There is something deeply perplexing for an outsider about the Labour Party’s antisemitism crisis. Antisemitism is such an obvious evil. Its history is so grisly. Condemning it and purging the party of antisemites seems like such a no-brainer. Why does the self-described anti-racist party continue to fail at it?
The answer may very well have to do with the party’s failure to recognise that its brand of anti-Zionism routinely crosses into antisemitism. As Fathom Journal recently showed, antisemitic anti-Zionist offenses far outnumber those of the classic racist variety within the party.
Yet, for the hard left, the idea that anti-Zionism can be antisemitic is difficult to acknowledge. It goes against its conventional wisdom, which holds that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are two different animals. This conventional wisdom, however, goes against historical experience.
One country’s history in particular demonstrates a deep and possibly inseparable link between politically weaponised anti-Zionism and antisemitism: that of the Soviet Union. For over 20 years, starting in 1967, the USSR ran a massive anti-Zionist campaign at home and abroad. The campaign created a climate of antisemitism within the country and had decidedly negative repercussions for Jews elsewhere.
It was the defeat of Soviet-supported Arab states in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that triggered the campaign. The defeat hit hard against Soviet interests in the Middle East. In their search for a hidden culprit and convenient scapegoat, the country’s ideologues alighted on a tried and true villain of the late Stalinist period: the anti-Soviet global Zionist conspiracy.
The campaign that followed – a product of the KGB and Communist Party’s ideological apparatus – was epic in scale. It produced hundreds of books and thousands of articles demonising Zionism. Their authors borrowed heavily from the antisemitic tropes of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and even Mein Kampf, repackaging those ideas to fit the socialist anti-racist framework.
The USSR used the foreign propaganda branch of its state-owned media machine to deliver campaign’s messages to audiences around the globe. Novosti Press Agency, the Soviet primary foreign broadcasting outfit with deep connections to intelligence and propaganda structures, facilitated the effort. So did Radio Moscow’s foreign broadcasts, which added up to thousands of hours of programming monthly, delivered in eighty languages. Tens of millions of copies of Soviet periodicals circulated abroad. The USSR financed western and third world Communist parties, leftist publications and front organizations in exchange for propaganda support.
The campaign played a crucial role in redefining Zionism away from its original meaning and painting it as a racist, fascist, Nazi-like, genocidal, imperialist, colonialist, militarist and apartheid-promoting conspiratorial ideology. The 1975 UN General Assembly “Zionism Is Racism” resolution, which the Soviet delegation spent a decade promoting, paved the way for broad demonisation of Zionism and Israel at the UN and beyond.
Accused of antisemitism, Soviet leadership indignantly dismissed the accusations as “Zionist tricks”. But the country’s 2.6 million Soviet Jews knew better. For them, their country’s anti-Zionism translated into diminished educational and professional opportunities, inability to practise Jewish customs and religion and the daily insults of casual antisemitism. Rumors of impending pogroms that spread through the country in 1988 proved to be the final straw. In the following decade, two million Jews left the country.
Soviet-style anti-Zionism had painful repercussions for Jews in other socialist bloc countries. Poland’s 1968 anti-Zionist campaign quickly degenerated into an antisemitic witch-hunt, resulting in expulsions and forced emigration of some 15,000 Jews.
It also harmed Jews beyond the immediate Soviet sphere of influence. Author Dave Rich documented how the adoption of UN’s “Zionism Is Racism” resolution opened the door for British Students’ Unions to restrict the activities and funding of Jewish societies on campuses or even ban them. Soviet sponsorship of Palestinian and western far-left terrorism resulted in countless Jewish deaths.
History of the late Soviet anti-Zionist campaign illustrates just how deeply politically weaponised anti-Zionism can be intertwined with antisemitism. It also helps put in context the Labour Party’s own strident anti-Zionism.
Two of Jeremy Corbyn’s top advisers, Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray, came of age politically at a time when the Soviet anti-Zionist campaign was at its peak, and were active in just the kind of pro-Soviet circles that would have exposed them to its ideas. When Mr Corbyn uses the word “Zionist” as a term of abuse or Ken Livingstone’s claims that “Hitler was supporting Zionism” before murdering six million Jews, echoes of Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda come through loud and clear.
In July 1990, shortly before the USSR fell apart, Pravda, the Soviet Communist party’s official newspaper, published an editorial admitting to the wrongs of the Soviet anti-Zionist campaign. “Considerable damage was done by a group of authors who, while pretending to fight Zionism, began to resurrect many notions of the antisemitic propaganda of the Black Hundreds and of fascist origin,” it read. “Hiding under Marxist phraseology, they came out with coarse attacks on Jewish culture, on Judaism and on Jews in general.”
Perhaps the Labour Party’s hard left leaders should take a clue from Pravda. Their ability to resolve the scandal tearing the party apart depends on their ability to see the links between their Soviet-style anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
Izabella Tabarovsky is a scholar with the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Centre. The views expressed in this article are her own and do not reflect the views of the Wilson Centre or the Kennan Institute. The full essay can be read at Fathom Journal here.