On March 27, Kennan Institute scholar Izabella Tabarovsky led a discussion at the University of Miami concerning the Soviet roots of modern anti-Zionism sponsored by CAMERA on Campus, Canes for Israel, and UM Hillel. As Tabarovsky writes in an essay for Fathom, the Soviets’ overtly antisemitic campaign “succeeded at emptying Zionism of its meaning as a national liberation movement of the Jewish people and associating it instead with racism, fascism, Nazism, genocide, imperialism, colonialism, militarism and apartheid”. Not surprisingly, students on college and university campuses across the country often hear similar, if not identical claims from anti-Zionist groups like Students for Justice in Palestinian (SJP), Solidary for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).
The Soviet propaganda campaign consisted of many elements and used many mediums to achieve its goals. In 1951, Rudolf Slansky, a leading Czech communist, was imprisoned and confessed to a Zionist conspiracy under extreme torture, for which he received the death penalty. In 1952, on the Night of the Murdered Poets, Stalin executed thirteen Jewish intellectuals who had supported the USSR, yet which Stalin believed to be guilty of placing their true loyalties with Israel and the “imperialist camp,” among other things.
On campuses today, this twisted conspiracy manifests itself through the incessant targeting of Jewish students for their support of the State of Israel. In 2019, the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at Emory posted eviction notices on Jewish students’ doors; the notices included statistics about Palestinian homes which had been demolished by Israel, and the group was given permission by the campus residence department to post them. As in the Soviet campaign, Jews were targeted despite claims that Israel was a separate matter. In February of this year, SJP at the University of Chicago attacked the notion of Jewish national identity, claiming that it was invented by the Zionist movement. Dovid Efune, Editor-in-Chief at The Algemeiner Journal, reports that “the biggest predictor [of anti-Semitic incidents] is the [on-campus] presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine group.”
Another tactic used by Soviet propaganda was to cast doubt on the Jewish tragedy of the Holocaust. In 1961, the Soviets would openly question the validity of the Eichmann trial and claim that Israel was following in Fascist Germany’s footsteps. Eichmann, a top orchestrator of the Final Solution was captured in 1960 by Israeli special forces in Argentina and was subsequently tried, convicted, and executed in Israel. As the trial neared, the Soviet press began attacking Eichmann’s defense counsel, naming Israel a traitor to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust by working with “Hitler’s heirs” in West Germany, and even alleging that Israel and West Germany were conspiring to prevent other Nazis from being brought to justice!
Today, anti-Zionist groups keep the legacy of Soviet antisemitism alive, routinely making Zionist-Nazi comparisons. Ironically enough, Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda itself drew extensively from Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda; many prominent contributors of propagandistic material, such as Trofim Kichko, Yuri Ivanov, Lev Korneev, and others unabashedly recycled ideas directly from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf. Among the ideas they propounded was the rejection of the establishment of a Jewish nation.
Instead, they equated Zionism with contemporary evil and presented Judaism as the most racist, backward religion the world has ever known, and mischaracterized Jews as the world’s “traitors”.
A poignant example of this is the comparison between the Nuremberg Laws and Israel’s Nation-State Law. The Nation-State Law does not infringe on the rights of, nor grant any privileges to, any Israeli citizen, be they Jew, Arab, or otherwise. The Soviets even blamed the Jews for the extermination of both Jews and non-Jews in the course of World War II.
Similarly, it is a known phenomenon for lecturers and faculty at universities to compare Israel’s military to the Nazis. Shahd Abusalama, a professor at Sheffield University in the United Kingdom found it acceptable for a first-year student to compare Israel’s engagement in Gaza with the “Holocaust”. CAMERA Fellow Noam Fruchter addressed this false and problematic comparison in an article featured in The Algemeiner.
One of the Soviet propaganda machine’s greatest victories was the United Nations’ 1975 adoption of the “Zionism is Racism” resolution. Its revocation in 1991 had little effect in terms of the UN’s stance on Israel ever since. To date, Israel is the most condemned country in the world by the UN; statistics from 2020 are particularly illustrative: Israel received seventeen resolutions, while all other countries combined, including regimes like Iran and North Korea, received six. On-campus, Israel is frequently indicted on the grounds of the same claim. At a Cornell SJP poetry reading, one participant designated Israel as a “‘racist, exclusivist, supremacist state.” Read
Throughout their entire anti-Zionist campaign, the official Soviet line was that anti-Zionism did not equate to antisemitism. “Although the number of anti-Semitic books and denunciations has grown continuously here since the Six-Day War in 1967, recent months have brought remarkable new additions to this genre. Officially, they are labeled ‘anti-Zionist.’ Soviet bureaucrats vehemently reject suggestions that ‘anti-Zionism’ means ‘anti-Semitism.’
To many Soviet Jews, it is a distinction without a difference,” reads an article from the Washington Post (1979). Heirs to this theory abound, including Students for Justice in Palestine who actively spread such conspiracies today.
Many instances of anti-Israel groups’ attempts to block universities’ and municipalities’ adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism – which defines specific types of anti-Israel claims as antisemitic – can be found. At CUNY, Nerdeen Kiswani, former president of CUNY’s SJP chapter, tweeted, “#IHRAoutofCUNY we know all too well that this purposeful conflation of antisemitism with antizionism is used against Palestinians and organizers for Palestine. We must protect our right to organize and speak out against oppression.”
There is no doubt that today’s left-wing anti-Zionism and antisemitism can be traced to massive Soviet propaganda campaigns against the West. Student groups, university policy, media coverage, and international relations have employed damaging rhetoric and one-sided views, along with conspiracies and gross misdefinitions, in their activities involving Israel. Knowing the origins of these actions and opinions is the first, and perhaps most important, step in creating a more balanced and honest dialogue.
The Soviets tailored their anti-Zionist messages to each audience they reached and were not confined to the physical borders of the Soviet Union. Anywhere that Communist cells were active, on any radio broadcast controlled by Moscow, in any printing-house receiving instructions from the Kremlin, the demonization of Zionism featured prominently and was always related to current events to keep the embers of the world’s oldest hatred aglow.
A slightly edited version of this article was originally featured in a JNS.org column.