The return of leftwing anti-Semitism revisited

Sara Gon writes on how old Soviet anti-Zionist tropes have been given new life

*This article was originally written in July 2021.

The war between Hamas and Israel in May 2021 was remarkable for the virulent antisemitism that erupted all over the world after it.

Other than that, this war wasn’t any different from similar, previous episodes. This time, however, the knee-jerk denunciations of Israel and Zionism erupted in Western European countries and, more unexpectedly, in America, to an extent not seen since World War II. It has revealed that it is not Israel or Israelis that are hated, but Jews qua Jews.

The Right’s brand of antisemitism is pretty well unchanged, but worrying as it is, it’s the rise in the Western world of the antisemitism of the Left that is the most disturbing.

This hatred has been exacerbated by the adoption of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in America, which categorises Jews as whites and therefore oppressors. The “oppressed” are characterised according to race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, etc. or an “intersection” of characteristics. 

The more grounds upon which a person is characterised, the higher up the hierarchy of victimhood they reach. The left regards the Palestinians as “black” and “victims” of the “coloniser”: Israel. This selective characterisation is crass, ahistoric and false, but deadly.

“Zionism as racism” has been a trope for decades, but its spread onto American campuses follows the rise of CRT, Arab money and an increase in Muslim influence in Western societies. However, the invention of “Zionism is racism” was entirely the work of Soviet propagandists.

Antisemitism in Imperial Russia

Imperial Russia had been virulently antisemitic since the reign of Peter the Great in the 17th century, supported by the Russian Orthodox Church which served as Peter’s bureaucracy. 

The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 led to pogroms being unleashed because the Jews were blamed, falsely, for his assassination. The pogroms lasted for three years and led to the greatest emigration wave ever from Europe of about 2 million Jews.  All this added impetus to the Zionist movement to promote the establishment of a Jewish state.

Then came publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an antisemitic text describing a Jewish “plan” for global domination. It was proved to be a fraud, created by the Tsar’s secret services and published in various forms in Russia from 1903 – 1906. It was translated into many languages and disseminated internationally.

The Protocols was also used to blame the Jews for the defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and the 1905 Revolution. 

During the Russian Revolution in 1917, White Russians who fled to the West took The Protocols with them and used it to blame Jews for the Revolution. They accused the Bolsheviks, depicted as overwhelmingly Jewish, of executing the “plan”. However, they failed to discredit the Revolution, to prevent the West from recognising the Soviet Union, or to bring about the downfall of the regime.

It has been frequently described as the most influential work of antisemitism ever written, and it is still widely sold in the Middle East. It was on sale at the hate-fest that was the United Nations “World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance” declaration in Durban held from 31 August to 8 September 2001, three days before 9/11. 

Antisemitism under Stalin

“Zionism” as a hostile ideology was developed in the late 1940s, soon after the Holocaust, when Israel aligned itself with the USA rather than the Soviet Union in the Cold War. 

Allegations of a “Zionist conspiracy” featured prominently in the Stalinist purge trials. The Slansky Trial in 1951, a purge of Czechoslovakian communists, led to the concept of ‘“international Zionism” – a global conspiracy aimed at destroying socialism. Developed by the Soviet secret services, the trial tied Zionism, Israel, Jewish leaders and American imperialism together, turning “Zionism” and “Zionist” into dangerous labels to be used against the Soviets’ political enemies.

The anti-Israel campaign continued into the 1960s. The 1961 trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann finally contradicted the Soviet narrative that the Slavs, rather than the Jews, were the victims in World War II. So the Soviets attacked Israel’s relationship with West Germany as the ‘fascist’ heir of Nazi Germany.

During this time the Soviets increased support for the Arab World. In 1967, however, the Soviets (and the Arab nations) were utterly humiliated by the crushing defeat inflicted by Israel on the five Arab armies in the Six Day War. 

In 1967 the Soviets, under Leonid Brezhnev, embarked upon a massive anti-Zionist campaign to regain their prestige with the Arab states, and used virulent demonisation of Israel and Zionism to do so. 

“The Campaign” from 1967 to 1985

The anti-Zionist campaign commenced on 7 August 1967 with an article entitled ‘What Is Zionism?’ which appeared in several Soviet publications. The author, Yuri Ivanov, was employed by the KGB and Central Committee apparatus. Ivanov employed the well-worn tropes depicting Zionism as a centrally-controlled, international system that gripped global politics.

In 1968 Judaism and Zionism byTrofim Kichko blamed Judaism for the ‘crimes’ of Israeli ‘aggressors’. He directly connected the morality of Judaism and the actions of the Israelis. Judaism had always been at the heartof the Soviet struggle against religion. Communism sought internationalist devotion; any other nationhood was anathema. Jews had to assimilate or be regarded as adherents to the most racist, reactionary, and genocidal religion and ideology in the world.

In 1969 Ivanov wrote Caution: Zionism!  Hundreds of thousands of copies were printed and it was translated into sixteen languages. It described Zionists as ‘representative of colonialist-imperialist powers, hostile toward the working people of Palestine and cultivating an insatiable thirst for power’. It portrayed Judaism as the world’s most inhumane religion, which had spawned the world’s most vicious nationalism. He propounded the view that ‘Israeli militarism and West German neo-Nazism are fed from the same source’. During 1970 the comparison of Zionist and Nazi racism appeared in print 96 times.

The campaign succeeded in stripping Zionism’s meaning as a national liberation movement and associated it with racism, fascism, Nazism, genocide, imperialism, colonialism, militarism and apartheid. 

