A Basic History of Soviet Antisemitism
Izabella Tabarovsky explains the things I should have known at the get-go.
The beauty of doing this blog and being partnered with a Top #10 Influential Jew is that when I say I know nothing about the Soviet Union, I get a lot of really smart people writing me offering to help.
Which is how I ended up getting a history lesson from one Izabella Tabarovsky, who was born in the Soviet Union and now writes beautifully about antisemitism and the Soviet Jewish experience. I think she probably expected I’d been exaggerating my ignorance — educated urban Americans surely must know the basics no? Not so. When it comes to the Soviet Union, my brain is actually just dust bunnies. So I called Izabella because I wanted to understand a very basic question: Why was the Soviet Union so antisemitic?
In future weeks I want to dive deeper into different aspects of this and what happened there. But first, I need to just get my head around the fundamentals. Here and here is some of Izabella’s deeper writing on it.
Below is, lightly condensed, what Izabella told me on the phone this morning from Jerusalem:
In the Soviet Union, they were schizophrenic about their Jews from the very beginning.
Go all the way to the beginning. Start with Lenin and even Stalin who initially studied at his feet. They saw Jews of the Russian empire as this great material for the revolution because the Jews were extremely oppressed. They were extremely poor, suffering from pogroms (anti-Jewish riots).
The Bolsheviks saw pogroms as a form of class struggle. Jews, of course had been living in the Pale of Settlement — a limited territory. They were not allowed to live beyond it. They could not go and just live freely in Moscow, for example. They had to have special qualifications and permissions. They were never granted full equality under the Tsars.
So the revolution happens, the Bolsheviks immediately lift all restrictions on the Jews. They eliminate restrictions on movement. They give Jews equal rights. They prohibit pogroms.
But at the same time, there are certain things about the Jews that just don’t quite work for the Bolsheviks.
They said Jews are not really a people. Lenin says: a people has to have a language and a territory. He looks at the Jews and he says, they all speak different languages and they don’t have a territory, so they need to assimilate.
Then the Bolsheviks try to assimilate the Jews. They fight religion because religion is a competing power. They, of course, hate Zionists because Zionists are a competing power. Plus Zionists believe that Jews are a people and that their home is Palestine. Also many Zionists object to the Bolshevik seizure of power and terror and repressions.
Bolsheviks early on brand Zionism as a form of “bourgeois nationalism,” which means that they are anti-communist and anti-internationalist. They ban Zionist parties, and they arrest and expel their leaders.
Soviet Jews really welcomed the formation of Israel. Stalin, of course, supported the establishment of Israel but that ended quickly.
Meanwhile, Soviet Jews are petitioning to go and fight to defend the Jewish state. Golda Meir comes as the first Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union, and there are thousands of people greeting her and cheering. And that sets off Stalin’s paranoia. He fears that he may have this disloyal ethnic group on his hands.
This becomes the foundation of everything that follows. That’s when the campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” begins. The leaders of the Jewish Antifascist Committee are arrested. They are accused of being disloyal, of being Zionist and American spies. You have the Night of the Murdered Poets . . . you know.
I did not really know. But also I didn’t want to ask Izabella to list atrocities for me. So I looked it up after our interview.
Briefly: The Jewish Antifascist Committee was a group of Jews who were very devoted to the Soviet Union and had lobbied world Jewry to support it. These were good leftists, loyal to Stalin and to the cause. They were also a useful propaganda tool for Stalin. Until they weren’t.
In 1948, Stalin had the head of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, Solomon Mikhoels, murdered in a fake car accident. He closed down the Yiddish publishing house and newspaper, theaters and local Jewish schools.
And in what’s known as the Night of the Murdered Poets in 1952, Stalin had 13 prominent Jewish intellectuals, including leaders of that Antifascist Committee, killed by firing squad.
Back to Izabella:
When the Six Day War happens in 1967, and Israel wins, it inspires Soviet Jews as well. They start asking: ‘Who are we as Jews? Why are we stuck in a country that hates us?’ They start to learn Hebrew. They start to learn about Israel’s history. There’s a movement growing for emigration.
