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András Kovács ed., Communism’s Jewish Question:  Jewish Issues in Communist Archives

Filed under: Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 28, Numbers 1–2

András Kovács ed., Communism’s Jewish Question: Jewish Issues in Communist Archives, (Potsdam: De Gruyter-Oldenbourg, 2016), 371 pp.

The recently opened Communist bloc archives contain many documents on Jewish issues, communities and attitudes and policies toward Zionism and Israel in Eastern Europe during the post-Holocaust era. András Kovács has assembled a broad selection that includes valuable material particularly relating to Hungary and other Communist countries as well. The archives show the importance of Jewish issues – especially of Zionism and Israel – for the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries and the USSR’s role in making policy. The book is the third volume of the series on European Jewish Studies published by the Moses Mendelssohn Center in Potsdam, Germany, and the documents appear in English translation.

Several revelations from the archives are striking, especially those relating to the trial of Hungarian Zionist functionary Israel Kastner during the 1950s, accused of collaborating with the Nazis in order to rescue Hungarian Jewish notables in 1944; the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961; and the Six Day War and its aftermath in June 1967. The archives clearly show that the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc embarked upon a campaign of political warfare against Zionism and against the State of Israel and even illustrate the contribution of Israel’s Communist Party in this undertaking. Their contents have continued to influence anti-Zionist and anti-Israel propaganda and activities long after the events covered in the archive took place and after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the demise of Communism in Eastern Europe.

The Trials of Israel Kastner and Adolf Eichmann

The repercussions of the accusations, trial and verdict of guilty against Israel (Rudolf) Kastner in 1955 were instrumental in defaming the Mapai (Labor) government and discrediting the leadership of Moshe Sharett and David Ben-Gurion. The campaign against Kastner and Mapai and accusations of their collaboration with the Nazis persisted after the trial in the popular Hebrew weekly, Haolam Hazeh, edited by leftist Uri Avnery, and by right-wing attorney Shmuel Tamir. The Kastner affair and the charges of collaboration against Mapai dominated headlines and permeated Israeli society and politics even after the assassination of Kastner in 1957 and exonerated by Israel’s Supreme Court in 1958, and throughout the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961.  Since Hungary was the center of Eichmann’s criminal activities and within a few short months in 1944, over a half a million Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz, part of the Eichmann trial dealt with the issues of rescue efforts in Hungary. Hence, the importance of the revelations of the Communist archives.

The archives include a letter of April 24, 1961, sent by Shmuel Mikunis, a leader of the Israel Communist Party (Maki), to the leaders of the Communist Party in Hungary, which reads as follows:  “We have a special interest in the materials related to the following subjects:  1. The participation of Zionist and other reactionary Jewish organizations or Jewish personalities in Nazi efforts to make a separate peace with the Western powers. 2. Negotiations by Zionist and other reactionary Jewish organizations with the Nazis to rescue Jews in return for money and vehicles that could only be used on the eastern front. 3. Further ties between Zionists and Jewish personalities with Nazis who operated within the framework of Western intelligence organizations.” (110)  The third item may be interpreted as a desire to assist the espionage services of the Soviet Union. The letter continues:  “If this lawyer [Shmuel Tamir], a bourgeois in practice and a supporter of a bourgeois ideology yet a strong opponent of Ben-Gurion and Mapai, could interrogate Eichmann as a witness in connection with the Kastner affair, this would have tremendous political significance for us.”  Mikunis’ letter is the “smoking gun” that indicates the cooperation of forces within the State of Israel with the Hungarian Communist Party in a disinformation campaign designed to discredit the Zionist movement.

Furthermore, an internal document of the Hungarian Communist Party specifically states “we can use this for manipulation in the course of the trial itself” (106). The manipulative propaganda was not only directed against Israel and Zionism but also against West Germany. At the time, Israel was engaged in strengthening its ties with West Germany, and the Communists believed that the Eichmann trial would serve as propaganda against that country. Throughout the 1950s and sixties, Communist propaganda presented Konrad Adenauer’s democratic West Germany as a direct continuation of Nazi Germany. According to an internal letter written on February 8, 1961 on the eve of the Eichmann trial, “if the Israelis attack us for the fact that the Communist countries are exploiting the trial politically on the German question … we will then publish materials related to Kastner, exposing the haggling of Zionists over human lives.”

These letters serve as proof that Soviet Communist propaganda regarded the Kastner and Eichmann trials as a libel against Zionism. According to this theory, there was an alliance between the Zionists and the Nazis, with the help of Jewish collaborators, to annihilate European Jewry during the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial, described in her widely read book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, published in 1963, reinforced the spirit of this Communist accusation. And, in 1987, British director Ken Loach, a supporter of the boycott against Israel, planned to stage a theater performance in London according to this narrative. The play, Perdition, by Jim Allen was described as “the most deadly attack on Zionism.” The accusation of Zionist collaboration with the Nazis persists even today.

The Six-Day War and its Aftermath

The most interesting material in the collection of documents pertains to the Six-Day War and its aftermath. The documents show the strength of the ties developed by the Soviet Union and the Communist world with Arab countries, especially Egypt and Syria, and concurrently, its growing hostility toward Israel. Indeed, Israel assumed a demonic dimension in the Communist world and was regarded as the enemy of “the Revolution” in such countries as Cuba, Algeria and even China.

