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*Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a new series of articles from Alex Grobman, PhD  

Soviet opposition to Zionism began in November 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the signing of the Balfour Declaration in Great Britain. After World War II, the establishment of the State of Israel and the post-Six-Day War period were watershed events with severe repercussions.  

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In the 1920s, Bolshevik leaders essentially ignored the well-organized and determined Zionist organizations developing in Russian and Ukrainian Jewish communities before the revolution, and they rejected Jewish nationalism as reactionary and unscientific. [1] Intense resistance to Zionism came from the Jewish Socialist Bund, giving anti-Zionism the appearance of a clash inside the Jewish community.  

During the first decade of the Soviet regime, local Jewish communist officials from Yevesktsiia, a special section of the People’s Commissariat for Nationality affairs, were more vigorous than the Soviet government in harassing and criticizing Zionism as “nationalistic,” “counter-revolutionary,” and “clerical.”[2]  

In the post-revolutionary years, anti-Zionism was mostly free of antisemitism. In his celebrated 1919 speech against pogroms, Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, declared: “Only the most ignorant and downtrodden people can believe the lies and slander that are spread about the Jews… Shame on those who foment hatred towards the Jews, who foment hatred toward other nations.”[3] Lenin was disgusted by the persecution and torture perpetrated against Jews under the “accursed Tsarist monarchy,” which in its last days sought to “incite ignorant workers and peasants against the Jews.” [4]  

Lenin and other Bolsheviks attacked Zionism for advocating class-collaboration instead of class struggle, but this criticism was in the context of the events from 1917-1920. The Balfour Declaration worried Soviet leaders after pro-British articles appeared in the Russian Jewish press and pro-British demonstrations were held in Petrograd and Odessa, causing fear that France and Britain could use Zionism against them.  

Appeals by the Central Zionist Committee in Russia urged the Jews of Russia to oppose the Soviet regime. Russian leaders feared that immigration to Palestine might weaken their ability to recruit Jewish masses into the Red Army during the Civil War. A national separatist movement was seen as a real threat when the Soviet regime was fighting for its existence. They also felt that with the Jews and Zionists supporting nationalistic movements, other nationalities in the country might follow their example and be influenced to secede from Russia. [5]  

Blaming the Zionists 

The Bolsheviks blamed Russian Jewish sympathy for Zionism and the Balfour Declaration for the decline in their own socio-political and economic system. They feared that secular Jewish intelligentsia—doctors, pharmacists, architects, engineers, and experts in banking, commerce, foreign affairs and the secret police—who were needed to build the Soviet economy—would leave for Palestine. To preclude the further growth of the Zionist movement and keep Jews from emigrating, the Bolsheviks offered them the possibility of civil equality and an agricultural settlement in Russia.[6]   

The idea was for Russian Jews to become farmers in the harsh and barren Soviet Far East, in Birobidzhan, a Jewish autonomous region they created in 1934. The Soviets thought that Jews would practice their Jewish national culture instead of Zionism. In addition to Birobidzhan being isolated and harsh, the Jews had no historical, religious or emotional connection to the area, so the experiment failed. By the end of the 1930s, Joseph Stalin established his totalitarian regime. Those who conceived the Birobidzhan project and the leaders of Yevsektsiia were purged, exiled or imprisoned.[7]   

The Soviets were anxious about the “colonial question” in the Middle East. After the British won Palestine in 1917 and the English and French partitioned the region, Lenin felt they would carve up the globe between them. [8]  The Bolsheviks were fundamentally opposed to colonialism, and viewed the British as oppressors and the power most determined to destroy them. Zionist leaders who enthusiastically co-operated with the British government were considered imperialist tools. Acting as agent provocateurs, the Soviets sought out Palestinian Arab peasants and workers as a natural source of anti-British sentiment, and told them that part of their problem was the Zionists—even though the Soviets were not yet involved with the Middle East in any significant way.[9]   

During the 1929 riots in Palestine and the Arab revolt of 1936-1939, the Soviet press attacked Zionist imperialist oppression. Jewish nationalism had marginal importance to the Soviet leadership and criticism of it was left to the officials in Yevesktsiia. Although these functionaries were misguided in their zeal to remove Jewish religious institutions, Zionism and the Hebrew language from Jewish life, they may have been under the belief that it would improve the lives of Russian Jews. [10]  

When the Nazis invaded Soviet Union in July 1941, the Soviets reversed themselves and encouraged nationalistic and religious feelings to strengthen the people’s resolve against the Nazis, even as antisemitism increased. In April 1942, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was established to gain material support for the Russian Army in the US and Britain. Yet Stalin generally discouraged Soviet Jews from identifying with fellow Jews abroad and ridiculed the idea of world Jewry in Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda.  

Then in November 1944, Shachna Epstein, secretary of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, wrote that Jews have “a right to political independence in Israel.” This had no relevance to Russian Jews who were committed to strengthening communism. Stalin’s pro-Israel policy during 1947/1948 occurred while he was attacking Jewish nationalism, Jewish culture and the Jewish leadership inside his own borders. From 1948 to 1952, the Soviets murdered their own Jewish intelligentsia. [11]  

Footnotes 

  [1] Robert S. Wistrich, “Anti-Zionism in the U.S.S.R: From Lenin to the Soviet Black Hundreds,” in The Left Against Zion: Communism, Israel and the Middle East Robert S. Wistrich, ed. (London, England: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1979), 272-273. 

 [2] Hyman Lumer, ed. Lenin on the Jewish Question (New York: International Publishers, 1974), 22-24; Wistrich, op. cit. 273. Their goal was to secure complete control of the Jews and “make the revolution of the Jewish street,” Zvi Gitelman, “The Evolution of Soviet Anti-Zionism,” in Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism in the Contemporary World, Robert S. Wistrich ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1990), 13. 

[3] Lumer, op. cit. 135-136. 

[4] Ibid. 134-135. 

[5] Ran Marom, “The Bolsheviks and the Balfour Declaration,” in Wistrich, The Left Against Zion: Communism, Israel and the Middle East pp. 20-21, 27-28; Wistrich, op. cit. 274-275. 

[6]  Marom, op. cit. 22-25. 

[7] Wistrich, op cit. pp. 276-277; Arnold Krammer, The Forgotten Friendship: Israel and the Soviet Block 1947-1953 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974), 23. 

[8] Ibid. 275. 

[9]Marom, op. cit. 17-19; Wistrich, op. cit. 275. 

[10] Wistrich op. cit. 275-276. 

[11] Ibid. 278-284, 286; Krammer, op. cit. 2-21, 32-34; Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P. Naumov, eds. Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Ant-Fascist Committee (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001); Walter Z. Laqueur, “Soviet Policy and Jewish Fate,” Commentary (October 1956): 303-312; Jon Kimche, “Middle East Moves and Counter-Moves,” Commentary (March 1948): 214-221; Hal Lehrman, “Partition In Washington: An Inquiry,” Commentary (March 1948), pp. 205-213; Joseph Sherman, “Seven-fold Betrayal: The Murder of Soviet Yiddish,” Midstream (July/August, 2000). 

 

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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.