The Soviet spin doctors who sowed the seeds of left-wing Israelophobia

A week after liberal rabbis called Israel an ‘apartheid regime’, JC editor Jake Wallis Simons, in a third extract from his new book, reveals how the trope is rooted in Soviet propaganda


When it comes to Israel, the worldview of modern leftists, including some Jewish leftists, bears a breathtaking resemblance to the propaganda produced by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

It is no exaggeration to say that almost all of the tropes in current circulation — that Zionism is racism, that Zionism is Nazism, that Israel is based on apartheid, white supremacy, ethnic cleansing and genocide — were created by Soviet spin doctors, based on works of classic antisemitism like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Largely because of Russian efforts, many otherwise well-meaning progressives, even in the Jewish community, don’t see what’s wrong with using the slur “apartheid”, which was seeded in the Arab world years before there was a single Israeli soldier on the West Bank.

This delusion is maintained in the face of the evidence: in recent years, an Arab Muslim judge imprisoned a Jewish former prime minister for corruption. (If you visit the West Bank, you will come across large, red signs outside Arab areas warning Israelis not to enter for their own safety. It is hard to sustain the argument that Israel — rather than its neighbours — is the apartheid state.)

They happily compare Zionism to imperialist colonialism, ignoring the fact that the Jewish pioneers were not an invading army but a ragtag collection of refugees, dreaming of self-rule in their ancestral home after millennia of life at the mercy of the mob. (As Herzl put it, they simply wanted a place “where it is all right for us to have hooked noses, black or red beards, and bandy legs without being despised for these things alone. Where at last we can live as free people on our own.”

Hardly the sentiments of white supremacist imperialists.) They take for granted that “Zionism is racism”, unaware that this phrase was cooked up in Cold War Moscow and does not survive contact with reality. Even the fact that “Zionist” has become a dirty word in certain quarters today points to the skill of the Soviet propaganda apparatus and the KGB.

In recent years, details of the propaganda campaign, which remains little-known by the mainstream, especially among those who continue to parrot it, has been revealed by a number of academics, most important of whom is Izabella Tabarovsky. Her work discloses the staggering scale of the hate-fuelled operation, which was in full force between 1967 and about 1988. The sheer size of the disinformation campaign, as well as its sophistication, is the main reason why such obvious untruths remain so influential in the West today.

The Soviet Union intended to turn the world against the Jewish state. And to a large extent, it succeeded.

The project was coordinated by Novosti Press Agency, the Soviet state organisation later reincarnated as Russia Today or RT. Staffed by journalists and propagandists, many of whom had ties to the KGB, it was active in no fewer than 110 countries.

In addition to the growing library of Israelophobic books, tens of millions of copies of newspapers and magazines were printed each year in 80 languages, including English, French, Spanish, German, Arabic and even Hindi. Pocket-sized pamphlets were distributed all over the world with titles like Deceived by Zionism, Zionism Counts on Terror and Criminal Alliance of Zionism and Nazism.

Radio Moscow’s foreign broadcasts put out thousands of hours of programming every month, including in Hebrew. Taking their cue from the Nazis, they adapted their messaging to different cultures. On one day in 1973, African listeners were bombarded with messages in French, English and Portuguese claiming that Zionism had “an ideological affinity with South African racism”, a falsification that is commonly spouted by Israelophobic activists today. In Latin America, Zionism was linked with American imperialism; in Asia it was elided with fears of postwar Japan.

In classic KGB style, radical leftist groups in the West were used to further Russian interests, galvanise supporters and infect overseas audiences with Israelophobia. Sometimes, these networks would manage to get Soviet propaganda played on local radio stations or printed in the papers. Moscow pumped huge sums of money into these front organisations across the globe. Between 1950 and 1990, the French Communist Party received US$50 million, plus free printing for its newspaper L’Humanité, as well as expenses for its Moscow correspondent.

