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Anti-Zionism in the 1960s and 1970s: the USSR and the Soviet Bloc

Anti-Zionism in the 1960s and 1970s: the USSR and the Soviet Bloc
The extreme Soviet anti-Zionist campaign and the Soviet military support for the Arab states intensified during and after the Six Day War that took place in June 1967. This brief war ended with Israel’s decisive victory, which included the capture of the Sinai Peninsula, and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. The Israeli control of these territories and their Palestinian residents would subsequently become a major point of contention in the Arab-Israeli conflict, while Sinai would eventually return to Egypt following the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1977, and in 2005 Israel would disengage from the Gaza Strip and North Samaria in the West Bank.
The Soviet Union played a key role in the escalating tensions in the Middle East in the 1960s, backing Arab armies and countries in an attempt to gain a foothold in the region as part of the power struggle of the Cold War. Israel’s swift victory deeply encroached on Soviet aspirations. It subsequently broke off diplomatic ties with the Israeli state and began a full-blown, vitriolic, anti Zionist, and anti-Israeli campaign characterized by clear antisemitic imagery and rhetoric.
The Soviets took side 100 percent with the Arab population for example in 1967 and published an immense number of anti- Zionist propaganda in the context of this war and the years that followed this war and even the years before the war, actually, in which they identified in the literature Jews - well, not Jews - Zionists with fascism. And you have many caricatures that were very widespread in the Soviet Union in publications such as Krokodil which was very widespread. At the time of Moshe Dayan, for example, who is depicted as Hitler or is depicted as Hitler’s ally so that you have Zionism that is turned into fascism that is turned into Nazism.
And I do believe that this plays an important role in the left, in the European left, in legitimizing a discourse that is a one-sided discourse that demonizes Zionism as fascism, regardless of - you know - the various political views of the persons making this argument. But you do have this nexus that is facilitated by the Soviets - you know - besides the fact that the Soviets were also very active in training members of the PLO. But as far as literature goes, as far as propaganda, as far as the message that the Soviet Union, Soviet Communism is conveying to European communism and the European left I do believe that it facilitated the identification of Zionism with fascism.
The Soviet form of antisemitic anti-Zionism was not limited to the Soviet Union alone. We will see later how it seeped into the Western radical left, strongly influencing and shaping its perception of Israel. It also spread across to the Soviet bloc States, the communist nations closely allied with the Soviet Union. The extreme anti-Israel and anti-Zionist stance took a particularly predominant role in the communist dictatorship of East Germany. In 1949, following the end of the Second World War and the solidification of the Cold War, Germany was divided into two separate states - the non-Communist Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, and the Communist German Democratic Republic or East Germany.
The leaders of the Federal Republic of Germany, especially Konrad Adenauer, but also men named Theodor Heuss and a social democrat named Kurt Schumacher argued that, in order for this new Germany to convince the world that there was another Germany, that something had changed, that this Germany needed to help the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, that it needed to give some kind of restitution payments to this new State of Israel and to do no more harm to the Jews. The Germans hadn’t turned into angels overnight but the famous slogan of the medical profession ‘Do no more harm!’ is one way of summarizing West Germany’s policies towards Israel after the Second World War. Just do no more harm.
If you can do some good, that’s all very nice but at a minimum don’t do any more harm. The East Germans interpreted the meaning of overcoming Nazism very differently than did the West Germans. Their argument was that the primary victim of the Second World War was the Soviet Union and that the Jews were among many many people in Europe who had been victimized by the Nazis. The Jews, the Zionists were rather selfish in their view.
Why should people pay so much attention to the six million Jews who were murdered, when there were 25 million soldiers and civilians of the Soviet Union who died in the Second World War and three million non-Jewish Poles and millions of others and on and on? What was so special about the Jews? They’re so selfish - the Jews. And anyway the main cause of Nazism was not an ideological antisemitism - although that’s bad enough - it was capitalism. So please spare us these marvelous speeches about antisemitism and the Holocaust because really the only thing that matters is whether or not you get rid of capitalism.
If you leave capitalism intact, then all the bastards and all the criminals are still there and save us the very moving speeches of Bergen-Belsen. East Germany was seventeen million people, much smaller than the Soviet Union. And yet the interesting thing about the history of East Germany is not only that it never had diplomatic relations with Israel, but that it became a huge fan of the Arab states at war with Israel and of the Palestine Liberation Organization; and in the 1960s and 1970s and 80s became a base for training, and money, and arm shipments, and weapons deliveries to Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, first Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Omar Qaddafi’s Libya as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization, including its militant organizations - the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The interesting aspect of this is that we have a German state after the Nazis which of course did not actually send its soldiers to war with Israel. It did not engage in a Holocaust or a genocide. Nobody is suggesting that. But did do more harm to the Jews.
I think in the long history of antisemitism, the era of the Cold War and the era of communist antisemitism, and then the era of leftist antisemitism since then is unique - unique because at the same time that these states were arming the states and movements that were attacking the Jewish citizens of Israel - and the non-Jewish citizens of Israel as well - the citizens of Israel, at the same time that they were doing things that actually harmed living Jews, they insisted they had nothing to do with antisemitism. This hadn’t been the case before. Previously when antisemites attacked Jews, they said we attacked Jews because they’re Jews; because we don’t like Jews.
I think that’s one of the defining features of secular leftist and communist anti-Zionism. One West German leftist leader said that the very accusation that attacks on Israel had anything to do with antisemitism was - what he said was - in his words, “an old Zionist trick.”

Prof. Elissa Bemporad, Prof. Jeffrey Herf

Events taking place in the 1960s had a major effect on the development of anti-Zionism in the Soviet Union and on their subsequent spread across the Soviet Bloc states, those Communist nations closely allied with the Soviet Union.

How were Israel and Zionism perceived in the Soviet Bloc states?

For additional visual materials please see “downloads” below.


  • Frankel, Jonathan, “The Anti-Zionist Press Campaigns in the USSR 1969-1971: An Internal Dialogue?,” Soviet Jewish Affairs, vol. 3 (1972), pp. 3 – 26.

  • Heller, Joseph, The United States, the Soviet Union and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-67: Superpower Rivalry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

  • Herf, Jeffrey, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge, M.A., Harvard University Press, 1997).

  • Herf, Jefferey, Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967-1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

  • 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).

  • Shindler, Colin, Israel and the European Left: Between Solidarity and Delegitimization (New York: Continuum, 2012).

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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