That being said, the archive shows that apparently the Soviet Union did not really want war in June 1967. However, it helped create the conditions which led to the outbreak of war. For example, a transcript of a phone call from Leonid Brezhnev to Hungarian President János Kádár on June 5, the first day of fighting, as well as the latter’s meeting with the Soviet ambassador in Budapest on June 6, indicate that the Soviet Union was surprised by the outbreak of war. (140-141) The Russian document regarding that meeting notes that the Soviets informed Egyptian President Nasser that he “must understand that our point of departure is that the United Arab Republic [Egypt] must do its utmost to avoid giving the aggressor grounds for a destructive military confrontation.” It thus appears that for about 24 hours, the Soviets did not know exactly what was happening on the ground, and apparently underestimated Israel’s response to the military-political-economic siege imposed by Egypt with Soviet backing.

An additional revelation from the archives indicates the extent of cooperation between the USSR and France. Even today, many Israelis regard France as a friend that betrayed Israel. The assumption is that French interest in Arab countries overrode the friendship between the French people and the State of Israel. One must ask, however, why pro-Arab interests would lead to a close French cooperation with the Soviet Union. It turns out that the French-Soviet relationship went beyond consultations in order to achieve a ceasefire within the framework of the UN Security Council. A document dated June 7 reads: “Moreover, in the message sent to President De Gaulle, we [the Soviets] expressed satisfaction with the regular consultations between the governments of France and the Soviet Union in addition to the active cooperation between representatives of France and the Soviet Union in the Security Council.” This cooperation reflected De Gaulle’s antipathy toward the United States and American power.

Furthermore, there is a document which summarizes an emergency meeting of the leaders of Communist parties held in Moscow on June 9 – the day before the end of the war—which reveals a great deal of information and discloses important actors in the Six-Day War whose roles had been overlooked. Apparently, by June 5, Nasser accomplished his political and strategic goals. This led him to believe that the military dimension had become less significant. In fact, his senior officers actually contemplated a first strike against Israel. (150) In addition, according to information conveyed to the leaders of the Communist parties, it was the Syrians who were more eager for a military confrontation.  According to a report of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, “they [the Syrians] thought the conditions were ripe for Israel’s military destruction.” In addition, Yugoslavia’s President Tito was more aggressive than the Soviets in encouraging Nasser, as they were partners in the Alliance of Non-Aligned Countries. Tito was in contact with Nasser from the beginning of the crisis in mid-May and supported his closing of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Tito regarded the Six-Day War in the context of small regional wars between America and the Soviet bloc. Both Rumania’s Ceauşescu and Poland’s Gomulka openly blamed the Arabs for the outbreak of the war. According to the former, “the Arabs thought they could destroy Israel.” And Gomulka asserted that “it was Nasser’s actions that inevitably led to the outbreak of war.” Their statements refute the long-standing libel which portrays Israel as the aggressor and not preventing war. Even Brezhnev himself hinted that Nasser was to blame when the Soviet leader accused various elements of “influencing him, including the Chinese.” (156)  The documents often mention Chinese influence. Its effects upon the Palestinian terrorist organizations operating from Syria before the Six-Day War deserve further study.

Immediately after the war, Hungary’s János Kádár revealed the subsequent Communist strategy, as follows: “There is no military solution; instead there is a need for a political war.” Communist aid to the Arabs on the political level “must be within the UN as well as in propaganda on the domestic level and in the international propaganda arena, which is very significant now.” (165)   And, at a meeting of the party’s central bureau on June 20, Czechoslovakia’s President Novotny hinted at the encouragement that Israel’s victory gave forces of freedom and democracy that generated the “Prague Spring.” He remarked that “we must instruct the Interior Ministry to act more forcefully against those who exploit the situation for demonstrations against the state and against the party.” It is noteworthy that the Communist party meetings took into account the increasing importance of more radical countries such as Algeria which castigated Nasser and the Soviet Union for their incompetence. The more extreme elements encouraged Egypt and the Soviet Union to align with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Third World countries.

Kovács’ book shows that various aspects of the “Jewish question” continued to occupy the Communist world, among them:  Jewish communities in Communist countries, Israel and Zionism.  Likewise, antisemitism continued after the Holocaust. Regrettably, Communism’s Jewish Question does not cover the late 1940s and early 1950s and deals only with the period from the late 1950s to the late 1980s. Thus, there are major lacunae regarding the period from 1948-1956, fateful years for the Jews in Communist countries, especially in the Soviet Union. For example, in 1952, the anti-Semitic show trial of Rudolf Slansky and other leading Jewish Communists in Czechoslovakia and the Doctors’ Plot in Stalin’s Russia displayed the hostility toward Jews and Israel. Documents relating to these events would add to our knowledge of the immediate post-war period, and it is unfortunate that they are not included in this book.

In conclusion, the major revelations of the documents include the connection between the Soviet Union and France under De Gaulle, the efforts on the part of Israel’s Communist Party during the Eichmann trial to engage their Eastern European counterparts in slandering Zionist leaders as collaborators with the Nazis, and the fact that Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War brought about a greater emphasis on the role of political warfare. The documents reveal the underpinnings of the new antisemitism and the basis of contemporary blood libels which owe their origins to post-1967 political warfare, initiated by the Soviet Union.1

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1 See:  Joel S. Fishman, “The Cold-War Origins of Contemporary Anti-Semitic Terminology,” Jerusalem Viewpoints, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, No. 517 (May 2004).