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The historical roots of contemporary anti-Zionism

The historical roots of contemporary anti-Zionism
We can see then that the main type of anti-Zionism that emanates from the Far-left today diverges radically from rational or legitimate criticism of Israeli policy as well as from an ideological disagreement with the tenets of the Zionist movement. It is important to point out that this form of anti-Zionism is not exclusive to the Far-left. It can also be found in various expressions in all spheres from which antisemitism emerges today, including the Far-right.
In order to better understand this form of anti-Zionism and its conflation with antisemitism, let’s leave the contemporary world for a moment, and turn to explore this phenomenon’s historical development, beginning with the Soviet Union, a force which had a major influence on the global left in the 20th century. This form of Soviet anti-Zionism emerged as a result of several factors, a major one being the power game surrounding the Cold War and the attempt of the Soviet Union to position itself as a dominant force in the Middle East.
The late 1940s were a volatile time in the Middle East region, as they brought with them the end of the British Mandate over Palestine and a discussion surrounding the future of the area and the national aspirations of its Jewish and Arab populations. In 1947 the UN voted for a plan which recommended the partition of Palestine into two independent States, Arab and Jewish as well, as the establishment of a special international regime for the city of Jerusalem. The plan was accepted by the Zionist leaders, but was rejected by Arab leaders and governments leading to an attack on the Jewish population and the outbreak of an internal civil war in Mandatory Palestine between the region’s Arab and Jewish populations.
This would turn into an all-regional war following the expiration of the British Mandate and the subsequent Israeli declaration of Independence on May 14th, 1948, when the newly founded Israeli
state was attacked by the armies of the five Arab states: Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon and Iraq. The war ended with a series of armistice agreements in 1949, which fixed a temporary frontier between Israel and its Arab neighbors. During the war hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs either fled or were expelled, and were settled in refugee camps by the neighboring Arab countries. Thus the region was completely restructured, both geographically and demographically. To the demographic change an additional aspect should be added, which is the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the State of Israel, following their departure, flight, expulsion, evacuation, and migration from Arab and Muslim countries.
Throughout the events of 1947-1948 both the Soviets and the United States, the two soon-to-be leaders of the opposing Cold War blocks backed the Israelis. However, Soviet support of the Israeli state would quickly disappear, following a shift in the power game of the region and the Israeli alliance with the West. Despite the fact that Soviet Russia was very much involved in the creation of the State of Israel and helped the young Israeli state with arms during the War of Independence in 1948, since 1951 it turned against Israel and supported the Arabs; claimed that the Arabs are the anti- imperialist force in the Middle East and the Jews are serving the imperialist powers - the United States and Britain.
So we see that what happened after the creation of the state was that the case of Israel was still a problem on two levels. On one level, on the ideological level, because communist Russia was against nationalism on the whole but supported nationalism among the anti-imperialist states. Israel was not counted among them. On the other level, there was also the power game in the Middle East and Soviet Russia counted Israel among the Western countries and in opposition to itself. So what was before only an ideological struggle and ideological confrontation now became also a power game. So we see the impact of Soviet Russia on anti-Zionism was very strong.
We can see then that during the late Stalinist years of the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was a reversal of Soviet policy toward Israel, from one which viewed Israel as an anti-imperial and anti-fascist ally to one which saw it as an imperial force hell-bent on the destruction of Communism. In direct relation to this, the Soviets under Stalin also unleashed a series of “anti-cosmopolitan purges.” Though starting off as a wider attack on elements deemed as a threat to Soviet patriotism, these purges quickly turned into a thinly veiled fierce antisemitic campaign that targeted mainly Jewish Communists, falsely accusing them of promoting Zionism. Jewish writers, politicians, scientists, and intellectuals were arrested and executed.
Particularly remembered is the infamous Doctor’s Plot, a modern-day blood libel, in which a group of prominent Moscow doctors, predominantly Jews, were accused of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders. Throughout this onslaught, the Soviets were careful not to overtly state that they were targeting Jews, all the while claiming it was an attempt to purge the Soviet Union of harmful, Zionists and bourgeois-nationalist elements. Taking the Soviet perceptions and actions that emerged during these years into consideration, let’s now return to the form and content of the Soviet anti-Zionism of the late Stalinist years, better clarifying its historical importance to the development of contemporary Far-left anti-Zionism.
When the Cold War solidified, broke out in 1948-9, the Soviet Union changed its policy in the course of the anti- cosmopolitan purges in Europe. Rather than view Zionism and the State of Israel as part of the history of anti-fascism, Stalin now began to view Zionism as part of the Western imperialist conspiracy directed against the Soviet Union. The Communists performed a historical act of great importance. Nobody in the world would have paid any attention to ex-Nazis who made the case that Zionism was a form of racism, or Zionism was a form of aggression, or Zionism was a form of colonialism.
If a bunch of ex-Nazis had made these arguments, people would have said that’s just the nonsense you said during World War II. Nobody cares what you said. You’re a bunch of criminals. We don’t care anything. You’re out. You’re finished. What the Communists did, what the Soviet Union accomplished from 1949 to 1956, was to redefine the meaning of anti-fascism - to lend the moral and political prestige of the war against Nazi Germany to the attack on the State of Israel. This was not something that any ex-Nazi could have done and so it was a remarkable accomplishment on the part of the Communists.
Now anti-Zionism was somehow associated with trying to build a better world and struggle against colonialism and imperialism, rise up against American imperialism. So the Soviet Union and Stalin brought that change about.

Prof. Anita Shapira, Prof. Jeffrey C. Herf

We saw how the main type of anti-Zionism that emanates from the Far-left today diverges radically from rational or legitimate criticism of Israeli policy as well as from an ideological disagreement with the tenets of the Zionist movement.

What are the historical roots of this form of anti-Zionism?

For additional visual materials please see “downloads” below.


  • Brent, Jonathan and ‎Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953 (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).

  • Herf, Jeffrey, “The Anti-Zionist Bridge: The East German Communist Contribution to Antisemitism’s Revival After the Holocaust,” Antisemitism Studies, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 2017), pp. 130 – 136.

  • Pinkus, Benjamin, The Soviet Government and the Jews, 1948-1967: A Documented Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

  • Ro’i, Yaacov, Soviet Decision Making in Practice: The USSR and Israel, 1947-1954 (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1980).

  • Rubenstein, Joshua and Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

  • Veidlinger, Jeffrey, “Soviet Jewry as a Diaspora Nationality: The ‘Black Years’ Reconsidered,” East European Jewish Affairs, vol. 33, no. 1 (2003), pp. 4 – 29.


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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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