”Israel is in mortal danger: she stands encircled by enemies who declare their intent to destroy her.” So began an appeal by the leadership of British Jewry to the community to make “a personal financial sacrifice” four days before the start of the Six Day war in June 1967.
The appeal was not heard by many Jews outside communal boundaries — the assimilated, the alienated, the acculturated and the accidental — yet the fear that the House of Israel was about to be demolished was widely felt.
Many Jews on the European Left — particularly those in the Communist party — asked themselves if another Shoah was about to take place. They had to choose whether to follow the aggressive pro-Nasser approach of the Kremlin or to support the cause of an embattled Hebrew republic.
This choice had been placed before them in the past, with the Nazi-Soviet pact (1939) and the Doctors’ Plot (1953), and many had closed their eyes.
Yet now there was a different socialist path. Aneurin Bevan, the leader of Labour’s left, had previously cast Nasser as a reactionary nationalist and not as a revered progressive. But it was the Soviet Union’s reaction to Israel’s lightening victory that finally pushed many Jews over the ideological edge.
Humiliated, the USSR furiously broke off diplomatic relations with Israel, and diplomats at the Moscow embassy rushed to burn all classified documents.
The Kremlin then unleashed a wave of intimidatory accusations, reminiscent of Stalin’s times, in the Soviet press that went far beyond any rational condemnation of Israel’s action. The satirical magazine Krokodil produced a cartoon of Moshe ‘Adolfovich’ Dayan, sporting a Nazi Iron Cross, and commented that “Germany’s former furnacemen of Auschwitz are applauding Dayan more loudly than the rest”.
In Soviet eyes, little Israel could not possibly have defeated its assailants without the help of “the unseen, immense and powerful empire of Zionist financiers and industrialists”.
Hitherto loyal Jewish Communists outside the Soviet bloc were appalled by this barrage of abuse and descent into antisemitic innuendo.
The Communist Party of Great Britain tried hard to avoid such antisemitic stereotyping and simply allowed the Morning Star to label Israel’s action as “military megalomania”.
Yet Aubrey Lewis, a Prestwich Jew, argued at the annual party conference that the advocates of pan-Arab chauvinism who wished to destroy Israel had clearly displaced genuine anti-imperialists in the Arab world. The Jewish veteran, Ivor Montagu, who had supported the Nazi-Soviet pact, told Lewis that the party’s position was “a moral one”.
In the US, Paul Novick, editor of Morgn Frayhayt and Morris Schappes, editor of Jewish Currents, broke with the Communist party. In Europe, there was a clear difference between the democratic west and the Communist east.
In France, Yves Moreau, the editor of Humanité, slavishly followed the Kremlin’s approach in trying to forge a link between Nazis and Israelis, suggesting that the German industrialists who had supplied the extermination camps were now providing gas masks for Levi Eshkol’s government. The satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchainé referred to him as “Yves Mort-aux-juifs” (Yves death to the Jews). In Italy, the party monthly, Rinascita, compared pro-Israel progressives to those socialists who had favoured Italy’s entry into World War I — with its subsequent huge number of Italian deaths — which had led to Mussolini.
In Poland, there was popular support for Israel: “Our Jews are beating the Russian Arabs”. The regime struck back with a vengeance. In Warsaw, the Polish leader, Władysław Gomułka, termed the remnant of Polish Jewry “a fifth column”. He later categorised them into nationalists, cosmopolitans and Polish patriots. The daughter of Zenon Kliszko, a close ally of Gomułka, was forced to break off her engagement to her Jewish fiancé and forbidden to have contact with people of Jewish origin.
Intellectual dissent and the desire for freedom of expression became synonymous with support for Israel. A poem by the noted Polish poet, Antoni Słonimski, which praised Israel’s struggle, was banned from publication.
When students began protests against the regime in March 1968, those of its leaders who happened to be Jews were singled out. This led to the dismissal of multitudes of Polish Jews from their posts and the effective expulsion of thousands from the country.
In Czechoslovakia, 300 writers wrote in support of artistic freedom and against antisemitism. A leading non-Jewish Slovak writer, Ladislav Mnacko, published an open letter, denouncing attitudes towards Jews — and boldly announced his intention to leave for Israel.
The noted Jewish playwright, Wolf Mankowitz, wrote in the JC that the approach of the Czechoslovak Communists towards Israel could only be interpreted “in terms of a curious and repulsive psychopathology”.
In the UK, there were also independent Marxists such as Tony Cliff (aka Yigael Gluckstein from Zikhron Ya’akov), later founder of the Socialist Workers’ Party, who did not tow the USSR’s line. Cliff instead promoted the doctrine of a revolutionary war of Arab peasants and workers against Israel.
Even before the settlement drive on the West Bank, the bending of Jewish history to fit a political agenda began to be adopted by the succeeding generation, from members of Germany’s SDS students to the Black Panthers in the US.
Colin Shindler’s next book, The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History will be published shortly by Rowman and Littlefield.