This essay is largely taken from Stalin and the Jewish Question, A New Analysis by Zhores Medvedev.
Dr. Medvedev is a geneticist, historian and former Soviet dissident. He was imprisoned in the Soviet psychiatric prison system after revealing the Chelyabinsk nuclear accident and for his work criticizing reigning Soviet genetic theory known as ‘Lysenkoism’.
The essay was translated from Russian and edited by Don Barnett.
Though Truman extended de facto recognition of Israel 11 minutes after its formal birth on May 16, 1948, the U.S. did not establish full diplomatic relations with Israel until 1949.
Stalin extended de jure recognition of Israel 2 days after its birth, thus the USSR was the first country to form diplomatic relations with Israel. For a while, Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Union’s first ambassador to the U.N., was the most popular person in Israel.
Stalin’s actions had been the focus of intense interest from Arab countries, Zionist groups, Great Britain and the U.S. leading up to the creation of the new state and Stalin was the only leading figure from WW II to have maintained his position and even greatly increased his influence after the war. Roosevelt was dead, Churchill was out of power and Truman was not popular.
Except for Lebanon, all countries in the region were monarchies created by Britain after WW I. The British were supplying arms to the Arab monarchies which surrounded Israel when the British mandate ended on May 14, 1948.
When the armies of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan invaded Israel on May 17, 1948, the entire Mideast was under a U.S.–imposed arms embargo, which remained in force throughout the conflict. Meanwhile, the Soviets were secretly supplying the Israelis with captured German armaments including mortars, machine guns, artillery and Messerschmitt fighter planes.
Together with arms supplied via Soviet satellites Czechoslovakia and Rumania, a great number of fighters arrived – Jews with experience fighting the Germans. Soviet military and intelligence officers also secretly arrived. According to Lt. General Pavel Sudoplatov, director of the 4th Division of the NKVD in charge of all special operations throughout occupied European territories, the use of Soviet agents in military and diversionary actions against the British in Israel began in 1946.
In 1943 the southern regions of the USSR were hosting about 1 million European Jews who had fled the Nazi genocide. The Soviet government offered them citizenship and permission to work, but most considered the Soviet Union a temporary refuge and many planned to emigrate to the U.S. or to Palestine. The U.S. government and Great Britain opposed plans to emigrate to Palestine. U.S. Zionist organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, known as “Joint”, wanted to finance their resettlement to British Mandate Palestine. Great Britain, however, would not raise the very modest quota for Jews immigrating to Palestine.
Illegal immigration of Jews to then British Mandate Palestine rose sharply during WW II as refugees streamed in from Europe and North Africa where British and German troops fought. Because of these refugees, and other refugees driven first to Soviet Asia in 1941 and then undertaking the no less arduous return trek to Europe in 1945, the Jewish population of Palestine in 1945-1946 reached 600,000, almost triple the pre-war number. This was the “critical mass” which made possible the beginning of the fight for an independent Jewish state in Palestine.
Armed Jewish groups skirmished continually with the British garrison on the territory and, towards 1946, Britain realized it could not maintain stability in Palestine and decided to give up its Mandate.
The population at the beginning of the mandate period in 1922 stood at 589,177 Muslims, 83,790 Jews and 71,464 Christians. In 1947, when the UN created a special commission on Palestine, the Mandate comprised 1,091,000 Arab Muslims, 614,000 Jews and 146,000 Christians.
Britain supported a unified multi-ethnic government for Palestine like that of neighboring Lebanon, founded on this principle in 1943. Lebanon had been a French Mandate under the League of Nations since 1919.
Some in the UN, considering the poor relations among Jews and Arabs in Palestine, favored a federated government similar to Yugoslavia and Switzerland, an approach complicated by the fact that the 3 main groups did not reside separately but were intermixed throughout the territory.
