When Vladimir Putin spreads the lie that Ukraine is run by Nazis and thus needs to be de-Nazified in a “special military operation,” he stands in a long tradition of Soviet era propaganda that hurled identical accusations at domestic dissenters and at the state of Israel. Volodymyr Zelensky reminds us that his family members fought and died in the war against Nazi Germany. In addition to the Ukrainian contribution to the war against Nazi Germany, there is a far less well-known contribution to the establishment of the state of Israel that deserves mention. As I document in my recently published work, Israel’s Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945-1949, it was made by Vasyl Tarasenko, the Ukrainian representative to the United Nations in 1948 and 1949, and subsequently the Chair of the Department of History at Taras Schevchenko National University Kyiv.
Following antisemitic political purges of 1949 to 1953, the Soviet Union did what it could to repress the history of its support for the Zionist project at the United Nations in 1947 and 1948. In fact, Moscow and its East European Communist allies were far more supportive of establishing a Jewish state in part of Palestine than was the United States State Department or the British Foreign Office. Stalin hoped the Jewish state would help to drive the British Empire out of the Middle East. Secretary of State George Marshall, and Director of the Policy Planning Staff, George Kennan worried that the Jewish state would serve as an instrument for Soviet and Communist expansion. Yet from spring 1947 to spring 1949, the emotions and passions of wartime antifascism, not only the calculations of power politics, were the statements of Soviet bloc diplomats at the United Nations.
In May 1947, Poland’s representative, Alfred Fiderkiewicz stunned a UN Committee when he recalled the horrors of the Holocaust, crimes he had witnessed in person as a survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet representative, stunned the General Assembly on May 14, 1947, when he announced that the Soviet Union would support a partition of former British Mandate Palestine into a Jewish, and an Arab state. Both evoked the spirit of wartime antifascism as they offered support for the Zionist project. Also in May, US UN Ambassador Warren Austin responded with an equivocal support for appointing a committee to bring recommendations. Intense opposition to the Zionist project from US Department of State, and the Pentagon, their suspicions of its connections to the Soviet Union and Communism, and their worries that it would be a hindrance to Western access to Arab oil became a consensus within the American national security leadership.
By spring 1948, the United States and Great Britain were attempting to replace the famous partition resolution of November 29, 1947, with a trusteeship that would preclude a Jewish state. They adopted and convinced the United Nations to support an embargo on arms to the Middle East, an embargo that hindered the war effort of the not yet sovereign Jews more than it did that of the already existing sovereign Arab states. After the Arab state invasion of May 15, 1948, the United Nations Security Council met in numerous sessions to adopt a series of cease-fire resolutions and territorial plans. The pattern of support and opposition established clearly by fall 1947 persisted. The Soviet Union and Soviet bloc states supported the positions of Israeli representatives, Abba Eban, and Moshe Shertok, while the United States and Great Britain did not.
That summer, Tarasenko, representing the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) occupied the country’s rotating seat on the UN Security Council. Four days after the Arab invasion, the United States introduced a resolution calling on “all Governments and authorities to cease and desist from any hostile military action.” The American language of equivalence obscured the reality of Arab aggression. Tarasenko said the new state was “determined to defend its territory” and thus rejected the equivalence implicit in the US draft resolution. On May 28, 1948, Britain’s UN Ambassador Alexander Cadogan proposed a four-week cease-fire during which “both parties” would “not introduce fighting personnel or men of military age into Palestine” and “both parties and all Governments” should “refrain from importing war material into Palestine” during the truce.
Vasyl Tarasenko replied in part that the British draft resolution
was designed to stifle the state of Israel. At the end of the four-week period, the Jews would find their resources depleted while the Arabs would be prepared for a renewed onslaught. The invaders would be permitted to retain their forces in Palestine and use it as a base for larger operations. All the large arsenals of the United Kingdom would be at the disposal of the Arabs, and a virtual blockade would be established around Israel. Jewish emigration was an internal matter for Israel. The provision for enforcement action by the Security Council against any party which rejected the resolution was clearly designed to obtain sanctions against the Jews. The whole draft resolution was biased an unacceptable.”
Tarasenko argued that the resolution’s apparent language of neutrality avoided the realities of Arab aggression and disadvantaged the Jews. Several weeks later, the Security Council debated the merits of a plan offered by UN Mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte. What was known as the Bernadotte Plan would have transferred the Negev desert allocated to Israel in the 1947 Partition Plan to Transjordan. Again, the Soviet bloc supported the Israelis in opposing a plan that had support from Britain and the United States. On July 15, Tarasenko denounced Bernadotte’s “actions and suggestions” as “responsible to a large extent for the renewal of hostilities.”
Tarasenko, along with Gromyko and Fiderkiewicz were among the Soviet bloc diplomats at the UN who supported first the Jewish Agency and then the new state of Israel as it fought its war of independence against the Palestine Arabs, then led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, famous at the time for his collaboration with Nazi Germany. The brief but very consequential period of Soviet bloc support for the Zionist project became an embarrassment for Soviet leaders as they changed course and adopted a four-decade long policy of antagonism to Israel, one that included accusing the Jews and the Israelis of being and acting like Nazis. As Russian artillery takes aim at Ukraine’s universities, including the one where Tarasenko was a professor of history, it is important to recall the spirit of Ukrainian anti-fascism that connect the spirit of Vasyl Tarasenko to that of Volodymyr Zelensky today.
Jeffrey Herf’s Israel’s Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945-1949 has just been published by Cambridge University Press. He is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park.