“Success’ was reached when the United Nations was considering adopting a resolution against discrimination and racism. The West proposed including “antisemitism” in the definition of “discrimination”. This meant that the Soviet Union would have been declared an antisemitic state. So the Soviets acted first by initiating and successfully having approved UN Resolution 3151 G (XXVIII) of 14 December 1973 which ‘condemned, inter alia, the unholy alliance between South African racism and Zionism’, ensuring that Zionism would be linked falsely to apartheid.

Two years later the Soviets proposed what became the notorious UN Resolution 3379 declaring Zionism a form of racism and racial discrimination. The damage was incalculable. The resolution was only revoked in December 1991.

In the 1980s, the KGB established a department called the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public (AKSO). Senior members were mostly prominent Soviet Jews chosen by the KGB to deflect accusations of antisemitism. It claimed to have irrefutable proof of Zionist co-operation with the Nazis.

A 1983 Pravda article about AKSO declared Zionism a concentration of ‘extreme nationalism, chauvinism, and racial intolerance, justification of territorial seizure and annexation, armed adventurism, a cult of political arbitrariness and impunity, demagogy and ideological sabotage, sordid manoeuvres and perfidy.’ 

Increasing demands for Jewish emigration from the USSR led AKSO to boost propaganda about the evils of Israel and Zionism locally and internationally.  

A 1985 TASS English-language brochure announced: ‘Zionist leaders are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews annihilated by the Nazis. It is precisely the Zionists who assisted the Nazi butchers by helping them to make up the lists of the doomed inmates of ghettos, escorting the latter to the places of extermination and convinced them to resign to the butchers.’

AKSO claimed that Zionists had colluded ‘in the genocide against the Slavs, Jews and some other peoples of Europe’.  Anticipating accusations of antisemitism, the Soviets rejected them as ‘Zionist tricks’ and ‘nefarious imperialist scheming’.

Although the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the memes and tropes continued to proliferate amongst contemporary far-left and Muslim circles.

Defining Zionism and Israel as racist, imperialist, colonial, genocidal and apartheid became far-Left dogma.

The twenty-year campaign produced fifty books, nine million copies of which were circulated, propagating ‘paranoid, conspiratorial anti-Zionism mixed with antisemitic, xenophobic, and ultra-nationalist messages, combined with anti-capitalist and anti-Western rhetoric,’ according to historian Andreas Umland.

The Global Campaign 

During the Campaign,Radio Moscow broadcast more than 1,000 hours per week in eighty languages to Europe, the Middle East, North and sub-Saharan Africa, and the Americas.

Crucially, the Soviets structured their anti-Zionist messaging according to their foreign policy priorities for each country or audience. In Africa it was about South African apartheid and Zionism; in Latin America it was American imperialism and Zionism; and in Asia it was Japanese revanchism and Zionism.’

In 1970 the Soviet Weekly, a Soviet English-language outlet that targeted the United Kingdom, reprinted an article in four consecutive issues that defined Zionism as ‘not so much the Jewish nationalist movement… but an organic part of the international – primarily American – imperialist machinery for the carrying out of neocolonialist policies and ideological subversion’. 

On one day in 1973 several African programmes in English, French, and Portuguese were broadcast claiming that Zionism had ‘an ideological affinity with South African racism’ and was ‘part of the global strategy of imperialism aimed against the liberation movements’.

In 1977 Soviet Weekly printed a piece entitled ‘Why We Condemn Zionism,’ which proclaimed Zionism to be a racist doctrine and characterised Israelis as ‘worthy heirs to Hitler’s National-Socialism’.

English-language propaganda brochures published by Novosti (a state-owned news agency) were ‘Zionism: Instrument of Imperialist Reaction’, ‘Soviet Opinion on Events in the Middle East and the Adventures of International Zionism’, and ‘Anti-Sovietism – Profession of Zionists’ and others.

The head of AKSO, General David Dragunsky, took part in Soviet Hebrew-language broadcasts directed at Israel. In 1983 he boasted that AKSO’s anti-Zionist work was receiving broad support from outside the USSR, including from Israel.

Arab-language anti-Zionist literature served as source material for Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas’s 1982 Ph.D. dissertation at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Patrice Lumumba University. This university trained future Third World elites in Marxism-Leninism and also trained them to become pro-Soviet influencers.

The head of the Institute, Yevgeny Primakov, an Arabist with lifelong connections to Soviet intelligence in the Middle East, and who would head the Soviet foreign intelligence agency, supervised Abbas’s dissertation.

Abbas’s dissertation was published in Arabic as a book in 2011, called The Other Side: The Secret Relationship between Nazism and Zionism. It included key themes of the campaign, including the alleged Zionist collaboration with the Nazis, and doubt cast on the number of Holocaust victims.

In The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism,  Dave Rich details how the adoption of the ‘Zionism Is Racism’ resolution by the UN led to British students’ unions restricting or banning the activities and funding of Jewish societies on campuses.

In July 1990 Pravda published an editorial admitting to the wrongs of the anti-Zionist campaign of the previous quarter century. ‘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.’ 

But the damage had irrevocably been done. 


Soviet anti-Zionism weaponised narratives based on invented or twisted facts. It distorted history, employed propaganda tools such as deception, guilt by association and repetition.

‘The campaign was not motivated by justice, peace or liberation for the Palestinians. It was intended to divert attention from the Soviets’ antisemitism, manipulate, purge enemies and broaden the influence for one of the most oppressive regimes in history.’ Israeli historian Kiril Feferman said that the trick of Soviet anti-Zionism was that it ‘proposed a version of antisemitism to Western audiences that did not have obvious antisemitic overtones.’

Antisemitism is millennia old, and the Soviets gave it renewed impetus. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

This article first appeared on Daily Friend.