The third plan supported mainly by the U.S. and the USSR involved division of Palestine between 2 governments – Jewish and Arab. The Jewish state would consist of those areas where the Jewish population predominated, centered around Tel-Aviv, while the Palestinian Arab state received the larger, remaining part of the original mandate territory. Jerusalem was to be an “open city” under international control.
Because of Britain’s veto power on the Security Council, the issue was taken up by the General Assembly where conditions were more favorable for a two-state solution, but the General Assembly resolution needed a 2/3 vote to pass. Here Stalin’s position was critical as he controlled the votes of 5 of the then 60-member General Assembly. (States on the losing side of WWII were excluded from the UN and many African states were then colonies.)
At the 2nd session of the U.N. General Assembly in 1947 25 countries supported the 2-state solution, 13 opposed with 17 planning to abstain including Britain and Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia, though part of the Soviet bloc in 1947, supported a federated government for Palestine. The USSR, Ukrainian SSR, Byelorussian SSR, Czechoslovakia and Poland supported the division of Palestine into 2 independent countries. The resolution fell short of the necessary 2/3 majority by one vote.
Andrei Gromyko headed up the Soviet delegation to the U.N.. The work of the U.N. delegation was under the oversight of Andrei Vyshinsky, assistant to the director of the Ministry of the Interior (MVD) in Moscow. He was the infamous public prosecutor during the 30’s Moscow show trials who shouted in court “I demand the mad dogs be shot – every one of them!”.
Vyshinsky received his instructions from Stalin with whom a friendship had been forged in 1908 and 1909 when they were both jailed in Baku for revolutionary activity – Stalin as a Bolshevik, Vyshinsky as a Menshevik.
Before the deciding vote on Nov 29, 1948 Gromyko spoke:
“The UN must help each nation in its quest for the right to independence and self-government…. Jews and Arabs cannot and will not live together. … If both of these peoples living in Palestine, each with deep historical roots in the land, cannot live under a single government there is no choice but to form 2 states – a Jewish state and an Arab state.”
By the time of the final vote, 33 countries supported the resolution founding an independent Jewish and Arab government, 13 countries opposed and the abstentions had shrunk to 10. The 5 Soviet bloc countries secured the needed 2/3 majority. If these countries had supported the Arab position, The UN would not have created Israel.
Muslim countries – Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Yemen – opposed the creation of Israel. India, Greece and Cuba were also opposed. Yugoslavia and Britain, which in discussion had opposed the creation of an independent Jewish state, abstained. Yugoslavia could not oppose the USSR, but was already expressing some independence by abstaining. Britain would not oppose the U.S..
Belgium, France, Holland, New Zealand, Luxembourg, Liberia and Haiti all changed their vote from “against” to “for” the 2-state solution. Most of these countries were heavily dependent upon the U.S. because of the Marshall Plan. Outraged over the vote establishing the state of Israel, the Arab UN delegations left New York before work was completed.
Shortly after WW II many in the USSR and Israel considered the Soviet position on Israel to be a moral initiative. Of course it wasn’t that at all.
Even Golda Meir in 1947 and 1948 was convinced that Stalin was helping the Jews out of some sort of high moral calling. Israel’s first ambassador to Moscow and later Prime Minister writes in her memoirs:
“No matter how radically Soviet relations with us changed in the last 25 years, I cannot forget the picture at that time. Who knows if we could have survived the early dark days of the war without the military equipment we bought in Czechoslovakia and transported through Yugoslavia and other Balkan countries. In the first 6 weeks of the war we relied on mortar shells, machine guns and bullets which Haganah managed to buy in Eastern Europe in the face of the U.S. arms embargo on the Middle East, though, of course we did not rely on this alone. We cannot erase the past just because it does not look like the present. A fact remains a fact. No matter how sharply the Soviet Union turned against us subsequently, Soviet recognition of Israel on May 18 had enormous significance. It meant the 2 leading world powers after the war had agreed to support a Jewish nation….