And the Soviets don’t like that. Nobody is supposed to want to leave the socialist paradise. They’re so invested in the image of being this amazing perfect country, a beacon of hope for progressive people everywhere. They fear Jews leaving may look bad and it may make others want to leave too.
They claim that Soviet Jews are not interested in emigration and that they want to stay in the Soviet Union—which is a lie of course. Soviet Jews leave en masse every time the doors open.
It’s really important to understand that official Soviet antisemitism was grounded in anti-Zionist rhetoric. The Soviets were very careful not to use purely race-based antisemitic rhetoric. Antisemitism is what the fascists do — the Soviet Union can’t be antisemitic. Antisemitism doesn’t belong in the socialist society.
The anti-Zionist propaganda went through the roof especially after the Six Day War in 1967. It really upset the Soviets. Israel wins in this war against the Arabs, who the Soviets supported. So the Soviets come up with conspiracy theories to save face and explain what happened and to try to regain influence. And they are basically repeating old antisemitic tropes but replacing the word Jew with Zionist.
They would say, no no we’re not antisemitic, we’re just anti-Zionist. We are fighting these Zionists abroad who own all the media and control all the banks and politicians. And these Zionists want to influence what’s going on inside our country and make our Soviet Jews emigrate. It’s all the old tropes. They just change one key word.
Part of that is about foreign policy: The Soviet Union is fighting for influence in the Middle East, and they view Israel as a vanguard of American imperialism in the region. Zionism is Israel’s guiding ideology. So if they discredit Zionism, they can discredit and diminish America’s influence as well.
They created this whole conspiracy fantasy around Zionism, and the more they developed it the more they believed it. And it spread.
But what’s important is, what was the effect on us, on Jewish citizens of the Soviet Union? We experienced it as plain antisemitism. We ourselves didn’t distinguish between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. The practical outcome for us was the same. They begin to create glass ceilings for Jews, limit their professional opportunities, limit university admissions. That’s the way I experienced it applying for university.
Here, Izabella recommends I read Tablet’s essay on “The Coffin Problems.” In short: Jews were literally given different standardized tests, essentially barring them from elite academia without having to explicitly do it.
The Soviet Union also looked for allies abroad. It saw pockets of the left in America, in the UK and elsewhere, and they saw that these people will be open to these ideas. They saw that they're already anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, etc.
The Soviets were very good at understanding what different audiences wanted and feeding them that. And so for example, they spread the smear that Zionism is racism, starting at the U.N., and now nobody even remembers it came from the Soviet Union. It was all part of the big Cold War game, but these ideas penetrated the left. Now they’ve taken on a life of their own.
Soviet Jewish history teaches us very clearly: once you start demonizing Zionism, eventually all the Jews are in danger.
Nellie again hi!
Next week: How the JDC (a big Jewish aid organization) worked in secret to find and help the Soviet Jews. Plus I’ll be posting book excerpts from my readings.
On that note: I’ve gotten some amazing reading recommendations, so at the end of this I want to put together a list of essential Soviet criticism. Please do keep sending me books or articles that should be on my list. It’s super helpful.
I also now have a backlog of Convert Corner submissions! We have so many good ones! Which means you might even get two emails from me next week.
All is well here in the Weiss Bowles household. Bar’s hired her little sister, Suzy, from the New York Post to be our first employee of what I’m told will be a major new media empire, though as I type they are outside sunning themselves. I’m clicking away at my book and have settled into life outside the rhythm of a newspaper.
The dogs are healthy, and enjoying their hobbies (following me around the house, viciously assaulting delivery people).
And last but not least, here’s a pic from our first LA backyard seder, which probably deserved its own post:
In re your seder: where did you hide the afikomen? Just to add to the great comments by Izabella Tabarovsky. The Soviets started the false rumor or what today we might call 'fake news' that the Israelis were mobilizing their army to wage war against the Syrian regime. That lie began the descent into the 1967 war. Egypt knew the Soviets were manufacturing a crisis, but thought it might be useful, for its own regime, to mobilize and start on the road to war.