The British Communist Party’s Morning Star paper, for which Jeremy Corbyn was a columnist, also benefited from Soviet funding. (The man who became his political adviser when he was Labour leader, Andrew Murray, wrote for Morning Star and worked directly for Novosti.) These relationships had been decades in the making. In 1940, Orwell wrote that the English intelligentsia “take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow”. During the Cold War, these imported Soviet opinions became poisoned with Israelophobia.

The tempo of the output was intense. In 1970, Soviet Weekly, a Russian propaganda newspaper targeting Britain, serialised a potent Israelophobic story across four consecutive issues.

It described Zionism as “not so much the Jewish nationalist movement it used to be but an organic part of the international — primarily American — imperialist machinery for the carrying out of neocolonialist policies and ideological subversion”. Later, the same magazine ran an article entitled “Why We Condemn Zionism”, which branded Jewish nationhood a racist doctrine and claimed that Israelis were “worthy heirs to Hitler’s National-Socialism”.

As we have seen, the vitriol in these publications was sometimes indistinguishable from that of the antisemitic far-right. In 1980, the newspaper of the British Socialist Workers Party was left red-faced after it published a letter from a leader of the fascist National Front, having mistaken his Israelophobic tirade for that of a leftist.

Other Russian propaganda publications in Britain included the 1979 newspaper Straight Left, whose star columnist, Andrew Rothstein, was an active Soviet agent (the paper was managed by Seumas Milne, who later rose to prominence as Corbyn’s spin doctor). It was saturated with Israelophobia. Palestinian terror against civilians was repeatedly praised, framed as a revolutionary struggle. “The PLO has found great support in the Third World and the socialist camp, with the USSR at its forefront,” it gushed.

The Iranian revolution, which was a victory for the fascist theocracy, was applauded, described as an “anti-imperialist people’s struggle for independence, freedom and social justice”. When the Iranians took 52 Americans hostage in Tehran in 1979, Straight Left’s hot take was that it was “an excuse for the creation of another wave of anti-Iranian hatred”. Such sympathy for the Iranian regime can still be seen among radical progressives today.

A direct line can be drawn from Kremlin agitprop through publications like Soviet Weekly and Straight Left to the social media rants of the contemporary hard-left. This was particularly evident when Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party. At the time, on a Facebook page entitled “Jeremy Corbyn Leads Us to Victory”, a former Labour candidate posted an Israeli flag defaced with a swastika, a classic of Russian propaganda.

On another, a Labour figure posted a picture of New York Times journalists with their faces covered by Jewish symbols, implying that they served a Zionist agenda. Another called Hitler “the greatest man in history”, adding “it’s disgusting how much power the Jews have”; another commented, “it’s the super-rich families of the Zionist lobby that control the world”; another called the six million Jewish victims of the Nazis “a big lie”, repeating the Holocaust denial that was another key feature of the Russian disinformation campaign. The Cold War propagandists had been frighteningly effective.

In the United States, Soviet Israelophobia flowed along conduits like the Communist Party USA, which received US$28 million from Moscow between 1958 and 1980. A particular win came in 1971, Kremlin memos reveal. A Novosti article exploring “the spiritual kinship of Zionism and fascism” — arguing that every American Jew linked to Israel was a “Zionist fanatic” and fifth columnist obstructing American-Russian peace — made it into the New York Times, America’s paper of record.

Headlined “A Soviet View on Jews”, it was presented as part of a debate expressing both sides. But the goal of the article was achieved: to introduce the “Zionism is Nazism” smear to the Times’ large and influential readership.

Memos also reveal that in the early 1970s, Hyman Lumer, editor-in-chief of Political Affairs, the American Communist Party journal, travelled to Moscow to receive “materials for unmasking the Zionist anti-Soviet campaign” for “wide distribution within the US”. His subsequent work, including a 1973 book entitled Zionism: Its Role in World Politics, shrewdly sidestepped antisemitic tropes that would offend Americans while focusing on the bigotry of Israelophobia. To this day, the US’s Communist Party continues in the same vein.