”The recognition of Israel by the USSR, followed by that of America, has different sources. Today, I have no doubt that, for the Soviets, recognition was part of a strategy to drive Britain from the Middle East. But in 1947, during the debates in the UN, it seemed to me the Soviet Bloc supported us because Russians themselves had paid such a high price during the war and, empathizing with Jews who suffered so much under the Nazis, understood that they deserved their own government”.
In fact, in Stalin’s mind, the creation of Israel answered current and future foreign policy needs and interests of the USSR. By supporting Israel, Stalin drove a wedge between the USA and Britain and between the Arab world and the West. According to Sudoplatov, Stalin foresaw that Arab countries would eventually turn to the USSR, disappointed in the West for its support of Israel. In Sudoplatov’s memoirs, Molotov’s assistant M. Vetrov relays Stalin’s words: “Let’s agree to the establishment of Israel. It will be a ‘pain in the ass’ for the Arab countries and will force them to turn their backs on Britain. In the end British influence will be ruined in Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Iraq.” Stalin’s foreign policy prognosis was basically correct.
Besides implementing a “strategy to drive Britain from the Middle East”, Stalin succeeded in creating a zone of constant conflict between Jews and Arabs that would draw in the U.S. and Europe, allowing him to secure the southern borders of the USSR. It was his answer to the “Truman Doctrine” announced in March 1947, pledging U.S. readiness to use its military and economic might to contain Soviet expansion aimed at Greece, Turkey and Iran.
The “Truman Doctrine” was understood in the USSR to mean the U.S. was prepared to use the strategic advantage afforded it by its monopoly on nuclear weapons at the time.
In 1946 the West was more worried by the situation on the Soviet Union’s border with Iran and Turkey and on the border between Bulgaria and Greece than it was by Soviet actions in Eastern Europe.
While Stalin supported the creation of Israel as part of his geopolitical strategy, a seemingly contradictory chain of events had begun at home indirectly related to the birth of the new state. He had supported the creation of Israel, but not as a destination for Jews from the Soviet Union.
Stalin’s “Jewish Policy” for Soviet Jews took the path of assimilation, which, in the context of Soviet society, was somewhat successful during the early years of the Bolshevik dictatorship – granted, not a very comfortable context for any nationality or ethnic group, be it a minority or majority.
Very broadly speaking and at some risk of oversimplification, the Soviet Jewish population could be divided into 2 groups – nationalists and assimilationists. Many Jews were early supporters of the revolution. The social standing and civil rights of Russian Jews improved radically after the October revolution as Jews were allowed to leave their backwards shtetls and as a result of Jewish intellectual support of socialist ideals. The mass attraction of young urban Jews to Soviet communist culture and programs was matched, however, with resistance from religious Jewry and older Jews from the former Pale.
From the end of the 20’s to the beginning of the 30’s the Jews abandoned their traditional way of life on a mass scale. Sacrifice of religion and tradition seemed an easy trade for status and opportunity in Soviet society.
M. Agursky writes in his History of the Jews in Russia: ”In the past 20 years Russian Jewry has gone further and further away from its historical past… killing the Jewish spirit and Jewish tradition.” And a few years later on the very eve of WWII “with the ascension in Russia of the Bolshevik dictatorship, the fight between fathers and children in the Jewish street has taken a particularly bitter form.”
Alas, there was to be no separate nationalist existence for the new Soviet man.
Zionism, in particular, was antithetical to “social-democratic” theory.
Yes, it’s true, Lenin and Stalin paid lip service to ethnic identity when it became evident that these “aberrant” tendencies had outrun the life span that socialist theory had allotted them. Felix Dzerjinsky, founder of the Cheka, even wrote in 1923 that “the program of the Zionists is not dangerous to us, on the contrary I consider it useful” and again in 1924 “principally, we can be friends with Zionists”. The reality however, was that Zionist groups were persecuted, exiled, imprisoned and could exist only underground throughout Soviet history. Occasionally, they were dredged up in the form of an aspiration for a homeland in the USSR, such as in Crimea or Birobidjanya, but then mostly for the purpose of gaining western sympathy and money.
