Izabella Tabarovsky: The Sinister Legacy of Soviet Anti-Israel Propaganda
Izabella Tabarovsky, a senior advisor at the Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center and research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), spoke to a May 1st Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the connection between early antisemitic tropes propagated in the Soviet Union and contemporary anti-Zionist discourse in the U.S. and the West. The following is a summary of her comments:
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published in 1905, is one of the most influential books “propagating antisemitic conspiracy theory” and has been referred to as a “warrant for genocide.” Conspiracy theories are very adaptable and easily morph over time, spreading much like a virus adapting to its host, evading defense mechanisms to survive and reproducing across the globe. Resurfacing in 1921, Le Peril Juif, a French edition of antisemitic propaganda based on The Protocols, rapidly spread to other countries. Its cover bore an illustration of a spider whose arms envelop the globe and a face with exaggerated Jewish features. Political movements have exploited antisemitic images since the French edition based on The Protocols used caricatures to demonize Jews as the embodiment of the far-left revolutionary Bolshevik movement in the 1920s. It resurfaced in the dehumanizing cartoon portrayals of Jews in the antisemitic propaganda disseminated by Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s.
“The Bolsheviks outlawed this kind of antisemitic propaganda. The Soviet Union for many decades presented itself as standing at the forefront of the fight against antisemitism.”
Nevertheless, in Moscow’s 1971 May Day parade, a float displaying a giant menacing spider with a Jewish star on its cap was meant to evoke the 1920s propaganda of the Jew “as a subhuman and super powerful,” similar to that of The Protocols image. The float’s slogan, “Zionism is a weapon of imperialism,” targeted Israel following its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War against Arab armies supplied and trained by the Soviet Union. The Soviet propaganda machine thus repackaged antisemitic conspiracy tropes from a half a century earlier to meet its “domestic and foreign policy objectives” against a perceived powerful threat to its global ambitions.
Unable to openly express antisemitic tropes because the USSR cultivated a false image of being a “left-wing anti-racist international superpower,” it accomplished its strategic ends by “refram[ing] The Protocols as a Marxist-Leninist critique.” By demonizing Zionism, the Soviet government’s “new approach to fighting” was a “turning point” as Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda went global. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, anti-Zionist propaganda again moved to the far right, where Russia’s neo-fascist parties embraced it.
Soviet anti-Zionism culminated in real-world consequences that affected the daily lives of Soviet Jews who faced antisemitic harassment, the suspicions of the Soviet security services, and the inability to practice their religion. Soviet style anti-Zionism was also prevalent in Poland in 1968. A full understanding of contemporary left-wing discourse about Zionism in Israel requires a closer look at Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda in its new forms.
In the U.S. today, conspiracy theories and anti-Zionism infect campuses across America. Willfully blind to the antisemitism that animates these theories, many liberal American Jews raised in the shadow of the Holocaust continue to believe that threats to Jewish survival can only come from the right. They embrace the left’s insidious ideas about Jews and Zionists, ignoring the historical precedent of the adaptability of conspiracy theories underpinning today’s antisemitism. The “full circle” of corrosive ideas has traveled from Soviet Russia to the U.S. in a “chain of succession.” Young progressive Jews descended from Russian Jewish “forefathers four generations back” are repeating left-wing slogans that echo the same antisemitic tropes used against their ancestors in Soviet Russia. “Today these tropes travel all the way to the United States in the Soviet ostensibly left-wing form. And so the descendants of those Jews who fled Russia are using these tropes to claim that they’re being progressive. I think it’s a really toxic, toxic mix and I think that we really (ought to) put a lot of effort into untangling it.”
Tropes maligning Israel “redefine[d] Zionism” in the 1960s and 1970s and have emerged in today’s accusations against the Jewish State. They include charges that Israel is racist, fascist, and an apartheid state, to name a few of the smears voiced by anti-Zionists. Leftist Democrats in the U.S. Congress accuse Zionists of controlling American media and politicians through Jewish lobbying and Jewish money, using anti-Zionist tropes grounded in antisemitic conspiracy theories found in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The “rhetoric” used by these members of Congress parallels the language used in Soviet anti-Zionism and is evocative of the far left’s mindset in the American progressive movement during the 1970s and 1980s.
Too often, anti-Zionists ignore the distinction between “criticism and demonization” by insisting that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are not the same. When their critiques rely on antisemitic conspiracy theories, they blur the thin line between the two to such an extent “as to be non-existent.” Indisputably, the anti-Zionism found in much of left-wing discourse in U.S. society endangers Jews in America. The convergence of anti-Zionism and antisemitism melds the idea that Jews, Zionists, and Israel “act out of nefarious motives.” Thus “it is the demonization that unites contemporary left-wing anti-Zionists with classic right-wing antisemitism.”
A recent incident in Britain exemplifies the situation. A British rabbi whose wife and daughters were murdered by Palestinian Arab terrorists in Israel called for The Guardian, a British newspaper that ran an antisemitic cartoon, to fire the cartoonist. The cartoon, which contained a caricature of Richard Sharp, the Jewish outgoing chair of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), drew on classic antisemitic tropes. Specifically, it depicted Sharp with a hooked nose, wearing a sinister grin as he holds a box with the name of an investment bank, Goldman Sachs, Sharp’s former employer. The image elicited such an outcry from the Jewish community that the newspaper withdrew it and issued an apology. The cartoonist expressed regret, claiming that, although he knew Sharp was Jewish, “it never crossed his mind” as he drew him — a claim that underscores the insidiousness of an antisemitism that runs deep in the unconscious.
The connection between Soviet anti-Zionism and the Islamism found in many Arab societies is “a two-way street.” The “link between the Soviet regime and the Arab world” borrows from the Arab anti-Zionist propaganda produced by a Nazi fugitive in Egypt during the 1950s. Soviet anti-Zionist books published in Arabic and Persian spread their pernicious influence across the Middle East. One need only consider Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, who sourced his dissertation of Holocaust denial on Soviet writers whose works were replete with anti-Zionist propaganda.
The most effective approach to countering the plethora of anti-Zionism found online, on campus, and in social media is education. People who ascribe to antisemitic assumptions about Jews, Israel, and Zionism are hardest to convince because “conspiracy theories are sort of hermetically sealed” as a type of belief system. The hope lies with “fighting for people who are not yet so radicalized as to not be able to come back” from “understanding how the antisemitic theory mutates and how it impacts us in the current moment, in the current environment.”