described as that ‘infamous act’, and long after the fall of the Soviet Union, the slogan ‘Zionism is racism’ can still be seen in capital cities around the world, and in the quads of university campuses in every major Western country.

Antisemitism is the longstanding hatred of Jews, attacking them as a people, a religion and a self-governing nation – but it is sometimes taken for granted how the antisemitic virus has mutated to its contemporary manifestation: anti-Zionism. Zionism is the nationalist ideology that Jews have the right to self-determination in the historic birthplace of the Jewish people: Israel. There is little difference between this idea or any other nationalist ideology; whether that be the movement which led to the re-founding of Greece in 1821, or the culmination of the Risorgimento in 1870. Nevertheless, unlike other nationalisms, Jewish nationalism is weaponised against Jews in order to undermine their identity, their status as equal citizens and equal members of the family of nations.

The contemporary form of antisemitism, anti-Zionism, was synthesised in the Soviet Union. The anti-Jewish campaign at its height in 1948–1953 was manipulated to strengthen Soviet State patriotism through the shared resentment of the rootless cosmopolitans, a pejorative term alleging that Soviet Jewry was a fifth column. Those interested in the subject should see the works of Yakov Rapoport and Jonathan Brent – both of whom explore the ‘‘Doctor’s Plot’’, a horrific anti-Jewish conspiracy theory alleging a plot by Jewish doctors in the USSR to murder Kremlin leaders. The Doctor’s Plot remains largely forgotten in the modern day, but historians such as Rapoport believe the antisemitic hysteria it aroused at the time was meant to be the first stage of the planned purge, deportation and even extermination of Soviet Jewry. 

It was in this horrific context that the post-war Soviet Union embraced state-sponsored antisemitism under the guise of anti-Zionism. The author Benjamin Pinkus has shown that propaganda doctrines sponsored by the Soviet regime alleged that Zionism was a form of racism, that Zionism was equated to Nazism, fascism and American imperialism. Cold War irrationalities were echoed – that Israel was a puppet of the United States and that Soviet Jews were “spies working for Israel”. Soviet Jews grew closer to Zionism in response to momentous historic upheavals including the Holocaust and Israel’s victories in the 1967 and 1973. The Soviet backlash was vicious and, furthermore, increased the credence that there was an unbreakable link between Soviet Jews and the State of Israel. Israel had defeated the Soviets’ Arab allies. The Soviets shrouded their antisemitic reactions against the Jews beneath a cloak of anti-Zionism.

This propaganda campaign against Zionism as a “world threat” intensified the antisemitic climate within the Soviet Union. The aspects of Judaism that had survived the Stalinist period were attacked, Jews were discriminated against for “looking Jewish” and faced constant scrutiny, surveillance and harassment from the KGB. The Hebrew language was deemed illegal and Hebrew teachers were accused of parasitism and were punished with exile. Jewish prayer books were considered Zionist literature because they contained the line “Next year in Jerusalem”, an ancient religious line from long before Zionism had become a movement. Jews were denied immigration to Israel and were given lengthy prison sentences for revealing their desire to make Aliyah. Natan Sharansky, the face of Soviet Jewry, spent nine years in Soviet prisons (half of which was spent in solitary confinement) for this very reason. In his book The Struggle for Soviet Jewish Emigration, Yaakov Ro’i’ has shown that, under the direction of the KGB, Zionism was constructed as a global anti-Soviet conspiracy manipulating world affairs. Notions forged from age-old tropes were borrowed from the Elders of Zion. “Zionist” was substituted for the word Jewish, and the primary threats were the “fifth column” Soviet “Zionist”, the American “Zionist” capitalist and the “Zionist” controlled media. 

Soviet antisemitism and anti-Zionist arguments were then intentionally globalised, with grave ramifications. The Soviet Union was the driving force behind the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 in November 1975, which infamously stated “Zionism is a form of racism”, which paved the way for the continued demonisation of Israel within the UN and other international bodies. The idea that Jewish national self-determination was actually a form of racism, as professed by the United Nations, was then used to stifle mainstream Jewish voices who expressed support for the State of Israel. Soviet-inspired contemporary antisemitism was then spread as a conspiracy theory throughout Soviet satellite states in Europe, South America and the Arab World. These ideas were then rebranded in the language of contemporary progressivism in order to become embraced on university campuses across the globe and became an acceptable viewpoint in Western far-left circles. Student unions on British university campuses began to close “racist” Jewish societies: 26 were banned, and others were forced to run Israel events in secret in the late 1970’s and 1980’s.

One of the toxic legacies of the Soviet Union is that antisemites today conceal themselves behind the tolerated antisemitic anti-Israel viewpoint, particularly on university campuses and in left wing circles. The success of Soviet strategy in appearing to oppose Israel as an extension of anti-imperialism when their agenda was actually antisemitic, means this approach is still legitimate on the world stage. Such a legacy once again puts Jews at the centre of the world’s evils. The Soviet Union may long be dead, but unfortunately, the heirs of Soviet antisemitism are very much alive. 

About the Author
Esther Walker is an MA student at the IDC Herzliya, where she is a Pinsker Centre Fellow; she is studying Conflict and Diplomacy. Esther is a History BA graduate of King's College London, and is a former KCL Israel Society committee board member, she has completed fellowships at CAMERA on Campus, StandWithUs and the Tikvah Fund.
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