There was, of course, an underground Zionist movement that may have quietly cheered Stalin’s support of Israel. The existence of a lobby in the U.S. congress and U.S. government which acted in the interest of Israel, first as an idea and then as an independent government, is no secret. Such a lobby also existed in the USSR, but in a different and hidden form.
Open advocacy of a Jewish homeland was extremely risky for Jews and “criminal intent to emigrate to Israel” could bring 15 years in 1948, the very year Stalin was pushing for the recognition of Israel.
The new Israeli embassy in Moscow with Golda Meir as the first Israeli ambassador hastened the end of any illusions that Stalin supported a homeland for Jews out of concern for Jews.
On Oct 4, 1948, less than 5 months after the founding of Israel, Golda Meir and a group of Israeli diplomats visited the synagogue in Moscow on the occasion of the Jewish New Year. Moscow was then the cultural capital of European Jewry.
A large group of Jews – by some accounts 10,000, by Golda Meir’s own claim, 50,000, gathered around the synagogue to meet her. She appeared again a week later on Oct 13 to celebrate Yom Kippur where the large demonstrations were repeated. The western media reported enthusiastically on “spontaneous” mass demonstrations. There was no mention of the events in the Soviet press.
In Israel and in Zionist organizations in the U.S. and other countries this unexpected solidarity of Moscow Jews with the new state of Israel was exultantly interpreted as the wish of the Jewish people to leave their temporary homes and immigrate en masse to Israel
In his biography, Stalin, Edward Radzinsky describes the demonstrations:
”An unprecedented crowd of 50,000 gathered at the synagogue where Golda Meir was coming to celebrate Jewish New Year. There were soldiers, officers, old people, young people and babies held aloft by their parents who shouted ‘Our Golda, Shalom, Goldela! Long life and health! Happy New Year!’ “
Radzinsky describes the demonstrations as “a spirit of jubilant freedom which had not yet evaporated following victory in war”.
G.V. Kostyrchenko, who has produced detailed research on anti-Semitism in the USSR feels that the New Year’s celebration was a genuine demonstration of Jewish national unity and the October 13 holiday was a spontaneous religious expression. “On that day chief Rabbi S.M. Schleifer movingly prayed ‘Next year – Jerusalem’, those praying responded warmly and enthusiastically. That sacred phrase, having become a watchword, was taken up by the enormous crowd which followed Golda Meir and the Israeli diplomats who had decided to walk from the synagogue to the Metropol hotel.”
Major changes in ideology and foreign policy were underway in late summer brought on by confrontation with the West. Stalin’s blockade of West Berlin in July, 1948 had brought the Soviets and the West to the brink of war.
The break between the Soviet Communist Party and the Yugoslav communists came in June of 1948. Marshall Tito, recently a hero of the war and the most popular in the USSR among leaders of the “peoples’ democracies”, was declared a traitor and a fascist. Thousands of Yugoslav students were sent back home from Moscow.
In July, Zhdanov was ousted as Stalin’s heir apparent and 2nd secretary of the Central Committee, to be replaced with Malenkov who was an even harsher Stalinist than Zhdanov. Party ideology and foreign affairs came under the control of Mikhail Suslov, strengthening anti-Semitic tendencies in internal and foreign affairs. A purge of Jewish elements in the foreign services was stepped up. Jews occupied about half the positions in foreign policy institutions and Soviet embassies prior to the purge – “an intolerably high concentration of Jews” according to Kostyrchenko’s account of attitudes of that period.
In August, 1948 the main Soviet agriculture institute in Moscow condemned the study of genetics and other “psuedo-sciences” in a collective frenzy, giving the charlatan Trifom Lysenko a monopoly over all areas of biology and agriculture. At universities In Moscow there were mass firings among professors and expulsions of students. A new wave of arrests had begun – so far, not in large numbers, but everyone expected the worst. The intelligentsia was pessimistic and frightened.