At its 2010 convention, delegates debated the motion: “Zionism is a form of racism, and racism has no place in our Communist Party!” A preliminary article unequivocally stated that “Zionism is racism and genocide”. It went on: “Zionism is not only a virulent strain of bourgeois nationalism, of kinship with South African Apartheid. Not only is it an anti-working-class diversion in the Middle East. Zionism is a roadblock to building working class unity in our country.” US communists must work to “consign Zionism to the rubble of history”, the article concluded.

Given the gargantuan efforts put into funnelling such volumes of propaganda to worldwide audiences, it is perhaps no surprise that Israelophobia maintains such a grip on the international left today, as well as the institutions it dominates. Part of the reason for the huge resources poured into active measures against Israel was that it helped the USSR to achieve its foreign policy objectives. As Tabarovsky writes: “Anti-Zionism helped Moscow bond both with its Arab allies and the Western hard left of all shades. Having appointed Zionism as a scapegoat for humanity’s greatest evils, Soviet propaganda could score points by equating it with racism in African radio broadcasts and with Ukrainian nationalism on Kyiv TV.”

As a sign of the diplomatic objectives of Israelophobic disinformation, teams of Zionologists, as they were called, were supervised by Ivan Milovanov, head of the Kremlin’s Middle East section, who personally rubber-stamped all output on “international Zionism”.

Diplomatic leaders from the developing world who visited Moscow were assured of goodwill if they joined in condemnations of “imperialism and Zionism”, while Russian embassies overseas covertly disseminated the toxic disinformation. In the early 1970s, the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, set up a special propaganda council at the embassy in DC. Its aims included: shearing off public support for the Jewish state; causing people to question the loyalties of “Zionists”; driving a wedge between the governments of the United States and Israel; and convincing the US public to abhor “the brazen face of the leaders of the newly minted Zionist ‘higher race’ from Tel Aviv”. Parallel KGB operations worked to sow division between Jews and blacks in America and undermine Jewish communities.

These efforts were bolstered by worldwide Soviet sympathisers. Whether he did so cynically, in earnest or simply by osmosis, the revolutionary icon Che Guevara — who visited Gaza in 1959 — made his own contribution to the spread of Israelophobia.

In 1967, in an article for Britain’s New Left Review, he mapped out the struggle between “imperialism” and socialists across the globe. When he came to the Middle East, he offhandedly described “Israel, backed by the imperialists, and the progressive countries of that zone”. This was “just another of the volcanoes threatening eruption in the world today”, he wrote.

In reality, of course, the Jews were not a tool of imperial powers but a wandering people with indigenous roots seeking to form a postcolonial state. And the Arab countries were among the least “progressive” in the world. But when ideology comes first, reality makes little difference. In 1990, just before the USSR collapsed, its official newspaper, Pravda, published a belated mea culpa of sorts. “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 admitted. “Hiding under Marxist phraseology, [propagandists] came out with coarse attacks on Jewish culture, on Judaism and on Jews in general.”

But it was too late. The virus had been released. As Dr Jovan Byford, the psychologist and conspiracy theory expert, pointed out, it had reached the point where “the far-left in Britain and on the Continent viewed Middle Eastern politics almost exclusively through the prism of Soviet anti-Zionism”.

In the minds of millions around the world, Soviet agitprop succeeded in redefining Zionism from an answer to millennia of persecution to a bourgeois, imperialist project. In this way, it wiped antisemitism clean, allowing progressives to indulge an old hatred by convincing themselves that they were merely taking a principled stand against Israel.

Across the decades, the Cold War communists and contemporary Israelophobes both say: we’re not antisemitic, just anti-Zionist. But theirs is a deep and ancient bigotry, resting on disinformation and paranoia.

Nearly six decades on, Soviet Israelophobia continues to grip the modern left. It finds an easy target in those lacking knowledge about Israel, Zionism and Jews, and possessing impulses inherited unchallenged from previous centuries.

Israelophobia: The Newest Version of the Oldest Hatred and What to Do about It by Jake Wallis Simons (Constable, £11.95) is available to order on Amazon now.

Rob Rinder will interview Jake Wallis Simons about Israelophobia at JW3 on September 12. Tickets cost £15. Visit:

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