One Jan 12, 1948, Solomon Mikhoels, director of the war era Jewish Anti-fascist Committee and celebrated director of the Moscow Yiddish theater, had been thrown under a truck by Soviet intelligence agents. His body was brought to a back alley and arranged to look as if he and a companion were accidentally run over after a late night out. Most in his circles would have known what had really happened.
The memoirist Lena Tumerman records a meeting she had with Mikhoels two weeks prior to his murder. She ran into him on Tverskii Boulevard on December 27, 1947, “He was very agitated and upset that a press account of his recent speech had deleted all his references to the upcoming creation of Israel”. Mikhoels took this as a political signal. “ He told me ‘It’s the beginning of the end.’”
She herself was arrested that night and later sentenced to 15 years, apparently, because of her accidental conversation with the artist.
The State Jewish theatre was named after Mikhoels upon his death and for about a year after his solemn funeral Peoples’ Artist Mikhoels was occasionally mentioned in the Soviet press as a “great artist”. The government-run S.M. Mikhoels Theater continued staging productions. But at the end of November, 1948 the theater was shut down in connection with the dissolution of the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee and the arrest of its leadership. Mikhoels, as the former director of the committee, was branded a “bourgeoisie nationalist”. Mikhoels was now seen as the leader of a “Zionist conspiracy” against the Soviet government.
One may well ask, was it possible in existing conditions to have a spontaneous demonstration of 10’s of thousands of Jews at a synagogue in October, 1948, during a visit by a foreign emissary no less?
No doubt this was a spontaneous demonstration for most participants. But during Soviet rule, neither before October 1948 nor after had there ever been any truly spontaneous demonstrations for any reason whatever in Moscow.
There was no “spirit of jubilant freedom” after the war, especially for Jews. 1945-1948 was a period of mass ethnic and religious repression.
The October 13 demonstration seems particularly strange, since after Oct 5 the country was officially in mourning following the death of more than 100,000 people in an earthquake in Ashkabad, the capital of Turkmenia.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), which reported on all important incidents to Stalin did not report anything for October 5, 1948. From October 6 Stalin received daily reports about the MVD’s cleanup efforts after the earthquake in Ashkhabad, but there were no MVD reports to Stalin about the demonstration in Moscow on Oct 13, 1948.
Molotov, as minister of foreign affairs, received reports with copies to Stalin from the MVD about incidents which affected the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Molotov received no reports about a demonstration of Jews in Moscow or about the unusual behavior of the Israeli ambassador Golda Meir.
Beria received even more MVD reports than Molotov in 1948 as he was the Communist Party Politburo member responsible for the workings of the MVD. 3 to 7 reports landed on his desk daily during October of that year. But no one reported to Beria on the demonstrations which accompanied Golda Meir’s visit to a Jewish synagogue.
From this and the absence of city authorities and police at the event, one may conclude that the demonstrations which greeted the Israeli ambassador were not unexpected. It was either an idea planted by the authorities themselves or an independent idea, which authorities learned of and allowed to develop, lying in wait to see who would take it up.
So far, no one has offered a better explanation of these 2 very unusual demonstrations.
Stalinist Soviet society has been described as a “human aquarium” which Stalin observed from without. His dictatorship was even more concentrated and complete than that of Hitler, Mussolini or Franco. That personal dictatorship was maintained, in part, by constantly shifting the position and relative power of those in his leadership cadre. Baiting underlings with ideas and plans he could then condemn and use to club his intended targets was just one method of maintaining control.
After Mikhoel’s murder it came the turn of the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee, which had been founded by the Soviet government to propagandize and raise money in the West for the Soviet war effort. At the end of the war and as the committee lost its original purpose and started to defend the interests of Jews striving for cultural autonomy not assimilation, conflict with authorities was inevitable.
Stalin, having decided to liquidate the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee and arrest the activists affiliated with the unnecessary Jewish organization, needed a convincing excuse. The October demonstrations in Moscow may have provided that excuse. 13 of the 15 committee members were shot on August 12, 1952, including Communist Party Central Committee member Solomon Lozovskii. One committee member had died in jail and the only female, Lena Shtern, was exiled to Central Asia.
From the “Committee” affair came the anti-Semitic “Doctor’s Plot”. A TASS announcement appearing in Pravda and Izvestia on January 13, 1953 informed the public of the discovery in the USSR of a “terrorist group of doctors who were intent on harming the leading political figures in the Soviet Union through medical sabotage”. The leader of the plotters, mostly Jewish physicians, was Miron Simyonovitch Vovsi, the surgeon general of the Red Army and director of the public medical service. According to the TASS communication, he received instructions from The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which, according to authorities, was created by the American intelligence service using the “known bourgeoisie nationalist” Mikhoels. M.S. Vovsi and Mikhoel’s were cousins. “Mikhoels” was a stage name, his real surname was Vovsi. The cousins were friends, born in the small Byelorussian town of Dvinsk (now known as the Latvian town Daugavpils). Most of their family members were shot by the Nazis when the region was under German occupation in1941.
According to those who scripted the “Doctor’s plot”, Mikhoels was acting on behalf of American intelligence and Zionist organizations. Allegedly, this connection went back to his 8-month trip to the U.S. in 1943 where, as head of the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee, he toured many cities seeking support for the Soviet war effort. According to Sudoplatov, a top intelligence agent traveled with Mikhoels “to gauge the reaction of influential Zionist groups to the founding of a Jewish republic in the Crimea. The effort of our intelligence office in the U.S. to establish a relationship with the American Zionist movement in 1943-1944 was a success.” Of course, Mikhoel’s committee was a tool of the intelligence agencies when needed. That was the case with every single organization, “civic” or otherwise in the USSR, especially those rare organizations with ties to the outside world.
Stalin was becoming increasingly suspicious of Jews in his entourage and among his in-laws and former in-laws. According to Svetlana Stalin’s memoirs, he told her “the Zionists gave you your first husband”, requiring her to divorce her Jewish husband and marry the son of Andrei Zhdanov in 1949. He told Molotov, Soviet President Kalinin and Minister of Defense Voroshilov to divorce their Jewish wives. Molotov’s wife and Kalinin’s wife would eventually be arrested, to be released only after his Stalin’s death in 1953.
In Stalin’s last days he began to move against Molotov – earlier, his closest associate and presumed heir. In his last official speech Stalin used a favored tactic, bringing up the plan for settling Jews in the Crimea.
There are no official minutes from Stalin’s speech in October, 1952 to Central Committee members during the 19th Party Congress. In his memoirs, Leonid Yefremov notes Stalin’s words: “Molotov is dedicated to our cause… ask him, and I have no doubt he would give his life for the party. But one must not overlook his unworthy actions… what was the cost of his suggestion to give the Crimea to the Jews? That was a crude political blunder …… what was behind comrade Molotov’s suggestion? We already have a Jewish autonomous republic. Isn’t that enough? Let this republic grow and develop. Comrade Molotov should not be promoting unlawful Jewish designs on our Soviet Crimea.”
Stalin’s anti-Semitic fantasies, manifesting for the most part in the post war era, were multiplying.
He may have miscalculated the strength of the pull of Israel on Soviet Jews.
At any rate, during and after the war when Soviet Jewish nationalism began to rise – first in response to Hitler’s genocide against the Jews in all territories occupied by the Wehrmacht and then under the influence of the birth of Israel, Stalin’s “Jewish policy” took a fateful turn.
By the time he died in March, 1953, the man who was among the most important individuals to the founding of Israel had become 2nd only to Adolf Hitler as an enemy of the Jewish people.